It’s been almost four years since I played through The Longest Journey and Dreamfall back to back, and to say that I was looking forward to revisiting Stark and Arcadia and finally having my lingering questions answered would be a huge understatement; the original Dreamfall left a bunch of plot threads dangling when it released back in 2006, and 10 years later, Chapters is finally complete and in a position to answer the leftover questions. Unfortunately, this is easily one of the worst games I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing, and not only does it raise yet more questions that’ll remain unanswered for the foreseeable future, but the long-standing questions that do end up being addressed unmask this entire “Dreamfall” arc for the ridiculous, pretentious nonsense it is. This game is drowning in technobabble mixed with vague undercurrents of spiritualism, neither of which are ever given a solid basis for players to grasp the rules of the world like was possible in The Longest Journey. As a result, there are never any stakes, and the game ends with an absurd Final Fantasy XIII-esque intervention from someone you never get enough back story to understand the importance of in order to fulfill a prophecy that’s never revealed to you. It’s spectacle over substance, a bunch of flashy new graphics (which don’t even look good half of the time, yet manage to make the game run worse than much prettier games) covering up the fact that no one working on Chapters understands what made the previous games good.
This isn’t nostalgic longing for the past
As I played through Chapters, I wasn’t only having a miserable time thanks to its painfully un-fun gameplay (more on that later) and awful story, but I was also left wondering if the games had always been this bad. I considered the possibility that my standards had gone up to the point where all three games were of similar quality and the earliest ones simply made an impression on me back when I was more forgiving of flaws, so I went back and found my screenshots from both previous games and pored over them. Instead of noticing the same shortcomings, I began to spot the various things that had been bugging me about Chapters that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. For example, the game’s overwhelming seriousness—while earlier games were also serious (looking back, I think that’s one of the ways Dreamfall failed to live up to TLJ), Chapters cranks this up to 11 and rips the knob off, and there’s no better way to demonstrate this than the police/military forces in the different games. In The Longest Journey, police were humorous authoritarians, whereas those in Chapters are used solely to create an oppressive atmosphere. The humor that contrasted the first game’s seriousness has been almost entirely lost, and the reliance on all-darkness-all-the-time makes much of the game feel less magical and interesting than the same setting used to.
There’s not even a sense of consistency here
While going through my old screenshots, I noticed a number of occasions where established things were undermined or conveniently forgotten for Chapters. This was most irritating when it came to Shifts, something explored in the very first game since April was a Shifter. Brian Westhouse clearly states that if he were to step through one that appeared, he’d “suffer a most unpleasant experience” and be lost between worlds forever. Cut to the end of Chapters, where the confusing new-ish character Saga shows up to save the day for magical prophecy reasons that are never elaborated on, opening a shift between the two worlds so that all the important characters can finally meet. Zoe passes through despite not being a Shifter and then asks if someone else can go through. The person she’s referring to is perfectly normal, with no magical Shifter or Dreamer powers, and yet Saga basically replies with a “sure, why not” and that random character walks through the Shift. The success of the characters is predicated on Saga’s implausible appearance and normal characters going through a Shift without suffering any ill effects. This seems like a pretty huge oversight, and that’s not even the only one from those screenshots; Brian doesn’t seem to mind being stranded in Marcuria, whereas in Chapters he’s obsessed with getting back home.
Even WATI, the corporate baddies from Dreamfall who seemed to have big plans, have been watered down to near meaninglessness. In Dreamfall, Damien (shudder) mentions that the Dreamer devices they make can be used for mind control. In Chapters, however, their motivations are revealed to have been nothing more than selling lots of Dreamers, no mind control for anything nefarious or anything linked to Arcadia at all. So really, the twins from Dreamfall, Peats, and all of that mysterious stuff? Pretty much meaningless evil-corporation fluff at the end of the day. Even that giant middle finger is nothing compared to this next one, though, an inconsistency so jarring and ridiculous that the only explanation is that the plot was changed or even made up as they went along: the Undreaming. Dreamfall ends with the Vagabond (who is still every bit as unexplained as he was 10 years ago) claiming that it’s been unchained, and in case you weren’t paying attention, the game literally ends with a screen saying “the Undreaming is unchained” in all caps. How does Zoe save the day at the end of Chapters, then? By finding a way of “unleashing the Undreaming.” Basically, you have to accomplish what the previous game said had already happened, and the last significant thing that happens with the Undreaming occurs right after Roper Klacks is let out of the calculator April trapped him in. To put that in more understandable terms, they screwed up and there’s no wiggle room to explain away this inconsistency.
Chapters can’t even be consistent with itself. In the very beginning of the game, on the very first screen you’re given control, having Zoe comment on her unconscious self—the very first thing you can interact with—runs through a list of responses until she reaches the last one and then repeats that one thought over and over. If you accidentally clicked (like I did) and skipped through one of her responses, there’s no going back to hear the earlier ones. If you move right and have her comment on her picture of Reza, on the other hand, her responses loop and avoid that problem. These are the first things you can interact with in Chapters and no one bothered to make them consistent with each other. You can’t make this stuff up. Or how about Zoe’s post-coma amnesia? At a point in the game where she’s at one time or another showed a recollection of Arcadia, Faith, looking for Reza, and everything else that happened apart from breaking into WATI, she tells Crow that she can’t remember anything about Arcadia. Before this point, she arrived in Arcadia and remarked that she didn’t remember the ubiquitous tubes being there during her previous visit. Not even the title screen is free from this stupidity; when you finish a book, you’re sent back to the main menu to start the new one and the earliest books had their names displayed. Then, out of nowhere, it’s just “book four” and so on. No effort was put into making this a cohesive whole, and it shows.
We’re still not done with the writing
I know I need to eventually pivot into talking about the mechanics and such, but the story is such a fundamental part of this type of game that it blows me away how sloppy it ends up being. Most of the stuff that happens in the first 3 out of 5 books is meaningless fluff. Zoe joins a political group and tries to rally support for her candidate (meeting unneeded characters like Queenie in the process who are then never explained), Kian joins the resistance and tries to prove himself, and mostly you just run around doing busywork because the developers couldn’t come up with a more natural way of introducing the game’s characters to you. It’s a treadmill that sees you wandering around the same barren locations over and over again, and yet the very same characters you end up stuck with receive almost no characterization despite this. Mira swears, Wit is just around, Reza seems to be present solely for overemotional fights about nothing that come out of nowhere and make both him and Zoe seem like unbearable human beings, and you never learn anything significant about anyone. They’re just tools you occasionally use to progress in the game, no emotional connection or anything. In fact, the only character I ever actually connected with was Enu, one of the newer resistance members, and even that’s only because her voice acting was spot-on and her character provided most of the game’s rare moments of refreshing levity.
Other than that, characters are mostly one-dimensional pieces of cardboard devoid of complex histories or motivations. Zoe finally gets some fleshing out, but this only happens at the very end of the game. Kian shares a story about his mother that seems important at the time, but the developers appear to have forgotten about this because it never comes up again. That’s hardly the only example of something being brought up only to end up forgotten, either. Saga’s relationship to April or even a clear idea of who she is? Never explored. Saga’s parents’ identities? Left to the imagination. The random resurrections? No dice. Songlines? Just random terminology that translates to “convenient magic.” Chekhov’s gun has a faulty firing mechanism here and the few things that seem important never end up being explained beyond “magic, because” or factoring into the story. Thankfully, most of the time you can recognize this stuff for what it is: endless tedium padding out a story that could be told in a single book if not for the fluff.
Plot holes and stupid logic
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that there are also huge plot holes in this game. For example, one character finds out that Kian is sneaking into a prison camp and has clearly alerted the person running it because said person knows to expect him. That character is shown to have also told their military general ally so that he can follow Kian, however, yet the person running the camp goes to shoot the general the second he walks in. Why send an ally to death? The relationships between characters here make no sense and are actively self-defeating. Sometimes characters even know things they couldn’t possibly know, such as Crow remarking that April took a certain passage. He wasn’t around to see that, and it didn’t come up when they met again (for the final time), so him having detailed knowledge of what happened is yet another slip-up. Or how about this: the white dragon and several others in The Longest Journey died and were just dead (simple!), but the white dragon who died in Dreamfall comes back as a Force ghost in Chapters to talk to baby Saga and make everything confusing. Can all babies see ghosts? Are there many ghosts in this world? How does that work with being “reborn”?
I apologize if I’m getting a bit incoherent, but the stupidity of this all makes me incredibly angry and I have an entire list of things that make no sense. I won’t mention everything I made a note of, but I do want to add one more bit of stupid logic: Faith’s presence in Dreamfall makes it clear that a Dreamer-projected double is independent of the original and a Dreamer can live on even if one body is destroyed, but knowing this, a late-game character reveals that she sent a bodyguard to watch over Zoe when she was projecting herself in a similar way. She’s injured anyway, naturally, but has no injuries when she stops projecting herself. If that’s the case and there’s no risk of actual harm to real-Zoe, what’s the point of the bodyguard? The writing here is all flash and no substance.
The mechanics are terrible, too
I could write another eight paragraphs about the endless story and character deficiencies, but I’ll spare everyone my rambling and move on to the mechanics. Somehow, these manage to be just as bad as the writing, and I can’t help but suspect that the Unity engine is to blame for at least some of the problems. That’s not to say that all Unity games are bad (some are so good that you can’t even recognize which engine was used), but it’s clearly a tricky engine to get working well because almost all of the games I’ve played through that use it have suffered from performance problems and bugs. It’s hard to tell what’s the engine’s fault and what just didn’t have a lot of effort put into it, but I’m confident that the stiff, awkward animations come down to the developer. The numerous invisible walls that don’t seem to correspond to what you see, on the other hand, are something I’ve noticed in multiple Unity games now, so I’m willing to chalk that one up at least in part to the engine. I’m also comfortable blaming the engine for a bug that kept occurring in the early books where Zoe’s neck would twist around like she had a spinal issue.
Most of the unforgivable design flaws here are on the developers, though. There are numerous stealth sequences, and while in one you have to sneak up and knock out a guard, attempting to do so in later stealth sequences will cause them to whirl around and send you back to the beginning of the screen (which isn’t much of a setback, but it’s still annoying when the game refuses to stick to its established rules). Also on the developer? The depressingly slow walk speed, which makes searching the game’s unnecessarily large areas—always almost entirely bare—that much more of a hassle. Since most of the gameplay in Chapters revolves around running around these areas and moving the mouse around to try to find something to interact with to progress, the game feels less like an adventure game and more like a Telltale game mixed with a hidden object game. There’s never any challenge to the “puzzles,” which are neither actual puzzles nor difficult save for when they completely abandon logic. Take a puzzle toward the end where Kian has to save Crow from being burned by an angry mob—you solve this one by picking up a mug, asking to taste some flammable wine, switching out the small tasting cup with the mug (which you implausibly get away with because reasons), then pouring the mug’s contents onto the pyre so that the leader explodes when he tries to light it. Surely someone catching fire would attract people rather than shepherd them away? And even a drunk wine vendor would notice if you switched out his tasting cup with something much bigger. None of it makes any sense, and the only real difficulty Chapters poses comes from moments like this.
Then there’s a puzzle where Zoe has to get underground through a hatch in the ground, but a nearby guard prevents her from doing so. I tried everything to lure the guard away, distract him with something else, and block his view, but nothing worked. It was only when I swallowed my pride and looked up the solution online that I realized that I had to wait for an ad robot to fly by, then ask for its full sales pitch to block the guard’s view with a large ad. Not only had I tried exactly that already and it didn’t work (I can only assume because the angle wasn’t just right), but the solution makes no sense to begin with. I had engaged one of these bots before, and their ad disappears when you walk away from it. It stands to reason, then, that going underground would cause it to remove the ad, effectively stranding Zoe underground. Instead, it stayed in place. Most of the game plays out like this, with you trying to figure out what it wants you to do instead of coming up with what makes the most sense in a given situation. The two rarely align.
Everything is unskippable
Maybe not everything, but the number of unskippable cutscenes in this game is out of control. Even parts of normal dialogue tend to be unskippable, so you’re left to slowly watch characters deliver their lines. That hurts, but the slow panning shots that lack dialogue of any kind and contribute nothing to the game also being unskippable is agonizing. There’s even one of Kian on his way to the aforementioned prison camp, and it shows you the inside of an airship. No gameplay occurs on this airship. It’s just a slow panning shot of him sitting alone and looking grim, and it can’t be skipped. This type of thing gets old after a few hours; fifteen hours in, I wanted blood. Who thought this was a good idea?
Oh yeah, and it’s autosave-only
Dreamfall Chapters relies on checkpoint saves as its sole saving mechanism. Remember back when games let you save when you wanted to? Yeah. Those were the days. Exiting out of Chapters before an autosave means you start back at the save before that point, and while there are a lot of saves that ensure that you’ll rarely lose progress, it’s still aggravating for those of us who like to have full control over the save situation. To be perfectly honest, though, I’ll never play through this game again, so the save situation doesn’t personally bother me as much as it would if this were something else. Anything else. It really is that bad.
Meh graphics, okay music
I already mentioned that the animations are abysmal, but so much else is wrong with the way everything looks than just that. It’s bizarre seeing occasional textures that look acceptable by modern standards, only to have them contrasted by water effects that look like they stepped straight out of KOTOR. Even the textures are hit-and-miss, with characters like Kian, Zoe, and some of the resistance members having decent textures, but many of the lesser NPCs like Hannah and Anna and Zoe’s campaign manager (whose name I can’t recall because he’s the most superfluous character in the entire game) looking downright bad. Just having acceptable textures isn’t enough to guarantee that this game looks good, though, because there’s no cohesive art style to be found here. Some characters look like they stepped out of Blizzard’s Overwatch, while others would be more at home in Cyanide’s Game of Thrones RPG. The aforementioned campaign manager looks like he stepped out of Deus Ex: The Fall, which is embarrassing. None of it meshes together, instead looking like a project that took inspiration from a million different sources and forgot to tie them together at some point.
As for the soundtrack, it’s memorable when it’s doing its own thing, and there’s some interesting vocal work that I especially appreciated. It does have a tendency to devolve into acoustic guitar clearly designed to hit the same emotional triggers Life Is Strange so effectively preyed on, but without the same kind of quality characterizations, it ends up ringing hollow and coming across as cheap and derivative. Also, the early books have this guitar guy who always starts with the same song, and the lyrics are stupid. If I hear that “I’m just a guy with guitar” song in real life, I’m going to force-feed the singer into a giant blender because that stupid song is repetitive, doesn’t fit the setting, and I hate it and him with a fiery passion.