NOTE: The review of this first episode is being kept fairly spoiler-free and vague in terms of the game's story, in respect to newcomers to the series
It's been a long wait for this, possibly the holy grail of the adventure game genre. Most fans probably thought it would never appear, but finally we have got Dreamfall Chapters, the third game in the epic series known as The Longest Journey. The previous game, Dreamfall, came out in 2006 and ended on a cliffhanger that we've had to wait eight years to see continued. To say that there is a lot of expectation around this release is putting it mildly. The game was funded via a Kickstarter campaign which brought in $1.5 million, considerably more than developer Red Thread Games were asking for.
Let's be a little clearer here, we don't actually have the full Dreamfall Chapters right now. The decision was made to divide the game up episodically into "books", of which five are planned. So what we have here is Book One, subtitled 'Reborn'. Anyone familiar with the output of Telltale Games will be used to this model, and they have proven that it works over a well-planned story arc with both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, as long as those releases remain regular. Red Thread have assured the community that Book Two won't be far behind this, so let's hope that all goes smoothly. Because this is the sort of game in which you don't want to be left hanging. While Telltale's episodes are frustratingly short, often completable in a little over an hour, 'Reborn' offers up a much more satisfying three to five hour experience.
If you're unfamiliar with it, Dreamfall Chapters comes from a series of games in which story is everything (have a look at our retrospective article on the original The Longest Journey here. These games contain what is possibly the most detailed, intricate and deep story ever put into the medium. The games are about epic issues, but they focus on the small details. They are about the power of storytelling itself, about dreams, hopes, faith and fears. They show us strong-willed female protagonists trying to fit into worlds they feel lost in and figure out their paths. It's something that many people can relate to. The Longest Journey (1999) was a traditional 2D point-&-click adventure, while Dreamfall went 3D and introduced some clunky stealth and action mechanics which many people - including the developers - weren't too fond of.
To sum up what is happening in these games without spoiling too much is no simple task. They revolve around two worlds: our world a couple of centuries from now, made up of science and order, and Arcadia, a world of magic and chaos full of fantastical beings. These two worlds are kept in delicate balance with each other by a being known as the Guardian, and there are people who have the ability to "shift" from one world to the other. The Longest Journey told the story of one such Shifter named April Ryan. Dreamfall continued April's story but also introduced us to Zoe Castillo who has the ability to cross worlds within her dreams. Much ensues here as we become mixed up in conspiracies, quests and all-out war between races and religions. Family also plays a huge part as both April and Zoe both discover dark secrets about who they really are. It's unfortunate that, despite Red Thread's best efforts, newcomers to the series are going to find themselves somewhat lost. The story so far is not only detailed and complex, but has been extremely emotionally engaging. Long time fans are severely invested in these characters, and reminders of what has happened previously are scattered only lightly throughout the episode. Once you get access to the journal you are able to read back on past events in some more detail, but a proper recap is sorely needed (and will be forthcoming, the option is currently greyed out in the game’s menu).
The last game ended on a huge cliffhanger concerning the fate of a certain character, and Dreamfall Chapters resolves that. But we won't spoil it here. Book One is named 'Reborn' and it's fitting in that most of this game is concerned with starting again and trying new things. The primary focus here is on Zoe and you'll spend the bulk of the game in control of her. You also get to control Kian Alvane, another returning character who is currently awaiting execution for treason, and a third mystery character. Zoe has some big decisions to make and your choices for her will have consequences both within this episode, and the ones to come. While the early stages are quite epic and exciting, once the game settles into the main section in the cyberpunk-esque city of Europolis, the focus becomes much smaller and Zoe's actions become more about her emotional well being and decisions in that regard.
The writer behind the series, Ragnar Tørnquist, has always had a the ability to write extremely strong and natural dialogue and Dreamfall Chapters simply soars here. Conversations and character just feel real, no matter how fantastical they are. Kian remembering his mother is beautiful, there's a wonderfully awkward discussion between Zoe and her therapist as she realises they're flirting and can't quite bring herself to stop, and as a player you can't help but feel a tingle as you choose the responses you know might get you in a bit of trouble. We are treated to an inner monologue for all of the player character's responses and it's a terrific device which really helps justify the decision process for both the character, and you as a player making the choices for them. Humour is also used to great effect, notably in an extended sequence in which you must take care of "Shit Bot" and discover his love for welding (although, your decisions can mean this sequence is missed entirely and replaced with someone equally fun).
The control scheme was a big complaint for Dreamfall, so we are happy to report that it works considerably better here, although it's quite unintuitive at first. You can control the game with either mouse/keyboard or gamepad and both work equally well. As you walk around the environments, people or objects of interest become highlighted around you, and the closer you get to them the more you are able to interact, from simply looking at something from a distance, to talking or using things. Your interaction with items depends a lot on context, and the beginning of the game doesn't make the control scheme at all clear so trial and error is necessary (your interaction choices include symbols for "head", "hourglass" and "sun" - can you figure out what they might do?). Fortunately, once you complete this early stage, you are presented with far more traditional "look", "talk", and "use" symbols. Thankfully there is no combat involved anymore. The game presents a decent mix of puzzles, certainly far above what you may be used to if your only adventure games so far have been those produced by Telltale. Most are fairly basic, but a few will have you stuck for a while as you try to find you way around the city.
Environments look great, absolutely full of colour and life. Europolis is a fairly big area to play in and there is hustle and bustle all through it. Character models are lacking a bit in comparison, and lip syncing isn't quite there. While nobody is playing this game for the graphics, the fact is that if they're off it does ruin the immersion. From a purely artistic view, the game is gorgeous and overflowing with atmosphere. The soundtrack also deserves special mention for successfully transporting you to another place. Voice acting is varied, but the actress for Zoe (who is not the same as the one from the previous game) is, quite simply, superb. The multicultural setting of the game means you encounter a huge number of accents and dialects throughout and while some veer towards stereotype, most manage to work. These characters feel real, and once you stop playing it’s likely that they will remain in your head for a while.
'Reborn' is a good beginning for Dreamfall Chapters, and a very apt title. If anything, it may feel a little low-key in comparison to the epic fantasy and sci-fi that we know the series contains. It feels like it’s playing things a little safe and is here just to reacquaint us with the world(s), with minimal progression and a lot of scene setting. Your enjoyment will really depend on how invested you already are. But this is just a beginning, for both the series and for the characters and story within. New directions are being taken and you can be damn sure we want to stick around for the ride.