When The Longest Journey appeared almost a decade ago, I was immediately drawn to it. It had the kind of dark fantasy plot I typically enjoy, a female hero, and it was listed as an “adventure” game. That was a long time ago in gaming years though, and all I remember from it was giving up less than 20% of the way through. I do recall a sequel being announced, but then nothing caught my eye until I received a copy of Dreamfall Chapters on PS4. Everything I had read prior to playing insisted I didn’t need to have played its predecessor to understand the game, so with only vague memories of the setting and characters I embarked on a long, long journey.
Episodic games generally seem to be divisive amoung gamers (“chapters,” in this case) – either you love them or hate them. For me, as long as I can play a game until the end without the agonising wait between individual episodes, I have no qualms with the format unless the game is intrinsically terrible. In the case of Dreamfall Chapters, the fact I had all the chapters at once was one of its saving graces. Honestly, had I been forced to endure a lengthy wait between episodes, there is a good chance I would have walked away from the project before the halfway mark. My first mistake going in was believing you didn’t need to have played its predecessor. Not just to enjoy it, but to become invested and even physically be able to complete it. The second issue is that this game was Kickstarted and as such was aimed at those fans who needed it to answer a lot of lingering questions. It feels like anyone else who finds the game and wants to enjoy it is somewhat left out in the cold.
Now, let me first clarify that there is an in-game story recap to try and catch you up on the events of The Longest Journey, but even so it’s not nearly enough. The first example of needing to have a full understanding of the previous game comes very early on when you are asked to make a career choice for Zoe, the hero. A career choice isn’t too bad unless the options are to stay with her career or start a new one. However, without Googling it, I had no idea what she did, and therefore the weight behind the choice didn’t exist for me. There were several moments in the narrative where the assumption existed that the player knew what was happening, and yes, it was possible to grasp enough to put it together mostly, but it lessened the fun. It’s like loving Dr Who but being shunned by the fandom because you haven’t learned to speak in Gallifreyan so are somehow unworthy to enjoy the experience to the fullest.
The lack of previous knowledge also made some of the puzzles harder than they ought to have been, including one that forced me to stop completely while I found a forum to walk me through the solution. I was required to find nine pictures then put them in chronological order – there were no hints, and guessing got me nowhere because it turned out the pictures were a direct breakdown of the previous game’s plot. Without prior experience to rely on, I also managed to ruin more than one relationship, get several people killed and began to abhor the consequences recap after every chapter concluded like it was reminding me I made a mess. As a function, I could appreciate the recap as a reminder of the previous chapter and a foreshadow of then next one; it was only when I felt a decision was detrimental due to lack of information that I disliked it.
Dreamfall Chapters is listed as a 3D episodic adventure, but it plays more like a point ‘n’ click from the late ’90s. Take the location of Arcadia for example; a parallel universe set in a fantasy era with magic and machines made of tubes and runes. This is the sort of place I’d like to explore and would spend time enjoying the finer details and immersive characteristics of, but there is so little to enjoy here. There is no point in traversing other than to get from A to B as the buildings, people and surroundings may as well be cardboard cut-outs. The only things to interact with are a part of the story, and even these can be hard to initiate a reaction from as you have to be positioned at a frustratingly precise distance to incite the correct icon and start a conversation or action. Playing on PS4, too much time was wasted trying to solve something simply to find out that if I angled my view slightly, the interaction icon would finally show up.
Further adding to the confusion is how some NPCs are randomly named. It raises false hope that there is some other interaction to be had. However, as it turns out, this was just a part of a Kickstarter reward tier. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool incentive – but having names that do not fit with the setting plonked onto to random NPCs throws off the illusion even more. If there is going to be an entire city to explore, and I’m required to find my way from one part to another, then make it worth the walking. I want to be able to interact, uncover Easter eggs, have an experience. But the truth here is that Dreamfall Chapters may have been better as a point ‘n’ click where you zoom through areas that are primarily wasted space, pretending to be an adventure. There are simply too few examples where investing my time in a location was rewarded. The only example I can think of was finding a poster on a wall that made a Star Wars reference. That’s literally the one detail that stands out in more than 15 hours of gameplay. If a game wants to put emphasis on character and emotional storytelling, it needs to understand that immersion is in the details.
As for the narrative as a complete structure, I don’t even know where to start – or really what was going on most of the time. It took hours for the story to hit its first peak where I even remotely cared about what was happening. The heavily weighted decisions attempted to add some drama, but I was so annoyed by the snail pace both physically and narratively that I frequently lost the point of what my character was doing. I spent much of my play time hating the surroundings, mostly because there is an 80/20 split in every chapter of slow plodding to get somewhere and conversations with no options. Even worse are the conversations which only provide one option – requiring you to physically select it and pretend as if it was interactive.
I was at the very least hoping there would be some characters I could care about, even if the story wasn’t great. However, the scripting in Dreamfall Chapters is just as off as the rest of the game. One minute it is pleasant and introspective, placing you right there alongside the character, while next second it is uncharacteristically harsh like the writers were trying to look badass in front of some bigger kids. Much of the dialogue feels unnecessary too, which is a big problem as there is so much of it, and it’s where a bulk of the story unfolds. The fact that background chatter also often drowns out the character’s lines is so infuriating that I had to enlist the sometimes-flawed subtitles and speed read so I could keep up with the story-oriented lines of dialogue. Honestly, between all the dialogue and pointless travelling, it had me questioning whether this game would have been better suited as a series of books.
Upon finishing the game, I was more relieved than anything. I love a good story and can overlook almost any flaw if the narrative payoff is there, but I don’t feel that’s what I experienced with Dreamfall Chapters. It was long, though. The longest episodic game I’ve played so far, and that’s even removing the hours I spent looking for things, stopping to Google questions about the previous game, and the painful loading screen after opening any door. The weighty choices gave me little reason to stop and consider my actions or consequences because I struggled to care either way as I kept waiting for the story to “get good.” Maybe I would have appreciated this more, say, ten years ago, but for 2017 on the PS4 it felt like a story that didn’t need finishing. Unless you are a huge fan of the previous game and had questions that need answering, and don’t mind waiting an entire game for said answers, then don’t bother.