By Marty Mulrooney
Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is an adventure game created by legendary game designer Ragnar Tørnquist and released by Norwegian developer Funcom in 2006 for Xbox and Windows PC. The sequel to 1999’s The Longest Journey (released in 2000 in the UK), Dreamfall takes place 10 years after the events of the first game in the year 2219. Players must help 20-year-old Casablanca resident Zoë Castillo as she attempts to save April Ryan – The Longest Journey’s original protagonist – and track down her missing boyfriend.
Although Dreamfall serves as a sequel to The Longest Journey, it is very much a standalone game. Knowledge of the first game will no doubt lead to a greater overall sense of satisfaction as Dreamfall progresses – familiar environments and characters crop up throughout – but is by no means essential. The central premise remains the same – there exist two parallel worlds, Stark and Arcadia. Stark (our own ‘real’ world, but set far in the future) is ruled by science. Arcadia is a fantasy realm ruled by magic.
After a brief introduction in a Tibetan monastery, Dreamfall begins with the game’s main protagonist Zoë Castillo lying in a coma. During what she guesses is an out-of-body experience, she implores the player to listen. “Bad things are happening, and everyone who knows the truth is either dead or has vanished off the face of the earth. If I can get through to someone, anyone, maybe something can be done. So if you can hear me, please listen. This is very, very important. It might just be the most important thing ever.”
Two weeks earlier… Zoë Castillo (voiced by Ellie Conrad Leigh) is a teenager who doesn’t know what she wants from her life. An obviously bright university dropout, she has returned to her father’s house in Casablanca to face a life of boredom broken up only by the occasional get-together with friends or workout session at the gym. Zoë has also recently spit up with her boyfriend Reza (known professionally by the codename ‘Jericho’), an investigative journalist for the international newsfeed The Hand That Bites.
Zoë’s life seems to have stalled, though she soon finds the monotonous boredom replaced by one mystery after another. Television screens start conveying cryptic messages for her eyes only, showing an eerie, snowy landscape (the Winter) occupied by a lone figure, a girl of pure white with dark black hair, who continuously urges Zoë to “find” and “save” April Ryan. Then Reza asks Zoë to pick up an important package for him and before she knows it, she is embroiled in a conspiracy involving WATIcorp, the most powerful corporation in Stark. When Reza disappears soon after, Zoë finally pulls herself together and embarks on a journey of April Ryan proportions to uncover the truth and save her friend before it’s too late.
Dreamfall’s controls are very simple. The WASD keys are used for movement/running, with the Shift key used to walk and the Ctrl key used to sneak. The M key opens the current character’s journal/mobile, which is useful as it shows a written diary that summarises what has occurred so far, along with a log of all recent conversations. The mouse is used to rotate the camera and right clicking brings up a ‘focus field’ that allows the player to search an area no matter where they are standing. The current hotspot in focus will display a green box around it. Other nearby hotspots are boxed in grey and the Q/E keys will cycle through them. Left clicking a hotspot will then display all currently available interactions – such as looking at an object or picking it up/interacting with it – and left clicking again on one of these interaction icons will perform the desired action.
Genre purists may balk at the idea of a ‘sneak’ button in an adventure game, but the control scheme actually works very well and offers a pleasing mixture of third person controls and traditional point-and-click gameplay mechanics. There is even an inventory accessible by clicking the mouse wheel, although players won’t find themselves carrying many items. The main problem is the combat sequences. Although they are few and far between – and can often be avoided entirely – when they do occur they are poorly executed. The Space Bar is used to block, the WASD keys are used to move and the left/right mouse buttons are used for light/heavy attacks. It all looks very clunky and controls as such. These combat sequences didn’t work in 2006 and today, they are the one aspect of Dreamfall that has aged badly. A chapter later on in the game where the player controls April Ryan as she sneaks through a subterranean city patrolled by trolls is an exercise in tedium that remains best forgotten.
Thankfully, the majority of Dreamfall is a good old-fashioned interactive story that involves lots of travelling to unusual and exotic locations, chatting with strangers and the occasional puzzle. The story of Dreamfall is easily one of the best that has ever been told within the adventure genre – standing shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor The Longest Journey – and will draw players in from the outset. There isn’t much puzzle solving per se, but it doesn’t ever really become a problem.
The true joy of experiencing and playing Dreamfall – whether controlling Zoë Castillo, April Ryan or the newly introduced Azadi soldier Kian Alvane – is exploring the environments and conversing with the numerous and varied inhabitants. Whether running across the sunny streets of Casablanca or down the rainy alleyways of Venice, Newport, the world of Stark always feels alive. Later, the magical world of Arcadia is realised so vividly that you can almost taste the magic in the air, intermingling with the gently falling snowdrops.
It certainly helps in a game based around conversations that the voice cast is stellar – new characters such as Zoë Castillo (Ellie Conrad Leigh) and Wonkers the Watilla (Jack Angel, who played a similar role as Teddy in the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence) sound just as perfectly suited to their roles as returning characters such as April Ryan (Sarah Hamilton) and Crow (a scene-stealing Roger Raines). In fact, it seems that nearly every single returning major and minor character in Dreamfall is portrayed by the same voice actor that appeared in The Longest Journey, an impressive achievement.
The graphics are likewise fantastic and have aged incredibly well. They aren’t anything particularly impressive from a technical standpoint, but the sheer artistry and imagination on display at all times is truly stunning – Ragnar Tørnquist and art director Christer Sveen have more than proved that there is art in games. Many video games fade from memory quickly after completion, but Dreamfall isn’t one of them. The only downside to the visuals is that although the character model for Zoë in particular looks superb, many of the secondary characters aren’t quite as detailed and some of the animations can look stiff. A magical and evocative orchestral soundtrack composed by Leon Willett, along with additional songs by the game’s lead sound designer Simon Poole, audio director Morten Sørlie and Norwegian singer Magnet, round off an unforgettable audio-visual experience.
Dreamfall is a flawed game that has nonetheless stood the test of time. It takes risks that don’t always pay off but fundamentally, it’s a well told story crammed full of emotional and magical moments. The plot has only been touched upon lightly in this review – as it should be – but by the end of your 10-15 hour journey with Zoë Castillo, despite some bumpy action sequences along the way, you won’t want it all to be over. The plot threads left loose may displease some players, but there is still just enough resolution offered to make Dreamfall a satisfying self-contained experience rather than simply the middle part of a trilogy. Ragnar Tørnquist, if you’re reading this – you’ve released your MMORPG The Secret World. Dreamfall Chapters next please!
8.5 OUT OF 10