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‘Dreamfall : the longest journey’ review (PC)

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006).
Windows, PC version.  All screenshots made by me.

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Part One:

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006) is a complex science-fiction adventure-story game, set in the year 2219.

The American dream has finally collapsed under the weight of venal Big Government, criminal gangs, and drug-fuelled corruption. The United States limps on in one corner, namely the Japan-facing seaboard mega-city of Newport (a merging of Seattle and Vancouver). In Newport there’s a dysfunctional gangsterish economy, the trains are still running, and amid the drug-riddled slums some luxury shops and clubs are still open — for those who can loot enough money from someone else to pay for their pleasures.

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Yet this is nothing compared to the European Union, which has been devastated and near-destroyed by the final cumulative effect of the collapse in the continental birth rate. London, England still exists in fairly good shape — but mainland Europe lies in a pitiable state of near-desertion, with large parts of the once-grand EU capital of Europolis reduced to a near-wreck. Most of Russia has simply ceased to exist, largely reverted to impenetrable wilderness dotted with ruined factories. Japan was also devastated by population decline, but kept functioning by robots it now specialises in supplying advanced robot companions and robot workers. India’s massive population saved it and it now supplies bio-based and renewable technologies. Crippled by an infernal bureaucracy, the industrialised coast of China seems to languish as little more than a cheap manufacturing hub for a civilised Africa and Japan.

Educated Americans and Europeans have long since fled North America and Europe to colonise Africa en-masse, from Casablanca to Cape Town. In little more than a century their work ethic and technology turned a unified Africa into the world’s major high-tech capitalist superpower.

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Then came the mysterious “collapse” in 2209, when contact with earth’s space-stations and space colonies was abruptly terminated, and manned flight in anti-gravity craft became somehow impossible, possibly due to what people called “the static”. Neural-implant communication devices also stopped working. This interruption was temporary, and African civilisation quickly recovered — but the “collapse” allowed the emergence of a mysterious international Syndicate, a powerful police-like limiter on aspects of the free market with a hi-tech paramilitary police force to back up its decisions. Neural-implants were forbidden and Wire-based mobile phones became standard.

The new player of Dreamfall doesn’t know any of this (unless they read the fine print in the manual, which gives a sketch of part of it) when they play past the introduction and first meet the young Zoe Castillo, in the year 2219 on the peaceful back-streets of the sunny north African city of Casablanca.

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Zoe, however, must know all of what I’ve recounted above. She is the daughter of widowed father Gabriel, a prosperous British bio-engineer about to depart for a long business trip around the Indian bio-tech labs. A confused but resourceful adolescent, Zoe cannot yet settle to any one of the many choices which her advanced society offers her. After her father leaves on his business trip Zoe agrees to collect a package for her ex-boyfriend — a fresh-faced hard-working journalist — as part of a mysterious news story he’s investigating. The story may or may not have something to do with the strange “static” that has started to interfere with the omnipresent Wire (a highly advanced locative Internet). And so the game begins… so far, no real plot-spoilers.

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Only the story really began in the previous game, an acclaimed but convoluted Myst-style point-and-click adventure called The Longest Journey (1999) (15-hour video full-run) which unfortunately doesn’t play nicely with Windows 7 and is limited to 640×480 (although the Steam version should suit a small Windows XP netbook perfectly). And the story will be continued and concluded in a circa-2012 series of episodic downloadable “episodes”, Dreamfall Chapters. And there’s not one world in this game, but two. The alternate world is Arcadia, a medieval realm of magic, swords and alchemy. Arcadia split away from Zoe’s world thousands of years in the past and never developed into a modern world. But there are mysterious dimensional links between these two worlds… Dreamfall, it seems, is Atlas Shrugged meets Snow Crash meets Narnia.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey can apparently be rushed through in about 20 hours, and finished in around four or five evenings of play if you’re a skilled gamer. I’m just starting it, and am about six hours in — hence this review is only ‘Part One’. The quality of the graphics is outstanding on the PC, especially the lighting design and place-making, and the game looks better on the PC than many titles published in 2009. The game runs in widescreen at 1920 x 1200 with ease, offers the option of using ultra high-res textures and effects, natively supporting 8x full-screen anti-aliasing, and accepting 16x forced anisotropic filtering via the Nvidia control panel. The world just looks consistently superb, even if some of the character and hair models used are stuck in 2006. The highly professional sound-design brings the environments alive in a subtle but consistent way. The voice acting is also well polished, at least in the English version. Apparently the game is hugely popular in Russia, and a Russian version is also available.

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What lets Dreamfall down badly is the camera view. The camera is the worst I have ever encountered in a game, and the PC version is simply unplayable if the default camera is not radically adjusted before starting the game. Thankfully, the fans have posted a reliable way of adjusting the camera on the PC version, although even then it’s still not perfect. The game’s other major problem is that it wants you to run everywhere, Lara Croft style. When what you really want to do in these compact, beautifully designed and lit spaces is simply to walk quietly, gazing and thinking. If you accept the default set-up you can walk, but you have to keep the SHIFT button pressed down, and only then after you start running. It’s awkward and infuriating, and constantly drags you away from maintaining a sense of immersion. Still, it could be worse — apparently console players didn’t even get a “walk” button to press, and had to run around and slam into walls like a hyperactive sugared-up 10-year-old all the time. So an Xbox controller is probably not that useful with this PC game, although in some other ways it’s said to improve it. How the default camera and controls ever made it past the play-testing dept. I can’t imagine. Such vital game-breaking matters have not been fixed by the one very minor PC patch released in the last three years.

Only after about six hours of play did I look at the manual again, and realise that one can force Zoe to walk rather than run — by using the mouse as a controller. Set up the camera as recommended in the above link, but then in the Options menu switch Mouse mode to “Movement”. It feels somewhat unfamiliar for a few minutes, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Nudge the mouse forward gently and Zoe starts walking rather than running. Now you can move around and admire the view at the same time. Although you may need to switch back for the infrequent fight scenes.

Part two soon….

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3 comments on “‘Dreamfall : the longest journey’ review (PC)

  1. […] aimed at the kiddie market, the storyline is from Ragnar Tornquist — creator of the excellent Dreamfall: The Longest Journey — which might give it some adult appeal. The game goes live in April 2012. There’s some […]

  2. […] with Ragnar Tornquist‎ (Longest Journey, Dreamfall) on the forthcoming online game-world The Secret […]

  3. […] The Kickstarter for the long-awaited game Dreamfall: Chapters is now live, and has already met nearly half its funding goal with 28 days to go. It’s the sequel to the acclaimed The Longest Journey and Dreamfall (my Dreamfall review is here). […]

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