It's been a long wait, but fans can finally see a resolution to the cliffhanger ending of 2006's Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Although the wait for Dreamfall Chapters isn't quite as long as some other adventure games, eight years comes pretty close, and the game's development shows how dedicated fans are. However, Reborn is the first part in a five-part episodic adventure, so players will still need to stick to it a while longer before seeing a full resolution to Zoe Castillo and Kian's journeys.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Dreamfall Chapters continues the saga that was started with The Longest Journey and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The story involves two parallel worlds, a future society that follows the rules of science (Stark), which is effectively our world but set in the year 2219. Then there's a parallel world called Arcadia, where magic exists, and the two worlds are separated by a metaphysical divide called the Balance. In Stark, an entertainment device that allows lucid dreams has taken hold and is trapping its users in nightmares. Zoe has the power to enter into dreams and help victims break out, but she's trapped in the dream world due to an artificially induced coma. The dream device ties into a greater plot that holds the fates of both Stark and Arcadia together.
Even if you don't take into account how Dreamfall Chapters is a crowdfunded game, there can be little doubt that it was developed with longtime players in mind. Although the game makes some effort to bring new players up to speed, there's no shaking the sense that playing Reborn is like sitting down to the third act of a movie. The plot moves well enough, but it assumes some connection or knowledge of established characters, especially the protagonists Zoe Castillo and Kian. I was eventually able to settle into the game well enough to enjoy it, but it did make some of the supporting characters and Zoe's motivations a little difficult to relate to.
Dialogue choices are supplemented with an internal monologue that gives insight into the character's thoughts, but they can only help so much, especially when characters like Zoe are facing an identity crisis. In one scene, I have to decide whether or not Zoe (who recently woke up from her coma) should try to recover her lost memories, even if it jeopardizes the life she's currently building for herself. Except, the game skips over all the details, so I had no idea what her life looked like until after the scene (and the decision point) were over.
I often felt like an outsider looking into this world, especially when at the monument that memorializes the Collapse, a pivotal event that's only vaguely mentioned. Although Zoe keeps a running diary, the game could benefit greatly from a gallery with character and major event descriptions.
Similar to other recent adventure games like The Walking Dead, Dreamfall Chapters has multiple decision points that will determine how things will play out later on in the series. Almost none of the decision points play out in this episode, and the consequences of your actions won't be realized until future episodes release. The only meaningful decision appears to be whether or not Zoe pursues a career that related to her studies in the previous game or whether she begins her life anew. Sure, it's an important choice for Zoe's development, but not necessarily one that would impress on a new player, who probably wouldn't feel strongly one way or another.
Sometimes, the decisions are subtle and you don't know that you've done something important until after you do it. A prime example is deciding whether to encourage Zoe's boyfriend to embark on a culinary adventure by picking up some pork sausages for his lunch or going with plain grilled cheese. Decisions that impact the Balance are represented by a emblem that appears on the top of the screen, but solutions aren't always straightforward and may be decided accidentally. For example, an organized crime member was shaking down one of my friends, and I stepped closer to see what was going on, which caused me to intervene. I suppose I probably would have chosen to intervene if presented with the decision directly, but there really should have been some sort of internal dialogue to show that Zoe has a choice between stepping in or staying far back without getting involved.
Lost in the Real World
If nothing else, Dreamfall Chapters features from truly wonderful characters and graphics. Walking through the streets of Propast (in Stark) is fantastic experience, with a population from different cultures, set in the far future, but still very recognizable. It's too bad the Arcadia sequence is so short, and almost all of it is spent breaking out of a drab prison. There's very little sense of Kian's character and history.
Some of the characters are quite colorful too, although I don't feel as though I got enough of an impression of Zoe's boyfriend, Reza, to decide whether or not their relationship was worth saving. The voice acting is top notch, especially for Zoe. My favorite part of the episode involved testing out a beat-up refurbished robot with severe anxiety issues and no interpersonal skills. However, the emphasis on Propast's political climate might be a bit much for some people to take in, especially since it's set in a fictional sci-fi future with so much else going on.
Despite the game's decision points, it is a pretty linear game. There are no side missions, and some of the campaign objectives can be a little vague. One in particular had me running around all over town in hopes of finding one person. Some actions require some trial and error, especially at the start of the game when Zoe is traveling through the dream world. Her different powers are represented by icons, which don't make sense until after you've used them a few times. Furthermore, the keyboard and mouse controls can get a little unwieldy, making it difficult to select actions when timing is required, so I ended up playing the majority of the game using a gamepad.
With the exception of one or two scenes, the Dreamfall Chapters: Reborn is almost all setup for later episodes. It's even concluded by a somewhat bizarre interlude involving a very talented baby. There's no singular sub-plot to resolve - it's more like a meet-and-greet / catch-up episode - so Reborn doesn't quite stand up on its own. However, it does plant the seeds that I look forward to seeing develop in future installments.
These impressions are based on a PC code provided by the developer. Dreamfall Chapters is available digitally for $29.99, and we will provide a full review after all the episodes are released.