Dreamfall: Chapters Review: Some stories are better left untold
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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