Go and talk to person A. Now talk to person B. Now back to person A. Now talk to person C. Now talk to person D to get object X. Back to person A. Back to person B. Now talk to person E... (continues ad nauseum
In my entire first visit to Arcadia, the fantastical world that contributes half the setting of Dreamfall
, I didn't make a single decision or solve a single puzzle. Instead, the game fed me a string of explicit or implicit instructions on what I should do next. When a puzzle finally bothered to turn up, the game practically leapt up and down in its efforts to show me the solution, reducing the act of solving it to yet another follow-the-instruction exercise. After tolerating this for over an hour, I shut the game down in disgust and looked it up on Metacritic. I felt that reading some of the critical drubbings handed out to it would soothe my frustration.
The Metacritic score for Dreamfall
is 75%. The ration of positive to negative reviews is 26:2.
Maybe I'm becoming a cranky old man who is increasingly out of touch, but... really
Is following instructions good gameplay? Can I put together some IKEA shelves and then exclaim, “wow, that game was fun!”. Certainly I've had more head-scratching puzzles presented to me by flatpack furniture instructions than in the whole nine hours of Dreamfall
It's not as though the game is much better in its other sections. Throughout, the puzzles are almost offensively easy to solve. In one location, a mysterious set-up of statues and symbols taunted me with the half-promise that I would have to do some serious thinking to progress. And then I turned a corner and discovered... well... the solution
. Just sitting there, waiting for me to go back and do the busy work of implementing it.
Even these very easy puzzles are occasionally so badly implemented as to defy belief. One puzzle required me to recreate a tune I had previously heard, but the game had allowed me to remove
the source of the tune from the game. Unable to remember what the tune had been, and without any means of hearing the tune again, I was completely unable to progress. On two other occasions I realised the puzzle solution instantly, but the game was so pedantic about how I went about it that I had to trial-and-error my way to taking the correct action. It reminded me of early text-parser games where you needed to type in multiple different phrases before the game finally understood what you wanted to do.
And when the game isn't insulting you with non-puzzles, it asks you to slog through some typically dull and clunky fighting and stealth sections. I understand that when adventure games began falling out of mainstream favour, developers thought they needed to sex up their games with this stuff, but did it always have to be so badly implemented? The best fighting strategy turns out to be 'press forward and mash the quick-attack button until victory', and I found the best sneak strategy to be 'try not to die of boredom while watching your character inch like a lethargic snail towards their objective'.
So... why the good reviews?
Well, the passive elements of this game are generally very good. The plot is intriguing, and becomes genuinely gripping once it gets into gear. Budget limitations make the locations feel pretty sparse, but they're beautifully stylish and full of distinctive characters. Voice acting is good throughout, though I found the main character (Zoe)'s voice to be somewhat tepid and unconvincing during more emotional scenes. The dialogue is usually great, and skilfully conveys character in just a few lines. I can certainly see many people playing this game, falling in love with the characters, getting hooked on the plot, and coming away feeling they just played something wonderful.
But they didn't. They watched a lot of wonderful things, they heard a lot of wonderful things, but they didn't play
much of any worth. Especially near the end where the developers once again stop bothering with this whole 'game' thing and go back to 'Talk to A, talk to B, talk to C...' interspersed with dramatic cutscenes.
And the sadder truth is that even the plotting and characters aren't good enough to warrant the skew towards positive reviews on Metacritic. I understand the game was scaled down from a more ambitious vision due to budget restrictions, but it has left some odd effects. One of the player characters undergoes a crucial and transformative change in perspective, but the reasons for this whoosh by without examination, which makes the change feel cheap and contrived. As the plot develops, you can see that the writers are aiming to explore a theme, but its all very muddy as to what they're trying to say, if anything. The end of the story is a huge 'To be continued...' with only one plot element resolved satisfactorily, though even that left me wishing for more detail.
Irritatingly, there are hints of something better here. Early in the game, I was given a set of choices in a dialogue tree that I saw would take the scene in different directions. I made what I felt was a smart choice, and was pleased to see the result. Suddenly, I was playing
: using my wits to make a decision and see what happened. Even now, I wonder what would have happened had I chosen the other
option. These choices pop up later too, though they are unfortunately few, infrequent, and generally of little consequence. Having watched the developer introduction to Dreamfall: Chapters
, I am hopeful that this avenue will be explored to its full extent in the sequel.
if you're a sucker for reasonably well-told fantasy stories and you don't mind not having an active role to play in the experience. But if you think 'interactive entertainment' should encompass the whole spirit of the phrase: avoid, avoid, avoid. My personal score on this is 4/10. Your mileage may vary.