Not as memorable as its predecessor
Ever since I first heard there was a new Nights game in the works for the Nintendo Wii, I was filled with joy. One of the most magical feeling games I remember playing was going to be kept alive. In fact, I would go so far as to declare that Nights was one of the main two selling points that made me eventually pick up my own Wii. Man, was I naive.
It's not that I feel like I was conned or mislead into believing this would be just as remarkable as the first – the problem is that I wasn't being as realistic as I should have been. When I remember soaring through the skies of Nightopia around a decade ago, I remember the awesome feeling I got out of just playing the game. The music was spectacular and the game play mechanics were excellent (for the time being), but I still couldn't precisely put my finger on what it was that made playing it feel so good. Much like when listening to an amazing song that speaks to you or viewing a powerful film, you get an amazing feeling without being completely capable of analyzing what it is that is so powerful about it. Perhaps, it is just the unlikely coincidence of sounds that suit the sights, and sights that suit the senses. Whatever the case may be, I regret to say that Journey of Dreams does not do its predecessor justice. Whatever was responsible for shaping the amazing sensation of playing the original Nights game now remains hidden a decade in the past.
In some ways I actually now feel that Nights would better be glorified solely as a memory, as opposed to a stagnating series of average games. In any event, Sonic Team has taken a less conservative approach by reviving an eleven year old legend. The new Nights game, Journey of Dreams, not only shows a wide array of signs indicating its growth, but a considerable number of gaming aspects that seem oddly out of place in today's era of gaming.
If you are unfamiliar with Nights, or the latest installment, Journey of Dreams, the concept is pretty simple; you soar through the skies while trying to maneuver as elegantly as possible to glide inside loops and earn points by collecting orbs. You take the role of a fantasy like creature (or entity) called, “Nights”. Well, technically, you take the role of one of two children, Will, and Helen, and through fusing with Nights you are capable of flying through the fantasy worlds created by the each child's dreams. The worlds you explore are depictions of the child's dreams and innermost thoughts and worries. While Nights indirectly helps the children address their worries and overcome the hurdles in their life, the children help Nights defeat the Nightmarens and restore peace to Nightopia. The premise sounds nice enough, but all of the little details seem tacked together and kind of bland.
The game-play is incredibly similar to it's predecessor, for better or for worse. Much like the classic Nights, of a time almost long forgotten, all flight is “on rails”. That is to say, flight is not free motion and you cannot go in any direction you desire. Instead, you have a predetermined route which you follow merely instructing Nights to fly rightward, or leftward to go back. Most of the levels are compromised of having to chase down a bird with a key, lather, rinse and repeat a few times. Actually, quite often the purpose behind what you are doing in each level is quite unclear or without much merit or purpose. But hey, flying around is still quite a bit of fun.
Controlling Nights can be done by using every possible Wii input device there is. If you want to, you can use solely the Wii remote and hold down the A button while aiming in the direction you want Nights to fly. It sounds simple enough in theory, but it isn't incredibly accurate and is a bit more of a hassle to pull off then one might think. My guess is, you aren't going to find that too comfortable and will resort to one of the other alternatives. Controlling Nights in the classic sense can be done with the analog stick on either the nunchuck, the Wii classic controller, and even a Gamecube controller. Since Nights is basically just a one button game anyhow (aside from directional controls that is), it really doesn't make much of a difference. If you have a preference for a favorite analog stick, then the choice is yours. Unfortunately, that just doesn't make it much better.
Personally, I preferred using the analog stick of either the nunchuck or the classic controller, but I was still quite frustrated from time to time at how imprecise it felt at performing mundane tasks. In all fairness, I think I should boldly state that I am not the biggest fan of the Wii's analog stick. It's my general feeling that Nintendo has never made a half-decent analog stick (sorry, Nintendo fanboys), which is something that comes to bite Nights in the ass as a result. For one thing, the Wii analog sticks are enclosed within an octagonal shape, which makes creating a smooth circular gesture problematic. I also encountered a far more annoying problem with using the nunchuck, and it was a real kick in the teeth. The rubber material is good, but not great. This leads to my thumb losing grip and needing to be readjusted periodically. Because of this, a certain level where you must hit musical notes on time became incredibly difficult, merely as a result of not getting a good enough hold of the controller. In all fairness, I don't want to judge Nights, or the developers, over this pitfall, since I feel that problem was more hardware based than software based. But in any case, while having a perfect grasp may seem trivial in most Wii games, I found it to be far too unforgiving in Nights. Sadly, nothing about the control scheme felt like it was in anyway Wii-specific, which makes me think Sega only went this route because of a more family-oriented market and lower expectations on the visual realm of things.
While I do love video games of all kinds on every platform imaginable, I don't want my open-minded approach to be hindered by treating a particular platform with any dose of immunity. With that said, I expected a lot more of the visuals in Journey of Dreams. Maybe I am just far too used to gaming on the Xbox 360 and PS3 and my standards are much higher than the Wii seems to be capable of. In any event, the graphics of Journey of Dreams cannot come close to rivaling even the most mediocre titles on the Xbox 360 or PS3. Most of, if not all, of the character models are low-polygon. I was surprised to see some obvious, jagged edges on Nights, which even my expectations would not have predicted. At several points I actually felt that the graphics felt more like a N64 or Gamecube title. Most of the textures are low resolution as well, which doesn't make things any better. In all fairness, the graphics have definitely improved over the original, but only by a real minor step, and nowhere near where one might expect after ten years of technological evolution. Fortunately, the creative minds at Sonic Team once again paint beautiful scenery with their imaginations as the palettes. Most of the levels are bright and colorful, and just along the lines of what you are probably used to. Each level hosts a number of abstract themes which definitely do a great job in giving the game personality and originality. It's just a bit of a shame that the details could use quite a bit of work.
At least the music delivers to what a fan of Nights might expect. While some of the tunes may not be as memorable as the original, the score definitely feels like Nights. I may be mistaken, but it also appears as if some of the original music, or at least certain melodies from the original score, have been remixed. If you're just thinking, “re-used content; what a rip off!”, hold on a moment. The music is fresh and original, but there are a few tunes that have been mixed up a bit, and it is my opinion that this was a good choice, considering how good the music in Nights is. For the most part, the music is pretty sounding and fits the fantasy theme of Nights to a T. The real downer with the music, and sound overall, is the horribly lame and scary pop song at the end with lyrics. I really wish I could pay a visit to the studios and shake some soldiers while exclaiming, “what were you thinking?”. Seriously, when I first heard the music's pace picking up and the voices coming in, I became quite disturbed. Maybe it's just my pop-phobia , but that poppy song at the end really rubbed me the wrong way.
First of all, it was interesting to hear Nights as well as Will and Helen speaking with a British accent. Then again, a tower resembling Big Ben appears on the cover, so it probably won't come as a shock to most of you. Oh, and let me point out that I have nothing wrong with the British voice-overs. In fact, I think it gives Nights more of a personality. In a way, I'd really hate to hear such a fantasy creature speaking with an average American dialect. Perhaps, “yo! wuzzup kidz? ya'll ready to fly witch me?”. Nah, that wouldn't do either. The British accents work well; that isn't the problem. Some of the dialog is overly exaggerated, and the owl sounds both corny and annoying. He comes off as even more annoying because they slap on pointless one-worders. You know, where he only speaks a single word, like “visitor”, yet the dialog has a lot more to say. Actually, I was hoping for a level where I'd have to chase around the owl and then tear all his feathers off, because he was really starting to get on my nerves. Anyhow, it doesn't help that a lot of the dialog is cheesy. All in all, I'd say that the voice-over work is just on par; it has its ups and its downs. This is a family game geared at a general audience, so I'm not too sure what else you could do with the voice-over tones and dialog without running the risk of coming off too oriented towards a specific audience.
As you complete a realm of levels in Journey of Dreams, you unlock and “Ideya”, which gives Nights the ability to morph into one of three different forms. Nights can transform into a dolphin - which allows him to go under water, a rocket – which allows Nights to blast around at super speeds, and even a dragon – which allows you to avoid the effects of wind, which would otherwise prevent you from advancing at certain parts. It all sounds good enough that the game-play provides you with the opportunity to get several feels for the game, but the truth is none of these forms feel all that special or satisfying. Generally, you won't even bother with changing to the alternate forms, except on the few rare occasions where it is necessary to advance in a level. In terms of simple enjoyment, the forms do little to add to the enjoyment of game play, and feel like nothing more than a necessary extension you are required to rely on at certain points. It's a shame because, it could have been a real treat to play as the special variants of Nights, but it really didn't feel that different than playing as Nights.
Journey of Dreams, while an enjoyable and unique, is not without its annoyances. Fortunately, most of them are fairly trivial things which do little to hamper the overall feeling you will get from playing the game. But since, I am trying to portray a clear overview of what to expect, it is foolish to ignore them as if they aren't there. First of all, Journey of Dreams doesn't believe in checkpoints. If you fail a mission, you have to restart from the beginning. This isn't so bad for most levels, but there are several levels in which a boss fight is slapped on at the end of the level. If you happen to fail the battle against the boss, then you will need to repeat the entire level again in order just to get to the boss. Not the most pleasant situation to be in, when levels can take around 5-10 minutes to complete, which means you will be replaying a lot of game-play anytime you mess things up. Whether you fumble or not, you will redo boss fights several times, which comes off as rather dull the second or third time going at it. There are not many bosses in the game, so instead you redo boss fights with slight changes to make them harder. Apparently, the developers were either short on time, or they didn't think anyone would notice. I did, and I wish there was more of a variety.
Cut scenes also cannot be skipped. Well, strike that – most of the cut scenes can't be skipped. There are a few clips which can be skipped, but the majority of all the story based cut scenes are forced, which makes replacing parts more tedious than necessary. Then again, this is hardly something to throw a bit fit over since Nights isn't an extremely challenging game and won't have you wanting to skip scenes too often anyhow.
One of the absolute biggest bummers, which I regret to inform you of, is the length of the game. While you have the opportunity to play as both Will and Helen, who each have their own story and individual levels, it still won't take very long. I completed both of the story modes in under four hours combined! It feels as though the developers put far too much of an emphasis on scores and ranks to compensate as “replay value”. That doesn't do it for me, because I am not too concerned with earning a specific ranking for each level, when the reward for doing so is so negligible. Fortunately, you will have the opportunity to soar through the skies of Nightopia with a friend, since Journey of Dreams has multi-player support. Still, it's not the most exhilarating multi-player game, so it doesn't do very much for the game's life span.
The emphasis on how many points you earn, and what rank you complete the level in feels dated. That sort of thing was all fine and dandy ten years ago, but gamers today expect a bit more than arbitrary scoring systems to fill their needs. Another dated concept is the irrelevant and unnecessary time limits. Why are we being timed here while chasing around a bird with a key? Is a bomb going to go off? Is someone in urgent need of rescuing? What's the big hurry? It feels like a game revolving around time limits and how many points you earn is slightly out of place in today's gaming world. Once upon a time, this is what gamers wanted and loved, but today we expect logical explanations for why the time limits are there, and a reason for striving to achieve X number of points. That is not to say that Nights is way off base, but it definitely does seem to be showing signs its age.
I like Nights. I like the concept of it. I like the music, and I like the fantasy worlds. I like its innocent nature and the ability to fly around without any consideration about defeating foes. No matter how bad Sonic Team may manage to desecrate this legend, I will still stand by, patriotically, and go down with the sinking ship. Journey of Dreams doesn't do its predecessor justice, but it at least rekindles the nostalgic feelings of a truly original and unique game. It has its flaws, and I am well aware of them, but there is also a good time to be had, if at least for only a short while. It's worth checking out if you know what you are getting into, or if you just want to try something fresh and unique. If you don't set your expectations too high you will still manage to have a good time.
Overall Score: 6.3
Gameplay: (7) Classic nights game-play just as you would expect. The control schemes all feel a bit off and could use some fine tuning.
Graphics: (7) Not very high in polygon count and some low resolution textures. At least many of the levels are really pretty.
Sound: (7) Great music which definitely feels like Nights. Voice acting is on par, and the owl needs to be spanked.
Lasting Appeal: (4) Way too short! Complete both story lines in under 5 hours combined. Fortunately, there is multi-player support, though it does little to extend the game's life.