Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser and your job is to save her. That is the storyline of pretty much every Mario game since such a thing existed. It's pretty simple, inconsequential stuff. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, the middle title in what should be a trilogy of games, is nothing like Mario. The story is a rich tapestry of divergent plot lines, conflicting motivations and deep characterisation spanning across beautifully realised environments. It deals with the perils of technology, of powerful corporations, religious fanaticism, imperialism and a whole host of contemporary issues. It's a truly involving experience lacking in one rather important element: that which makes it a game.
Following on from the events of The Longest Journey, you play primarily as Zoë Castillo, a young and perhaps rather spoilt rich kid, living in a future version of Casablanca. Having anticipated another lazy day Zoë is up late. While watching the news, her viewing is interrupted by a vision, or static, depicting a black dolls house in a snowy landscape. A girl is there and she speaks to Zoë with the cryptic message "save her, save April." Every time Zoë encounters a screen she is haunted by this message and each time more is revealed. Who is this April? What is the place in the vision? Soon a much larger conspiracy develops and Zoë becomes convinced that these are connected somehow.
You'll spend a lot of time in conversation with other characters, often for minutes on end. This simply wouldn't work in most other games, but in Dreamfall it's never a problem. Dialogue is well written and generally well delivered, and while the voice acting can lack fluency at times, the great majority is of a very high standard. A lot of the plot, especially the back story of the first game, is revealed through conversations with other people, and the quality of the story makes this worthwhile. In many adventure games talking to people can become a chore, but in Dreamfall you'll find yourself actively seeking out further conversation.
Both Zoë and the world in which she lives are beautifully realised. She's the sort of person you're more than likely to meet in real life. She's young and sophisticated, but thinks her life lacks any real ambition or direction. In short, she's someone you can identify with. Zoë lives in an old-style house furnished with hi-tech gadgetry, whilst in the distance visions of skyscrapers and flying cars seem a world away. The characters in Dreamfall, major and minor, exude a sort of depth not seen in many other titles, and are by far the best part of the game.
From a technical standpoint Dreamfall won't win any awards. It is by no means an ugly game but it doesn't push the hardware all that hard. Yet, this matters little because the art direction in the game is superb. As touched upon earlier, the various locations throughout the game are beautifully realised. From ancient rock towers surging into the sky to corporate office buildings and underground caverns, the environments in Dreamfall are a great place to be. The only disappointment is the lack of interactivity possible in these areas. Somewhat typically for adventure games, you are restricted to interaction with objects as ordained by the developers; and this is symptomatic of a much larger problem with Dreamfall.
Gameplay, always popular in games, is a concept barely recognised in Dreamfall. It seems the developers have taken the view that gameplay shouldn't be a barrier to the storyline and have made the game very easy. Unlike a lot of adventure games, puzzles in Dreamfall are incredibly simple. Most can be solved using an object you have picked up in the same room or area, and most of the time you're pretty much told what to do. Most conspicuous in their pointlessness are the lock-picking and hacking puzzles. Although slightly different, both are based around the familiar concept of matching up symbols. Lock-picking consists of shuffling around four discs with four symbols on each, matching up the symbols and releasing the lock. Hacking requires you to match a row of symbols up with the symbols on an ever-changing grid, whilst working under a time limit. These sorts of puzzles will be familiar to anyone who has played adventure games over the years and are not only easy but rather boring too.
All of which wouldn't be too bad if the other gameplay elements were more than filler. Dreamfall also features a number of stealth sections and a rudimentary fighting system. Most fights revolve around your opponent blocking incessantly until you grind them down. Thankfully, most confrontation can be avoided, which makes you wonder why they bothered putting fighting in at all. It doesn't really add anything to the game other than another rather tedious obstacle.
Once you've completed the security puzzles, sneaked your way around and slugged your way past some people, the game boils down to little more than a series of 'fetch and carry' tasks. This often unfolds as Person A tells you to speak to Person B, but you'll have to speak to Person C to find them, who'll only tell you if you do them a favour. So Person A tells you to go see Person D who would help you but they can't because Person E hasn't delivered an item. So you go to Person E who gives you the item to deliver to Person D, which eventually allows you to complete the favour for Person C, who tells you they don't know where Person B is, but they know someone who does. Guess what happens next? It isn't always this bad, but it's the sort of thing that really infuriates.
So, having sacrificed gameplay in favour of story, what's left is a product that isn't really much of a game at all. If you can put up with the tedium of puzzles and stealth sections, the rich story and compelling characters will furnish you with a rewarding experience. The potential was there for a truly great gaming experience. What was delivered is one of the greatest stories ever found in a game, but a mundane playing experience.