Dreamfall Chapters Review
A sleepy beginning shifts into a dreamy end
Kickstarter has provided developers with an avenue to create projects that resemble games of yore, fuelled by overeager nostalgia. In the case of Dreamfall Chapters, it is also a direct sequel to the well-received Dreamfall: The Longest Journey from 2006. Ragnar Tornquist, and his small team at Red Thread Games, has taken the next step with his franchise thanks to the support of 24 thousand backers. Released in episodic format, aptly called Books, the final episode arrived in June of this year. Although presented across five episodes, Dreamfall Chapters is actually a game of two contrasting halves. The first is a monotonous drudge through empty city hubs; the second is an exposition-heavy, lightweight fantasy adventure.
Much like its halves, Dreamfall Chapters takes place across the two parallel worlds of Stark and Arcadia, interconnected by magical forces. Stark is a futuristic version of Earth where civilians use Dreamachines to escape reality. Arcadia is a land inspired by fantasy tales, home to magical creatures and medieval technology. The last game ended with dramatic events for several main characters; the dreamer, Zoe Castillo, was sent into a coma after exposing a corporation on Stark, and April Ryan, leader of the resistance on Arcadia, perished at the hands of soldiers.
Zoe will need a Dreamachine to remember
In Stark, players reprise their role as Zoe Castillo although she has lost her memory. She finds herself in the megacity of Europolis. More specifically, she now resides in the Propast (Prague) district under its gaudy neon lights and blue hues of concrete alleyways. Zoe has a job and a boyfriend; she also campaigns for a local election party. As expected, conspiracies and political misdoings are among the list of story threads, but when parallel universes are involved there are far more interesting tales to discover. While always likable, Zoe flourishes when she puts the pieces together in the later half of the game, finding herself on a proper adventure.
In Arcadia, players become Kian Alvane, the assassin sent to kill April Ryan in the previous game. He had a change of heart and was imprisoned for his treachery. This eventually leads him to join the resistance—those supporting magicals—as they believe he can tip the balance. Kian undertakes covert missions at night throughout the quaint town of Marcuria, a location that featured in the previous games. Unlike Zoe, Kian is unfortunately incredibly dull with a monotone personality. His gruff exterior fails to charm and he compares poorly to April Ryan.
The resistance has powerful allies. Note: he is not a smurf
Dialogue makes up a significant portion of the adventure and all characters are fully voiced. Some actors do voice multiple personalities, but main characters are typically unique. There are elements of choice and consequence in the story, as certain actions will alter conversations, kill characters, or change cut scenes. Although there are numerous branching threads, the finale will transpire in much the same way for everybody.
It is disappointing that the first few two episodes of the game are quite poor. They seem to be more about providing context which results in stagnant pacing. The narrative in these opening chapters feels inconsequential by game’s end. Events on Stark are particularly dull, padded with menial tasks. One such task requires Zoe to bring food to her boyfriend; truly riveting stuff—don’t choose the sausages. These errands also explain why the first two episodes are longer than the last three combined.
Another reason for the length is because the game is lamentably verbose, even more so when the information is not particularly important or already known thanks to the dual character system. When Kian delivers a simple warning to a rebel collaborator in Book Two, she reels off twenty of the most uninteresting lines of dialogue since my last tax return. Skipping conversations is usually possible, yet doing so may confuse proceedings because details can be missed. This verbosity continues until the end, but the latter chapters offer a far more interesting discourse because of the subject matter and agreeable characters.
More drab political discourse, maybe Zoe does not require a Dreamachine after all
The presentation of dialogue compounds the slow pace early; much of the interaction consists of two characters standing face-to-face barely moving their lips and occasionally blinking. Even when the dialogue is part of a cut scene—so you know it will be important—it might cycle through insipid camera angles creating no extra weight to major events. There are more cut scenes, animations and hand gestures towards the end, helping to entertain and emphasize major events. If there was more succinct dialogue, perhaps additional care could be given to every conversation.
Outside the frequent dialogue, basic adventure puzzles and fetch tasks form the crux of the gameplay. There is an inventory where items are stored, and objects can be inspected in detail and dragged into the world, or onto each other, for interaction. The latter half of the game forgoes some of the typical adventuring—replacing it with lengthy cut scenes that leapfrog one another as the story tumbles to a satisfactory conclusion.
Many of the mechanics are tedious. The pixel hunt from old games returns in the form of “find the only interactive item in a large city” while you crawl at jogging pace. The two main locations, Marcuria and Propast, consist mostly of building facades and civilians that walk in a circle. They initially look great but feel emptier with each waking moment. Later episodes seal off sections of the cities, to the betterment of the experience. Crucially, they also introduce more fantastical places far away from the city hubs. These final chapters also skip to the important bits, by teleporting players rather than making them walk. The adventure would be vastly improved by isolating the main areas and culling the rest.
Propast looks decent but feels empty
What about the puzzles themselves? Fortunately they are not as abstract as old adventure games but they can still be quite arbitrary. Kian’s covert mission to destroy a weapons shipment goes to plan, despite the lack of help from the resistance; he finds everything using the aforementioned search technique and a patrolling guard kindly ignores an oil-soaked length of rope trailing to a sizable bag of gunpowder. Later, when a soldier was guarding a lever, it seemed to encourage some kind of distraction—just like a previous task—only the guard turns around allowing Kian to choke them out for the first time in the game.
Linearity also hurts puzzles, as items cannot be added to your inventory until a preceding task is completed. When trying to steal chemicals, you must first interact with the target even though it was obvious that you needed assistance from another character first. Likewise, capturing rats is impossible until guards attempt to outtalk each other in a cut scene. While this can make sense, it is unnatural because you often explore areas before the items become interactive. The inconsistency, linearity and arbitrary nature of the puzzles make them unsatisfying to solve. Fortunately the second half buries the puzzles in the background and has tasks that require just a few steps in relatively close proximity.
Kian and Pip create a distraction right beside the tourist map
There are other redeeming qualities, with many appearing late in the proceedings. Emotional story arcs work best near the end, of course, such as the one with a poignant scene from an old friend. Although likable characters are few and far between, the talking Crow returns to aid Zoe and his existence is a big reason for the improvements. For Kian, one personal attachment comes in the form of a magical boy named Pip, who helps the resistance. The adventure gains further strength near the end with visits from other returning characters, which are best kept secret, and the culmination of events. And, although the game takes place largely in the two worlds, the brief interludes featuring a mysterious character in a house between worlds is developed cleverly.
Red Thread Games have managed to create a long adventure, and with that comes some technical issues. The walking animations during cut scenes were often jittery, and one character even hovered above the ground during a cut scene. Some dialogue overlapped, more common when observing elements in the world. Framerate was generally decent, although some areas had notable and unjustifiable dips. There were about a dozen crashes across the 23 hour story, so it is fortunate that automatic saves were adequately placed. For such a long game, created by a small team on a modest budget, it has a fairly low number of problems.
Crow helps to improve the second half
Dreamfall Chapters recovers from its dreary first half to create an interesting adventure and a worthy sequel. The opening few episodes disappoint because they are verbose, uninteresting, and tedious. Even the puzzles can be arbitrary, or illogically linear. The second half marks a dramatic improvement, largely due to returning characters, fantastical locations and concise delivery. It focuses on the enticing parts of the story while avoiding the menial tasks from the opening episodes. If you are a fan of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey then this sequel will deliver an adequate resolution to those dramatic events, and it offers several avenues to continue in the future.