Dreamfall Chapters is an episodic adventure series that continues on from 2006’s Dreamfall: The Longest Journey which is, in itself, a continuation of the ’90s point-and-click adventure game The Longest Journey. The Dreamfall games follow the story of Zoë Castillo, a college dropout living in the 23rd century who has the ability to visit the parallel fantasy dimension of Arcadia in her dreams. For those unfamiliar with the games that came before it, I imagine that the contents of this episode (the first of five) could be quite baffling since Dreamfall: The Longest Journey didn’t have a neat resolution at the end. There are, therefore, many plot threads remaining in this game. However, as someone who has played the other games, I really appreciated this opening episode.
In terms of gameplay, the developers have made the infinitely wise decision to remove the mediocre stealth and combat mechanics that were in the preceding game in favor of focusing on dialogue trees and choices in the vein of Telltale’s recent output. Telltale’s influence can clearly be seen in the way that decisions are all really obviously signposted, as well as in the end screen, which features stats on the choices that other players have made. Sometimes the level of signposting borders on comedic. There was one particular moment where Zoë had to choose which kind of lunch she wanted to bring her boyfriend and, after the selection, text appeared on the screen telling me that “the balance had shifted” as a result of this choice.
Aside from the obvious comparisons with Telltale, this game has interesting parallels with Life Is Strange, another episodic choice-based adventure game that had its first episode release in January of this year. Life Is Strange features a time travel mechanic that enables you to reverse time and change your choice at key decision moments. In Life Is Strange, you know exactly what you’re doing and exactly what you’re committing to. Dreamfall Chapters is curious in that the consequences of a particular choice you make are not always immediately apparent at all. For instance, there are two diverging career paths that Zoë could embark on, but you don’t choose between them directly.
On another note, it’s similar to Life Is Strange in that you’re given a section that’s available to explore through much of the game. As a result of this, it doesn’t always feel like you’re moving from scene to scene like you do while playing a Telltale game. Unlike Life Is Strange, however, there’s no room for side adventures and little interactivity, although Zoë will sometimes provide an opinion on the objects around her when you click on them in classic adventure game style.
The explorable part of the game still feels very much like it’s living and breathing. You might come across merchants hawking their wares, a musician playing on a street corner, and folk engaging in intense political debate. There are people with holographic mohawks because that part is in a cyberpunk setting. Also, there’s no actual visible sunlight because, again, cyberpunk. I really feel that a major strength of this series is its setting even though the game has quite clearly been made on a constrained budget. In one sequence there’s a prison riot where much of the action happens offstage—you can hear the background noises but can’t see any evidence of it.
The puzzles are fairly simplistic, albeit, on occasion, they annoyed me a great deal. Since your playable characters provide commentary on usable objects, you can end up hearing the same line over and over again while you’re trying to solve a puzzle. When singular lines aren’t being repeated ad nauseam, though, the writing is fairly excellent, as is the voice acting. There are also journal entries available to read that provide insight into the protagonist’s state of mind.
Additionally, Zoë and Kian (Kian is the deuteragonist who’s based in the fantasy land of Arcadia) give internal commentary about various dialogue choices. What I thought was interesting is that you can’t really change what your characters think—directly. In choice-based games like this, you can usually assume that the character has conviction in what you tell them to say, but Zoë and Kian are so well-defined that that’s not always the case. You can still shape their lives, but you are very much playing a character.
The actual story of this episode was fairly sparse. It had some action scenes and elements of high fantasy, but the bulk of it was more of a slice-of-life character study. While I definitely got the sense that there was something ominous brewing in the background, in the moment I loved getting to step into Zoë’s shoes again. Zoë Castillo is an excellent protagonist who is always in the midst of a slight existential crisis. She’s kind of well-intentioned, but unsure of herself in a way that just speaks to me. To be honest, I’d find the entire piece worth playing just for her sake.
A game with great writing, setting, atmosphere, and interesting choices with puzzles that also happen to be there. A slightly daunting proposition for people new to the series.