Coming as a sequel to The Longest Journey and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Dreamfall Chapters is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign that saw the original episodic release happen on PC between October 2014 and June 2016. It’s now made its way in complete form to console with both a digital and physical release, though it remains to be seen how a 3 year old game with none of the prequel story being available is received. Will the fact that it’s set in both a cyberpunk future AND a fantasy realm give us something unique to sink our teeth into?
Dreamfall Chapters starts by assuming that you know what the hell is happening after the other two games in the series, and because of that it’s very disorienting in the opening prologue… who are Zoe and Kian? Why is one in a coma and one in prison? Who’s trying to kill them? And what in the world is going on with Dreamachine addicts? It’s a short, sharp introduction to two completely different worlds that sets your brain running with a multitude of questions, some of which get answered quickly, some that don’t. It does serve to introduce you to the game mechanics though, and whilst they’re a fairly standard point and click style, it’s needed so that you grasp that this is a fully explorable 3D world rather than the usual 2D plane or fixed camera angles. Expect some surreal imagery and twisting of the world around you… dreaming is central to the events going on in the different universes.
The first part of Dreamfall Chapters keeps you constrained to learn the basics, then things open up quite significantly, particularly for Zoe, with a whole section of a future interpretation of a European city to explore and enjoy. It’s here that the choice and consequence system makes itself really known for the first time. During the prologue there’s a symbol and message that appears: “The Balance Has Shifted”; and pops up each time you make a decision that will have an impact of the story further down the line. Whether it’s through your actions or a dialogue choice, you can alter the path of the story and fit it uniquely to you. You might simply end up in a different job in Zoe’s case, or incarcerated forever when you’re Kian… which will end the game by the way. Given that there’s not really any pressures in the actual gameplay other than puzzle solving, it’s refreshing that your actions (or inactions) can end things early. At least there are multiple autosaves to fall back on.
Exploration and puzzles make up the lion’s share of the gameplay in Dreamfall Chapters, and those familiar with Telltale’s recent games will feel right at home, but there’s a significant difference. Here, there’s a need to be particularly observant and immersed in the character’s situation to figure out how to proceed. Take one example early on in the first part of the story – you have to board a boat to speak to progress, and the only way past is to provide a gift. You only hold cash, and are given no instruction at all on what the gift should be, so it’s either spend hours trawling the city trying to find something to interact with, or start paying attention to what vendors are selling, and even who they’re bartering with. This observational puzzle solving coupled with traditional item combining really does tax your thinking at times, and even left me wondering if the game had glitched on occasion (it never had, it was just my brain freezing).
With 5 “Books” to play through, and a prologue and epilogue, there’s around 20 hours on offer in Dreamfall Chapters, and the majority of that is exposition. Sorry for those of you that don’t like dialogue heavy games, that is the core experience here. It’s an epic tale spanning dimensions and questioning the nature of dreaming, of course it’s not going to be light on explanation, though some of it is skippable. Take the backstory from the first two games, you can pick that up whilst in a therapy session if you choose to find out what you remember of your past – a nice touch for recapping events. Or you could decide that it’s not important to your motivation and just move on. With the themes of choice and consequence being central to the game, it’s crucial that you have that feeling of influencing the story, and it’s managed really well by the dev team with the way they’ve structured and designed everything. It’s a game with heavy subtext covering birth, life, death, loss, relationships and politics, but it manages to stay relatively upbeat with humour ranging from the slapstick to the ultra-dry most of the way through.
Building the worlds are key to your immersion in the unfolding events, and you buying into the decision making process. On the whole, Red Thread Games have created a believable set of environments, detailed enough to have you accept the visions you’re presented with. On PC I’m sure these are amazing areas to walk around, though on PS4 they simply look fantastic until you decide to move somewhere. Dreamfall Chapters is built with the Unity engine, and it really struggles maintaining frame rate in most places – sometimes even single rooms with little interactivity or occupancy – and pop-in for shadows and even objects happens pretty often. You almost forgive it in the “open world” areas full of NPCs and little environmental details, it’s just disappointing that 3 year old software hasn’t been optimised for the current generation of consoles. At least the audio is spot on with an amazingly atmospheric and emotional soundtrack to back up the story (which also comes separately with the digital version of the game), and a suite of aural delights that bring the worlds to life. It’s ups and downs in terms of technical prowess, though there’s no denying that in certain places it’s a truly beautiful looking game.
With this definitive release of Dreamfall Chapters there’s no waiting around for additional episodes to come out, you can experience the story from start to finish… and it’s a good thing given the 2 years that PC gamers had to wait to see it out to conclusion. Coming from a Norwegian studio there’s an expectation of a cleverly woven yet slow paced story, and it doesn’t fail to deliver on that front. If you’re looking for a deep narrative experience that challenges you to think logically then this is something you should be seriously considering. On the other hand, this isn’t a game for those with a lack of time or patience, so bear that in mind if you’re tempted to dive into this dream-centric sci-fi fantasy adventure.
A PS4 review copy of Dreamfall Chapters was provided by the Red Thread Games PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £24.99.