Dreamfall: Chapters Review: Some stories are better left untold

Matt Sayer 19 May 2017

Dreamfall Chapters_20170517180541

For good and for bad, Dreamfall: Chapters is a game trapped in the past.

Reviewed on PS4

It's been 11 years since Dreamfall: The Longest Journey left Zoë Castillo trapped in a coma, placed there by her mother for the crime of saving the world. In those 11 years, we've seen the adventure-game genre redefined by games like Telltale's The Walking Dead and Dontnod's Life is Strange, games that discarded pixel hunting and illogical 'logic' puzzles for a greater focus on narrative and consequence. Dreamfall: Chapters, the Kickstarted follow-up to Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, seems at first to take a similar approach, promising players that their choices will shape the game's narrative in poignant, meaningful ways. Sadly, not only does Dreamfall: Chapters fail to make good on this promise, it stubbornly ignores a decade's worth of progress in adventure-game design. From its premise to its execution, Dreamfall: Chapters is a game out of place and out of time.

It doesn't take long for Dreamfall: Chapters to establish itself as a game trapped in the past. From its very first scene, it becomes clear that newcomers to the Dreamfall series will have a tough time following what's going on. The Azadi, WatiCorp, the revolution of April Ryan--Chapters assumes you're intimately familiar with the story of the previous two Dreamfall games as it hurls dozens of obscure names and concepts at you without giving you time to catch your breath. Even for someone who played the previous games, it can be overwhelming--11 years is a long time to remember what the heck a Dolmari is, after all.

Go 4K with PlayStation 4 Pro
Sony
$332.17: PlayStation 4 Slim 500GB with Uncharted ...
Amazon
$439.95: PlayStation 4 Slim 500GB
Sony

Take a particular mid-game puzzle, for example. To move the story forward, you're tasked with arranging a series of children's drawings in chronological order according to the events of The Longest Journey, the first Dreamfall game that came out way back in the year 2000. Up to this point, Chapters has made no attempt to recap what happened in The Longest Journey, so unless you can clearly recall the plot of a game that released 17 years ago, you're going to have to resort to trial and error. Even 20 years ago, that would have been recognised as poor puzzle design.

Sadly, even if you can remember every tiny detail of the Dreamfall canon, it won't make up for Chapters' scatterbrained story. As you set out to save the world, the game bounces you back and forth between its two main protagonists, Zoë Castillo and Azadi turncoat Kian Alvane, each of whom has a separate narrative to keep track of. For the majority of the game, though, these narratives lack focus, often introducing characters and sub-plots that go nowhere and contribute nothing to the overall plot. It's not even explained why Zoë and Kian are so important to the fate of their worlds until many, many hours into the game, and even then, it basically boils down to the cheap 'chosen one' trope. By Chapters' end, there are so many confusing conspiracies and deus ex machinas that even the inevitable end-game exposition dump can't bring the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

Dreamfall Chapters_20170517175244

A haphazard story could be salvaged by punchy writing or memorable characters, but Chapters has neither. Considering how much time you'll spend chatting with the inhabitants of Chapters' world, this is no small problem. Dialogue tends to drag on for twice as long as it needs to, with characters spelling out their intentions in ways that expose them as mere vessels for exposition. And aside from a few exceptions like a wise-cracking crow and a depressed robot, Chapters' cast is a bland pastiche of generic archetypes, from the stoic warrior with a heart of gold to the mysterious information broker who knows more than she's letting on. With little to distinguish them from countless other fictional clichés, they fail to inspire the emotional attachment Chapters' story wants you to feel.

Outside of conversations, you'll be spending most of your time with Chapters wandering around and solving puzzles. And when I say wandering, I should probably say traipsing, since you'll be legging it back and forth across the two pseudo-open-world cities of Europolis and Marcuria for far, far too much of your playtime. Why Chapters opted for the open-world approach at all is unclear. At no point does the game justify it; both Europolis and Marcuria are empty, lifeless spaces, with nothing to interact with outside of story-specific puzzles. Worse, Zoë and Kian move around at a snail's pace, and by the end of the game you'll have spent literal hours listening to the exact same ambient dialogue repeated over and over again—and that's if you don't get hung up trying to solve the game's frustratingly arcane puzzles.

Here's a fun one from right at the start of the game: Kian needs to find a way to pick a lock. Fair enough. Instead of any logical solution, though, you'll need to scrounge up a bed pillow and an old broom, combine the two to make a snappily-titled 'Pillow-On-Broom', and use your new tool to catch a stray arrow through a slit in a castle wall. Because arrows make the perfect lockpicks, apparently.

Dreamfall Chapters_20170516144804

This is hardly the worst example Chapters has to offer, either. From finicky, unresponsive quick-time events to monotonous trial-and-error item combinations, the game's puzzles are steeped in the worst of '90s adventure game design. There's even a godawful 3D pixel hunt mid-way through the game that serves only to drag out an already protracted scene for far longer than it has any reason to be. Between these obtuse puzzles, the open-world padding, and the waffling dialogue, Chapters feels like a 6-hour story trapped in 20+ hours of bloat and cruft.

For all Chapters design problems, its technical woes on PS4 are even worse. Despite it often looking like little more than a slightly higher-resolution version of a PS2 game, Chapters regularly struggles to maintain a consistent framerate, turning into a slideshow whenever more than handful of characters appear on screen at once. Lip-syncing and facial expressions are stiff and robotic, dialogue lines frequently play over the top of each other, and character animations are wonky to the point of depriving even the most emotional scenes of any impact—it's hard to feel the weight of a punch when its animation doesn't even connect with its target. Add to all this some of the most excessive load times on PS4--some even longer than the vignettes they're loading--and it's clear that Chapters needed a whole lot more work in the performance department.

Dreamfall Chapters_20170517184240

I really wanted to like Dreamfall: Chapters. There's a decent game there, buried somewhere underneath all the technical issues, pointless padding, and poor puzzle design. The way Europolis and Marcuria gradually succumb to military rule over the course of the game is neat, but its potential goes underutilised. Some of the writing is genuinely funny, with the depressed robot Shitbot in particular delivering some good laughs. And the way Kian and Zoë mull over their thoughts as you consider different dialogue options provides fascinating insight into their motivations, as well as helping to avoid the all-too-common issue of ambiguous dialogue prompts not reflecting what characters actually end up saying.

Ultimately, though, Dreamfall: Chapters is a game clinging too tightly to its past. Unless you're a die-hard Dreamfall fan with a truckload of time and patience on your hands, this is one dream you'd do well to forget.

Dreamfall: Chapters

4.5 BELOW AVERAGE

What we liked...

  • Black humour hits more often than it misses
  • Creative art style produces a few genuinely breathtaking vistas

What we didn't like...

  • Confusing story full of dead-end narrative threads and hand-waved plot holes
  • Bland and drawn-out dialogue delivered by forgettable characters
  • Frustratingly oblique puzzle design
  • Inconsistent framerate and excessive load times

VERDICT

Dreamfalll: Chapters wears its Kickstarter origins all too clearly on its sleeve. It's a game designed for hardcore Dreamfall fans willing to look past the clunky writing, budget production values, and abysmal technical performance just to spend more time with Zoë Castillo and Kian Alvane. If that's not you, you're better off looking for an adventure elsewhere.

Available for PS4 XBOX ONE

For more information on how finder scores games, check our review guidelines.

Latest gaming headlines

Latest gaming deals on finder

Ask an Expert

You are about to post a question on finder.com.au:

  • Do not enter personal information (eg. surname, phone number, bank details) as your question will be made public
  • finder.com.au is a financial comparison and information service, not a bank or product provider
  • We cannot provide you with personal advice or recommendations
  • Your answer might already be waiting – check previous questions below to see if yours has already been asked

Finder only provides general advice and factual information, so consider your own circumstances, read the PDS or seek advice before you decide to act on our content. By submitting a question, you're accepting our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.
Ask a question
feedback