Dreamfall Chapters

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Dreamfall: Chapters doesn’t quite get away with its audacious attempt to tie together the disparate and chaotic narrative strands left open by its predecessor.

Chapters is the five-chapter, long-awaited conclusion to the Longest Journey series of games, but in a way, it was my entry into the series. I’ve long had a soft spot for narrative-driven adventure games, and having heard of Dreamfall: Chapter’s Kickstarter success, I decided I’d play the first two games in order to play the third.

The Longest Journey was a charming but slightly twee point-and-click adventure games with fiendishly illogical puzzles and a MacGuffin-powered story about restoring Balance and finding powerful and hidden Draic Kins (a wilful misspelling of dragons) to stop a conspiracy from reshaping the universe in its image. The second, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, had some terribly unpolished gameplay but (I thought) a more grounded and compelling narrative. I finished the two games and then waited over a year for all the chapters in Dreamfall: Chapter to come out so that I could play the game in one go.

I’m glad I did. Dreamfall:Chapters is such an involved narrative maze that it would probably be difficult to remember its various plot contrivances if I had to wait a few months in between.

Mechanically, it’s a great leap forward  from its predecessor Dreamfall. The animations are smooth, the characters look great, the third-person camera doesn’t get itself in a twist – although these are things that I would expect from a modern video game. There’s no wonky combat, which is a plus, although there are still terrible stealth sections which, in their contrived nature, really take you out of the story every time you get stuck in one.

The two previous games created an interesting dual world of Stark and Arcadia, and one of Chapters’ great strengths is that it kicks the worldbuilding up several notches. Where the previous games sported constrained environments and broad strokes that hinted at the worlds they were set in, Chapters has more expansive setpieces with much more in the way of peripheral interest. The district of Propast in the city of Europolis, which Zoe spends much of the first few chapters running around in, is a stand-out example of Chapters’ compelling worldbuilding. It is a post-cyberpunk metropolis of incredible ethnic diversity, one of the few worlds that doesn’t portray an unrealistically whitewashed future. Marcuria, the city of Arcadia, has also been given a facelift – where it used to be a few small levels, a fairly large section of the city has been developed for the player to roam through, and there is a real sense of scale. It’s a vast improvement over the toy-like levels of TLJ and Dreamfall.

Thematically, Chapters take a  more grounded stance than its predecessors, with the first few chapters dealing with a political crisis in Propast that strikes a clear parallel with contemporary goings-on in Europe – the fight between far-right ethnic nationalism and social-centrism and liberalism. In Marcuria, we have a fascistic dictatorship of foreign invaders – the Azadi – who commit ethnic cleansings on segments of their subjugated populations.

Unfortunately, there is a tension between these more grounded themes and the original raison d’etre of the game – to wrap up the disparate plot threads of the previous offerings.

It really seems like the two are at cross-purposes with each other. The early game takes its time in carefully developing the building political tensions in Propast, or detailing the guerilla war against the Azadi, and these are interesting stories and conflicts. These early chapters, however, do comparatively little to begin to address the key conflicts that were left unresolved in the previous game.

It’s only in the final chapter that the plot suddenly lurches in the direction of culminating towards a denouement, and that’s where the game’s quality starts to degrade. Earlier plot threads are hastily resolved and forgotten, and the groundedness of the earlier chapters gives way to the floaty, macguffin-centered fluff of the central plot – an attempt by the Bad Guys to reshape reality by collecting dreams and using them to feed a giant steampunk computer.

In doing so, the plot seems to take some liberties with characters and conventions from the previous games. Take the character of Roper Klacks, for example – he was a side-show antagonist in the first game, a reformed seller of potions in the second. The third game, however, retcons his apparent redemption and fashions him back into a villain, which is jarring given his lack of rancour towards April Ryan in the second game.

And most egregious of all, the plot basically resolves itself with a deus ex machina character that appears in the first chapter as a baby and grows up in an interdimensional house just in time to step into the timeline and tweak a few things to allow the good guys to win. But her powers, and the agents that guide her in her mission, are never identified, and we’re expected to be okay with the plot intervention just because it was introduced as a Chekov’s gun in the first chapter. While the introduction of this character does kind of address a long-standing plot thread that was never really addressed in the first game, her inclusion brings up far more questions than it does answers, and avers to an even greater conflict that sets the stage for a subsequent game that will, unfortunately, probably never see the light of day.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 new-style Dreamers

 

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