Videogames can be brash affairs, with their guns and cars and tits and stuff. Pop culture entertainment and big name brands bound together with startling technical wizardry and graphics-as-porn. Forty quid gets you 15 hours of in-your-face fun. Have some of that, you monkeys!
Some games - adventures games if I'm to get to a point - sit outside this world of in-your-face entertainment. Adventure games need to have a confident style, rich character and intelligent storytelling if they're going to make an impact in a world where bigger guns make a game better than the last. And while many fans look back at the good old days of point and click adventure games as a golden era, titles such as Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, Bone and Fahrenheit have all delivered enough wit, kookiness and charisma to prove they're just as relevant to this generation as the past. There are not enough developers (or publishers, for that matter) willing to take the risk on this sort of game, but that's a different story.
To its credit, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey pulls off the style and narrative demands of the adventure genre with flair. The story is strong, and it unfolds, twists and develops at a welcome pace. Conversations with the inhabitants of the worlds are meaty but never overwhelming. Ten minutes of chat isn't laborious, but insightful and intriguing. This sequel to the much fawned over PC adventure, confusingly titled The Longest Journey, will be a welcome return for those that succumbed to the charms of the original game six long years ago. With three playable characters and contrasting worlds to explore, Dreamfall has a deep story to sink into.
The move to three dimensions prompts the player to explore, but it's still a shallow affair. You point your character in the right direction and when it's possible to interact with something or someone an icon appears. Adventure games always rely on puzzles, but in Dreamfall there's no real challenging solutions to your dilemmas. There's barely any complexity to a puzzle that asks you to find an item and take it to a specific location. There's an unwelcome amount of handholding throughout Dreamfall, whether from characters practically telling you what to do, or just very obvious game design, making the experience a meander through the game rather than a challenge. And there's scarcely anything more depressing in a modern adventure game than being confronted with yet another lock-picking mini-game. If I could sacrifice one of my little fingers in order to never have to play such a thing ever again, I would.
Elsewhere, the 'action' aspects of the game can only be described as really, really bad. Fighting doesn't happen a lot, but when it does it's a clumsy, unresponsive punch-drunk shuffle with no style, rudimentary animation and piss poor mechanics. "Hey, it's an adventure game, it's not about fighting," I hear you cry. Well then, why the blinkin' flip are these barely-baked sections even in the game? It makes Fahrenheit's feeble use of quicktime moments for brawling seem like Virtua Fighter.
Stealth makes an appearance too, and feels about as welcome as a jackboot at a testicle party. I'm no ninja, but even I know that to creep past unnoticed I should do my best to avoid broken glass. And that's your lot. No wall-hugging, no using the shadows to your advantage, no light meter or strategic use of scenery. Just crouch down and keep out of your enemy's field of vision and you'll be fine. And try to avoid going in to narrow corners as much as possible, because the camera seems to have been designed by someone with a lazy eye.
Some stealth and confrontational situations can be avoided by turning to conversation, and it's good to know you're given the option to try different approaches, but it's worth noting that there's only ever one outcome. Decisions your character makes will rarely change the course of the game.
The presentation of Dreamfall compliments the story well. It's not a great looking game (even the PC version on Ultra settings is a big disappointment), but it's distinctive with a visual style that helps create the convincing alternative worlds. The use of sound is excellent too, from ambient noise to instrumental soundtrack and strong voice work. Conversations are a little choppy, but that's probably due to the sheer amount of speech recorded for the game. Generally, it's this kind of care and attention to detail that enforces developer Funcom's adventure game credentials.
Dreamfall has clearly been designed for those that like to follow an unfolding story, for those that are happy to listen to other people's conversations and immerse themselves in character exposition and plot revelations. We can't berate something for wanting to be an 'interactive experience' when it does it so well. So many games try to be something different and end up flat on their arses that we can say Dreamfall is an adventure game success.
But in many ways it's only preaching to the converted. Characters from the first game return, so if you've not experienced part one you can be a little baffled, or simply oblivious to who they are and what they've done in the past. Even if you have played the first game you might not remember the finer details very well - it has been six years after all. And just like a long running TV series, there's no real conclusion to the story. Be aware that however many hours you put into the game (around the 15 hour mark, by the way), you won't come away feeling satisfied with the outcome. Do we have to wait another six years?
And that's a shame for newcomers, because they're missing out on a story that has been so lovingly crafted. If the stealth and fighting sections are there to tempt those that aren't usually aroused by this sort of game, or to breathe life back into a crusty genre, they've done the worst job possible. And with puzzles that don't tax the brain, it's not really a thinking experience either.
The addition of more traditional 'gamey' elements is a complete failure, and Dreamfall lacks the crossover appeal found in something like Fahrenheit, with its self-contained story. It doesn't do anything new and neither does it go very far in welcoming the curious. If you liked The Longest Journey then you'll be eager to delve back into the story, but even that's hampered by the fact that there's a clear set up for Part Three, so don't expect closure. The best that can be said for Dreamfall is that you can sit down with a copy knowing that there's little to do, but you'll enjoy investigating the story and experiencing an interesting sci-fi fable.