Dreamfall Chapters: review

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  • Format: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Deep Silver/Red Thread Games
  • Developer: Red Thread Games
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://redthreadgames.com/games/chapters/
  • Game disc provided by the distributor

There’s a depth and breadth of imagination here – in terms of story, at least – that’s rarely seen. It’s a multi-dimensional tale that takes place across a dystopian sci-fi future, a world of sword-wielding soldiers and magical creatures, and the land of dreams that connects the two. It even has a few admirable stabs at tackling issues of prejudice and fascism. Dreamfall Chapters would probably make an excellent novel or TV series.

Unfortunately, it’s a videogame.

Both the successes and the failures of the project can be traced back to what appears to have been a very insular development process. For example, Chapters picks up directly from the end of the last Dreamfall game, The Longest Journey. About 95% of the new game can be easily followed and understood without having played the last one, which is great. The remaining 5%, however, involves important characters and significant plot points. TLJ was an Xbox & PC game released eleven years ago, meaning that a huge chunk of the potential console audience (especially for the PS4 version) won’t have played the last game. There’s a “story so far” hidden in the Extras menu, but it somehow manages to avoid explaining everything that isn’t already covered in the main game.

Still, the benefits of telling a story with tunnel vision is that the tale is told just as the creators intended, and Dreamfall Chapters has several high points. Originally released episodically on PC the game consists of five “books”, which are divided into thirteen chapters and an epilogue. Your time is spent with three playable characters, mostly Zoe Castillo (dimension-hopping woman from the futuristic Stark) and Kian Alvane (resident of olde-worlde land Arcadia). Both dimensions are drawing power from the land of dreams for nefarious purposes, and it’s up to you to stop it.

Dystopian Chinatown is a cliche, but at least it saves time in scene-setting.

Surprisingly perhaps, the ethereal land of dreams – “Storytime” – is largely neglected for gameplay, only featuring to any significant extent at the beginning of the game. You’ll spend a fair amount of time in Stark, a grim mix of wondrous technology and martial law. It must be said though that as the game progresses, you’ll begin to tire of walking the same streets. The feeling of being in a fascinating world you can only see a tiny portion of becomes frustrating.

Arcadia is, predictably, the least aesthetically interesting world (you’ll spend most of your time in a town that could have been lifted from any one of a million fantasy tales). It’s also where most of the story ends up being told. Just as well, then, that the writing is consistently good wherever you are. There are a few genuine surprises, some real laugh-out-loud lines in amongst the seriousness, and it’s good to see (some) villains given more texture than “me do bad thing because that what me want to do”.

Despite some inconsistent acting (even sometimes for the same character), individuals pop from the screen with unique personalities. There are three that stand miles apart from the rest of the cast. Your time in Stark is briefly improved immensely by the appearance of the delightfully named “Shitbot”. This comic relief automaton is pure delight, and deserves his own game. The very best character though is surely Enu, a magical Arcadian creature both sweet and ironically human that it’s impossible to imagine being written or acted any better. Also a standout character (though to a lesser extent) is Crow, a talking, er… crow.

There are several important, and neon signposted, decisions for you to make throughout the adventure that will have mostly unpredictable consequences further down the line. When we discovered that a past choice could potentially have resulted in Enu’s death, but we’d gone down the path that saved her, we felt genuine relief. These decisions are the only acts that give you any sort of true agency, though. It’s very rare to come across anything that could accurately be described as a puzzle and, although you’re regularly given dialogue options, your choices tend to be of little consequence. This is more of a story that you’re taken along on a ride for.

In fact, it almost seems as though the developers don’t know what to do with you at times. The second “interlude” mercilessly slaughters the pacing by sending you on a tedious fetch quest, a 3D equivalent of a hidden object game. The chapter which follows does much the same thing, requiring you to find something very specific that most people will probably miss – or spend far too much time looking for – without the help of Google. Things pick back up again after that, but it’s a very unwelcome dip.

It’s hard to deny that, even during the best moments, the script – good as it is – really needed to be handed to a ruthless editor. Many (arguably most) conversations are in need of a good trim. A trim that would have lifted the experience from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Speaking of cuts though, we greatly appreciate the two “deleted scenes” you can go back for after finishing the game (found in Extras), a fantastic idea that we’d love to see more developers adopt. It would’ve been nice to get a “what if” summary of the choices you didn’t make, though. This is a pretty lengthy and slow-paced game with huge swathes of unchangeable content, meaning many people won’t find a second playthrough particularly appealing.

We’re glad to have seen this story told, and it easily held our attention from start to finish. The various stumbles along the way, however – including character model faces unable to express more than two emotions (“indifference” and “aloofness”) – prove that it needed a bigger budget, harsher editing… and perhaps a different storytelling medium.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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