A great story that shines through some rather hackneyed gameplay.
Dreamfall is a 2006 sequel to the niche but somewhat well-loved point-and-click puzzle adventure game, The Longest Journey. The latter (but chronologically earlier) game was lauded for its narrative but criticised somewhat for its inscrutable puzzles – which, to be fair, were somewhat de rigueur for the time, what with maximising playtimes with endless permutations of object combinations and all.
Dreamfall eschews that style, being a much more straightforward 3D adventure game with simple combat and stealth elements. Unfortunately, the shift in gameplay isn’t particularly salutary. Dreamfall is often a chore to play – the wonky camera angles, the unintuitive object interaction system, the tedious stealth, and the janky, uninspired combat add up to a thoroughly pedestrian gaming experience, even by 2006 standards.
And in terms of art direction and level design, I can’t really say that Dreamfall stood out of the crop, either. Environments are uninspired, and the frequent back-and-forthing in them is made tedious by the lack of visual or auditory interest. The gameworld feels like a game world. And it’s not the technical standards of 2006 that are the cause, either – KotOR managed to do much better in terms of creating compelling environments, and that game was three years older.
But, despite everything, Dreamfall is a worthwhile game to play, if you’ve played The Longest Journey. The franchise depicts two parallel worlds – the technological world of Stark, which is a future version of our world, and the pre-industrial world of Arcadia, a world of magic. In The Longest Journey, preserving a cosmic balance between these two realms was the preoccupation of the heroine and player controlled character, April Ryan. In Dreamfall, there is a new protagonist, Zoe Castillo, who embarks on a new journey. But her story is closely intertwined with April’s continuing one.
Part of the pleasure of Dreamfall derives from the nostalgia of seeing the familiar faces and locales of The Longest Journey in a new, 3D form. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Dreamfall rides solely on the coattails of its predecessor. It heralds a new and somewhat darker story, and fleshes out aspects of the world and mythology in surprising ways. The game truly shines in its dialogue and voice acting (except for some characters) and the characters are compelling and sympathetic.
While the world itself seems rather twee, bandying about unfashionable tropes of fate, cosmic balance, dreams as the fabric of reality, and what-not, it does so in an earnest way that recalls more high-spirited adventures of old. Once you buy into the mythos and accept it for its old-school charms, the world opens up with possibilities.
If there’s one thing to be criticised about the plot, however, it’s that it ends in a total cliffhanger that took about 10 years for the developers to address, by releasing a new game to complete the story: Dreamfall: Chapters. Indeed, I only started playing the games in this franchise because I knew that that game was coming out. Without a proper narrative resolution, the game would have seemed somewhat pointless – Zoe’s journey, in some respects, is complete, but the greater narrative journey persists.
All in all, a well-told story that just about survives rough handling by the janky mechanics.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 dreamers