Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Six years ago, April Ryan set about restoring the balance between the two worlds of Stark and Arcadia. The original Longest Journey was an exceptional game, and the sequel which is Dreamfall is, arguably, just a few quibbles short of a masterpiece.
You don't need to have played the first game, although it will provide some background to some of the characters, a few of which have a role in Dreamfall. Chief among these is, of course, April Ryan.
Ten years have passed since an 18 year old girl walked into a shift with Crow, and April has changed. Known as Raven to her followers, she fights not only the Azadi, but her own lack of faith and belief.
Zoe Castillo is also young, and is between lives. Unsure of her future, the future decides to find her. What starts as a favour for a friend ends in heartache and pain, and may not have ended at all. A small dark haired girl will throw April and Zoe together, and will take Zoe places she never dreamed possible.
You play both Zoe and April, switching between their two converging storylines. You also play Kian, an assassin who brings the word of the Goddess to heathens via the sword rather than the word. It's a comparatively small part, and has a way to go.
The story in Dreamfall is a stunner. It has depth and broad scope, but the telling is the thing. As with the original, lengthy conversations weave you into the plot, and whilst it has its sillier moments, and will at times perhaps leave you bemused and wondering, it's the way it unfolds that rarely lets you go. Part sci-fi, part social commentary, part fantasy adventure, it ebbs and flows between tension and fear, humour and tenderness. It has twists and turns, some very surprising moments, and I was absorbed from beginning to end.
The events unfolding are carried along by two of the best female characters around. You will care about April and Zoe, even if at times you want to give April a good shake. Kate Walker dragged her Syberian burden unshakingly onwards; Zoe is just as unflinching, despite her misgivings about her own capabilities. April is damaged, but not weak, and will do what she must, even if it takes some encouragement.
Both are voiced to perfection. Enhancing the continuity, Sarah Hamilton, who voiced April first time around, does so again. I could find little information about Ellie Conrad Leigh, who voices Zoe, but may she come back again. The rest of the voices are also well done, Na'ane and the White Dragon being two more mellifluous standouts. There are many speaking characters, and with so many voices some are going to be less impressive than others, but only the Australian thug was a dud.
They sound good, and they sound real. If you talk to many of them, you will get dialogue not essential to the story, but you will have a conversation that might provide background, character depth, or simply be idle chit chat. It might even be humorous, and in that regard don't fail to activate the exhibit descriptions at Waticorp. It is well written, forthright, with the occasional swear word (though not as many as the first game if language offends you).
Even the (very infrequent) lack of dialogue can be impressive. In that regard, the elevator scene needs mentioning.
Put all that together and it's easy to see the quality of the outcome. Like a well structured and articulated novel, the sum of the parts add to a final outstanding whole.
There is also a cinematic quality to what is going on. Not just because you are watching it, but as a result of the camera angles, the lengthy conversations, the many cutscenes, and the automatic way in which many scenes progress. Then there is the music score, which is used to imbue the game with the feel of a movie and to effectively, and quite beautifully in places, heighten the mood.
In fact Dreamfall sounds as good as it looks, right across the board. Ambient sounds are many and true. In conjunction with the music, the sound palette helps bring everything alive.
So too does the use of 3D. It isn't as sharp in the detail or defined at the edges as a 2D rendered background, but I will take the vibrancy of 3D and trade a little graphic quality to get it. It still looks great, and the character modelling and capture animation is also good stuff. Some more movement in some of the peripheral character aspects would have enhanced the experience (clothes, hair etc, although there is some), and both Zoe and April looked a little like ventriloquist dummies when their eyes moved. Some of the gestures too, particularly when exchanging objects, was a bit ordinary, but they were little things in the overall look of the world and its people.
I mentioned cinema, and in some respects Dreamfall feels a bit like an interactive movie. On many occasions there will be quite lengthy sequences where you do very little except watch what is going on. Conversations can be quite detailed, prodded in the direction you want them to go by selecting a few words now and then. The conundrums aren't terribly difficult, and early on particularly, it's a little like painting by numbers — get the item, bring it back, move on. Some players might feel impatient at times, and want something more challenging to do.
Some more challenge is provided by a number of fight sequences and a few stealth games. Once you have mastered a particular strategy, the fights are little more than nuisance value, but until then I confess one in particular kept me gritting my teeth and swearing at my Aussie antagonist. I also thought the keyboard was a little sluggish for the fights, adding to the need to discern a winning approach. There were about 6 or 7 fights in all, and you can train at the start down at the gym to hone your skills.
There are some fights you can't win, and you will have to work those ones out for yourself. You will likely have to die a few times to realise the folly of your ways.
The stealth games can predominantly be overcome by recognising timing patterns, and hiding when necessary. Again, not terribly onerous, although you might fail a couple of times to work out the patterns.
If you die, you will need to load a save game, but Dreamfall autosaves at regular intervals, and as near as I could tell it always does so before a death dealing moment. So you will be unlikely to have to replay a lengthy sequence.
I thought the best puzzle and challenge in the game involved one of the stealth sequences. You find yourself creeping around a catacomb avoiding fraidy cat "trolls" who have a mean big brother, whilst you try to open a locked gate. Hearing their asthmatic grunting and the patter of their feet is usually a good sign to hide. They can see you, and they can smell you.
Right about now, some players have probably decided to never play Dreamfall. Others will be exclaiming "but The Longest Journey shouldn't have combat and stealth". Broken Sword 3 suffered in the eyes of some players for the same reasons, but for others it added an element that was neither anathema to adventure games or forbidden. So it is with Dreamfall.
Let me just say, don't be put off by those things if they aren't you usual forte, else you might miss something you really should play.
There are a couple of little hacking puzzles, some of them generously timed, some inventory based conundrums, and then the fetch and carry tasks. It could generally do with a few more puzzles, and a bit more variety. Several of the tasks are able to be completed in a number of ways, and the particular methodology will be triggered by choices you make in conversations and interactions. You will likely not notice this in playing however.
Dreamfall is controlled by the keyboard and the mouse. You can set it up to largely suit yourself, but you can't map character movement to the mouse, which is something I would have liked, with the mouse controlling the camera. Take a while to fiddle with the controls, particularly the camera orientation (fixed or permanently behind) to see which you prefer.
A nifty little aspect is a right mouse click which brings up a "focus" field. You can pan 360 degrees in this view and "see" the items with which you can interact. Back out, and then go have a closer look. It seems a little overwhelming at first but you easily settle into it. And if you don't like it, don't use it.
Dreamfall comes on 6 CDs or a DVD, and ran beautifully, once I updated my drivers. Mine were a February release, but somewhat oddly Funcom support said to go back to earlier drivers and N'Vidia said to update to the latest beta version. I did the latter and it worked fine, but I understand some people have had to go backwards to get it to work.
Given the 3D environment, there are fairly regular short loads.
Both April and Zoe carry items that will record all conversations for review if necessary, as well as log the current objective. Zoe can also receive messages. An icon will flash to indicate a new entry or message.
There are numerous options to tweak, and I turned all the graphic options right up, and on a 19 inch screen at highest resolution it hummed along. Subtitles are available. I find they interrupt the flow as I tend to read along, and unless you need them because of hearing difficulties my suggestion here is to leave them turned off.
Because in the end, you want Dreamfall to wash over you and draw you into Storytime. Much hyped and, as a result much anticipated, and a long time in coming, it lived up to all my expectations. It's a marvellous piece of story telling, and promises more to come. The highs overwhelmed any lows and I loved it for what it was and didn't mind at all what it wasn't.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2006.
All rights reserved.
Windows XP (Service pack 2), Pentium 4 1.6 GHz or AMD 2800 (2.5 GHz or 3500 recommended), 256 MB memory (1 GB recommended), DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card, 128 MB video card DirectX 9.0c compatible, 8x CD ROM or 2x DVD ROM, 7 GB disc space