A great story marred by awful gameplay
Most games build gameplay from the ground up and add a story after that. Dreamfall, like most adventure games, has been designed in the opposite manner. It begins with the story and then fits a variety of gameplay elements into it. It's a good thing that Dreamfall has such an excellent story, because the gameplay ranges from broken to nonexistent. Once you strip away the lengthy cut scenes and dialog, what remains is an unsatisfying mix of painfully simple puzzles and half-baked stealth and fighting elements. Perhaps some day, somebody will figure out a way to revive this genre in a fresh way, but Dreamfall is not the game to do it.
In case you didn't know already, Dreamfall is the follow-up to the 2000 hit "The Longest Journey". In this story, we re-join April Ryan in Arcadia, and we are also introduced to a couple of other new characters. The lead character in this game is Zoe Castillo, an aimless and depressed college dropout who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, and now spends her days eating potato chips and watching soap operas in her underwear (her words). When her ex-boyfriend gets into trouble an approaches her for help, she embarks on an unforgettable journey, exposing a science fiction conspiracy and discovering an entire magical world. As video games stories go, the narrative in Dreamfall is superb. The characters are realistic, deep and memorable, and they invoke genuine feelings of sympathy. The main character, Zoe, is somebody that just about anyone can identify with. The mixture of 23rd Century sci-fi and a magic parallel world is a completely unique setting. The enthralling story is creative and totally unpredictable. A game like Dreamfall exposes just how cliché most video game stories actually are. You will never know what to expect next in this game. It entices you at every turn to discover what happens next.
Unfortunately, this great story comes at the expense of everything else that matters. It's not enough to say that the gameplay is sub-par, because half the time, there isn't anything there. A huge portion of this game involves nothing but clicking on characters to talk to them and watching a lengthy conversation. You can occasionally make dialog choices, but they don't have any effect upon the game. After you watch one conversation, you walk across the room and watch another conversation. Or, you walk across the room, watch a loading screen, and then watch another conversation.
Dialog and loading screens dominate Dreamfall. The loading screens are particularly annoying. Since this game was built for the underpowered original X-Box, it is filled with tiny levels that range in size from "shoebox" to "elevator". Most areas have only a few objects that you can interact with and maybe five or six NPC's (at the most), milling around. "Cities" are tiny areas that have four or five people selling stuff. The graphics don't fare much better. Thanks, once again, to the "lowest common denominator" design, low polygon counts and low quality, flat textures abound. The game's art direction is pretty good, but it can't overcome the outdated technology that the game was built for. The characters look kind of awkward too. They don't emote much at all and they don't move much when they talk, except for their eyeballs. Characters stand in place fixed while their eyes dart up and down, side to side, kind of like a Chuck E Cheese automaton. Some of the NPC's that you meet in the streets don't move their lips at all.
When you aren't walking back and forth or engaging in dialog, you are engaging in Dreamfall's painfully simple or underdeveloped gameplay. The puzzles are hardly puzzles. The game will usually tell you exactly what to do and then give you one or two inventory items with which to do it. This simplicity is what makes the game more like a walkthrough movie than a game. The game also has a hacking minigame where you do nothing but click a few symbols on a screen in accordance to a sequence at the bottom. It is something that a monkey could do.
The remainder of the game involves some half-hearted stealth and fighting. The stealth is rudimentary, trial-and-error based, not a lot of fun, but it does at least work, and the sequences don't last very long. You creep around and hide in doorways or behind objects until patrolling guards or bots pass by. Fortunately, these sequences don't come up very often.
The true lowlight of Dreamfall is its horrible fighting system. The fighting plays exactly like what you would expect for a system half-heartedly shoehorned into the wrong game – it's awful. By the time you are finished with Dreamfall, you will be dreading the occasional one-on-one battles. There isn't much to the fighting. You use one button to punch, one to block or dodge, and one to use a power attack. The controls are clunky and frustrating, and blocking is a basic game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Fans of The Longest Journey that are looking for a refuge from action or violence in games will be sorely disappointed by these parts. Other gamers will realize the fighting to be a crummy tacked on feature that it is.
If there is one other positive feature of the game it is its audio. The voice acting is mostly pretty good, especially for the main characters. The ambient music is great and it sports a lot of variety. There is also some licensed music which is kind of emo and whiny, but not too bad.
Dreamfall is a game that is very hard to recommend. Adventure games thrive on story, and Dreamfall certainly delivers in that department. However, it fails miserably in its gameplay. The story always keeps you coming back for more, but the oversimplified puzzles, mediocre stealth, and dreadful fighting can make it hard to endure. Even if you loved "The Longest Journey", you might have a lot of trouble getting into this game, unless story is so paramount that you are willing to overlook all of the game's problems.