Kickstarter’s greatest strength and weakness is the potential it offers for nostalgia projects. Fortunately, in the case of Dreamfall Chapters, the $1.5m raised by fans of the previous games has been used to bring life back to a game which ended on an unresolved cliffhanger, as well as to bring attention to a series which never quite got the attention it deserved.
The Longest Journey was a 3D adventure game released in 1999 which tracked the adventures of April Ryan, a student in the futuristic American megacity of Newport who finds herself transported to the parallel, magic-based world of Arcadia. Its sequel, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, focused mostly on Casablancan teenager Zoe Castillo and the adventure that unfolds when her boyfriend unexpectedly goes missing.
Dreamfall Chapters drops the Longest Journey moniker, but is still very much a sequel as its first episode continues the story of Zoe Castillo, first in a coma then returned to the city of Europolis in the middle of an election campaign. Unfortunately, the story would be very difficult to pick up for newcomers to the series, and if possible it would be a good idea to offer a bundle of all three to get new players up to speed.
The actual meat of the story – the characters and settings – are almost without fault, though. Zoe is perhaps the most realistically-written teenager and female protagonist in gaming right now, balancing her insecurities with snarky observations and kind-heartedness in equal measure and making for a truly rounded character. The other characters are not skimped on either, ranging from a foul-mouthed Indian mechanic who serves as Zoe’s boss through the brief stint in Arcadia with a reluctant jobsworth prison officer. Red Thread Games grasp what David Cage never has – that emotional storytelling comes down to believable characters and reactions, not merely cranking up the intensity of what happens to them. Dreamfall Chapters is powerful because it makes you care about what becomes of these people.
The world in which Dreamfall Chapters takes place is well-constructed and, while pretty, also does a very good job of building a backstory for itself. The election candidates – hard left, social democratic, centre-right and populist right – could all be placed into modern political parties, albeit with occasional changes added to denote changes between now and the future, particularly the social democrat candidate being a Muslim. There are buskers on the street who play full songs Zoe can stand and listen to, and the conversations of people in the street are detailed and realistic.
Puzzles, pleasingly, are still of the old and challengingly obscure school developed in the 1990s. For example, one section requires an imprisoned character to pick a lock and climb up an oily and slippery chain. Using a broom and pillowcase dangled out of the window, he must attract arrow fire, then use the arrow to pick the lock. He must then use the broken arrow with a rag, light it on a nearby torch and burn the oil from the chain in order to climb up. It shows a respect for the player’s intelligence and feels much more satisfying to solve than many of the puzzles used in, say, Telltale games, which usually only mandate the use of one item on an obstacle in order to proceed.
Every inch of the budget is on display in terms of the graphics, which are colourful and lively while also showing some commitment to a realistic depiction of how a futuristic world might look. There were some issues with slowdown on high settings though, even on a high-end gaming PC, and it would be useful for the developers to fix this soon.
The soundtrack carries on the same sense of wonder and close by mystery that adorned the previous games and is a joy to sit and soak up while solving puzzles. A similar music style serves to tie the game’s two worlds together, and should certainly place highly on any list of game soundtracks worth listening to.
The first episode of Dreamfall Chapters delivers a strong return for its characters, and will be an excellent purchase for fans of the series. New players may wish to familiarise themselves with the earlier installments first, but even going in blind will find things to enjoy. If the planned future episodes are of the same quality as the first, Red Thread will be onto a winner.