Players of the Dreamfall Chapters may find that more than a little research is necessary to enjoy the game's finer points.
Dreamfall Chapters, Book One: RebornPublisher: Red Thread Games
Number of players: 1
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Red Thread Games
Release Date: 2014-10-21
It's been a long time. The Longest Journey, one of the best point-and-click adventure games ever made, was released in 2000. Then a sequel of sorts, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, an often overlooked mess of a masterpiece, came out in 2006. Now at the tail end of 2014, fans have finally had the opportunity to play the sequel to Dreamfall (but not to the original The Longest Journey) with the first episode of the sequel (each episode is referred to as a “book”) of the kickstarted Dreamfall Chapters.
The opening book is a strange animal. There's a lot to take in in this episode, and yet, nothing much happens. Were I to explain the basic premise of the milieu, it would sound more understandable than it really is. While the premise of the game makes sense, it isn't really focused on the same thing as what the series has ultimately been interested in.
There are two parallel worlds. One of science, our world, known as Stark, and the world of magic, known as Arcadia. Stark is a future cyberpunk world, not a dystopia, just a world like ours, and it is as messed up and chaotic as ever. Arcadia is a renaissance period fantasy world made up of multiple species and kingdoms. These two world are kept separate and functioning by a force known as the Balance.
See, easy to explain.
Any other series would use this milieu as a backdrop for a grand conflict between good and evil. While conflicts between such forces have popped up, kind of, in The Longest Journey and in the original Dreamfall, such conflicts have never been the central focus of these games, despite what we have been trained to expect from speculative fiction. The adventures of the previous games were about young women having to come to terms with family problems and issues of self worth through the lens of such grander conflicts.
However, in focusing on nuance, the series has built up quite a complex mythology and history that now must be dealt with. For example, in Acradia, the city Marcuria was invaded by a horde of someones at the halfway point in The Longest Journey, when April Ryan, the main character of that game, is about to leave the city. In Dreamfall, we find that the horde was fended off by a nation of zealots, the Azadi, who now maintain their position as an occupying force committed to nation building. And now in Dreamfall Chapters we find that corruption has seeped into the local provisional government. That's a single aspect of the worldbuilding that has been created over three games, and while such an issue has never been the central focus of the stories being told in these games, this information is important to understand what is going on in the plot in general.
Dreamfall Chapters adds a whole lot more detail about the world's larger socio-political situation. The political elections of Europolis get quite a bit of focus as one of the game's protagonists, Zoë Castillo, is working for one of the candidate's local campaign offices. Europolis represents a unified European nation (or city-state) minus Great Britain. Oh and an example of utopia in this world? The unified nation of Africa, a major city of which is Casablanca, where a good portion of the action took place in Dreamfall. As for the first game, it took place in Venice, a city I'm pretty sure was located in Connecticut.
I'm not throwing all this information at you because it's necessary (it is kind of), but rather as an example of what this opening episode is chock full of. On the one hand, none of this detail is presented in a simple info dump. Everything that you learn is either part of a task, part of character building, part of problem solving, or emerges in ambient chatter in the game world. Dreamfall Chapters is so confident about itself that it presents all these myriad, complex concepts as things accepted by the people of the world. Which is great for the fiction, but does make the beginning of such a story a bit stifling. Even coming in as a fan of the series and someone who has played the other two games relatively recently, I found that at certain points I was floundering to keep up.The game throws you into the deep end of a foreign land and expects you to know local customs while you're just playing it by ear, though that does work in part in the game's favor.
The game opens where Dreamfall left off 8 years ago. Zoë Castillo is in a coma, and her spirit trapped in an in between realm known as Storytime. The conspiracy of the last game, while thwarted, didn't stop some damaging dream devices from being sold en masse on the open market. Zoë has to wake upto try to stop the destruction of both Stark and Arcadia. However, she wakes up with no memory of the events of her previous adventure and her present mission. Meanwhile, in Arcadia, you play as Kian Alvane, a now ex-elite Azadi soldier who has been scheduled to be executed as a result of events that occurred in Dreamfall. He gets one scene in this episode and is perfectly emblematic of what I think of every scene in this episode.
It will matter later. That seems to be the guiding mantra of Reborn. Dreamfall Chapters isn't an episodic game in which each episode can be enjoyed by itself while building an overall narrative with each subsequent episode. It is a chapter of a book. Plot threads are left dangling, relationships are left hanging, and conversations are ambiguous because the game will deliver at some point in the future. Right now, the game is seeding mysteries without suggesting a defined arc of its own. Kian has his jail break scene and then is transported through a portal, not to be seen again this book. It will matter later.
I have no idea what someone with no knowledge of the series is going to think of Dreamfall Chapters. There is a handy video in the main menu that sums up the important plot points of Dreamfall, but it only touches on the big things. A lot of the work in these games has been in the fine details. Zoë may have amnesia when she wakes up from the coma, but there are points in the game when you are expected to know what happened in detail in Dreamfall in order to understand some dramatic irony or to produce a sense of tension about what is going on. I'm also pretty sure that as lost I felt at times that it's going to be a whole lot worse for someone without even a hint of what's in store for them.
After a prologue and two chapters (yes, each episode is further subdivided), Book One: Reborn ends with an interlude section that caused me to go back to The Longest Journey to reconsider what I was seeing. This interlude makes a bit more sense after reconsidering it in the context of the first game and looks to be an interesting and mysterious addition to the whole, but it loses a bit of its impact if I have to go do research to know where this little bit is actually taking place.
Episodic games like last year's The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead Season Two continue to redefine what I think of as a game that you can't play in pieces as opposed to ones that can be enjoyed episodically. Dreamfall Chapters pushes my conception of the difference between the two even further. The whole point of this release schedule paradigm was so that each book could be enjoyed in parts, yet it seems that idea may be one that this game's presentation of information may make somewhat difficult to do.