Wot I Think: Dreamfall Chapters Book Two – Rebels

Conspiracies, rebellion, prejudice and resistance. The worlds of Dreamfall [official site] are on the verge of cataclysmic changes and every decision could tip the balance of power. Dreamfall Chapters Book Two continues a fine story but something is lost between the page and the screen.

When every part of Dreamfall Chapters clicks, it brings a tear to the eye and a tightness to the throat. There’s humour as well, although Rebels, the second book of five, is less playful. That’s possibly because Zoe’s section of the story is bookended by two chunks of Kian’s adventures in earnest reappraisal. His arc is the kind that might eventually pay out like a bilious slot machine but you might well feel that you’re at least a couple of steps ahead as the journey plays out.

There’s a lack of momentum, not helped by the structure of Rebels’ first portion. It’s a fairly standard adventure game setup – a handful of objectives that can be approached in any order around a hub area – but the flow isn’t as smooth as it might appear on paper. Part of the problem is a lack of overlap between the objectives, despite the compact setting. Marcuria feels like a collection of rabbitholes containing puzzles and encounters rather than a place.

Some of the rabbitholes are entertaining enough but others feel like dead-ends and one, by the docks, involves hotspot-hunting and cumbersome combinations of items that had me reaching for a walkthrough. A few of the game’s strengths and weaknesses are well-illustrated in a single scene.

Kian has been sent to a National Front meeting in order to sniff out a traitor who has been pretending to work with the resistance. The National Front stand for Faith and Humanity, and against the intrusion of magic and magical beings into Marcurian life and culture. There are all kinds of political parallels so thinly veiled as to be empirically nude but the game isn’t aiming for subtlety, at least not in this instance.

You’ll bluff your way into the meeting by learning the secret password – which is printed on invites that seem to have been posted in public places – and then you’re free to interact with the people who have gathered, hoods pulled tight around their faces, to listen to the leader of the National Front speak. You’re told, beforehand, that he can stir a crowd into a frenzy and that he’s a great public speaker. He isn’t. He has less charisma than a cauliflower. Maybe that’s the point and perhaps we’re supposed to marvel that anyone could be won over by his whimpering weasel words, but I thought he seemed dull enough to soften and drive away even the most tightly clenched fists. A light drizzle to dampen the prejudice parade rather than the spark to fire the fuse of resentment.

That’s one problem. Dreamfall Chapters tells us one thing and shows another. Here is the leader of the criminal underworld, untouchable in her lair – except there only seems to be one guard who Kian could break in half simply by flexing a muscle in his general direction. Again, it’s possible that I’m misreading the situation and the situation is supposed to be intimidating precisely BECAUSE the force isn’t on show, but I walked away feeling that the resistance, the National Front and the criminal underworld had all suffered from severe budget cuts.

I imagine there’s some truth in that. Chapters doesn’t have an enormous budget behind it, or a large team, and the lack of scale, pomp and circumstance is most likely pragmatic. Whatever the reason, it’s noticeable when playing and while it was never quite cause for me to detach myself from the story entirely, I occasionally thought it was a shame that I was experiencing this particular interpretation of that story.

Back to the National Front Assembly. Problem number two comes as I sniff the attendees. Shuffle up close enough to any of the spectators and you’ll pick up on their idiosyncracies, either by looking, listening or breathing in their scent. Nobody reacts to Kian as he deploys his hooter and the ‘orrid blighter on the stage drones on and on about claiming back Marcuria for Marcurians, and driving out the magical filth. Each person has one distinctive quality and it only takes a couple of minutes to discover them all. And then what?

Problem number two is a lack of direction. Apparently the meeting does end eventually, although I’d thought the speech was cycling and left the area before that happened (after overriding a warning informing me that I wouldn’t be able to return). I’d be hanging around because I didn’t know what to do with the information I’d gathered. Was I supposed to figure out who the traitor was right there, on the spot? Or could I somehow dig deeper?

The solution was, in fact, to leave so that the information could be put to use at a later date. I was caught between wanting to leave and worrying that I hadn’t discovered anything particularly useful. I heeded the warning that suggested I was hitting a point of no return and lingered longer than I wanted to because I had no real way of measuring the value of the information I’d collected. As soon as I left, the next step became clear and I enjoyed the eventual ambiguity of the task, but the game’s loose ends don’t always seem intentional or satisfying.

On to the good things. I’m glad that Dreamfall Chapters is tackling politics, faith and relationships head on. There are just enough complications and subversive hints to suggest that Red Thread won’t just be preaching to the converted, but the overall tone is supportive of the individuals, the outsiders and the people who care enough to put their own safety on the line. Away from the genocide and prejudice of Marcuria, Zoe’s story moves along dramatically in this second part of the game. As is often the case with Tornquist and Co’s work, the strongest moments are the quietest. The ruminations on politics, racism and belief don’t seem half as subversive and extraordinary as the way that Zoe’s relationship can develop.

I’m so accustomed to the idea that being in a relationship is better than not being a relationship, no matter what the specifics of that relationship might be, that I felt conflicted about choosing conflict and distance rather than reconciliation during a lovers’ spat in the first episode. Separation is usually treated as loss and failure in the same way that partners can be rescued and won – Zoe’s ability to recognise that there’s little to gain from what seems to be an unsupportive and somewhat drab relationship is shockingly refreshing.

It’s shocking precisely because there’s no reliance on shock tactics; sometimes people grow apart, act like dicks to one another and that’s all there is to it. There doesn’t need to be a villain or even dramatic fallout – among the conspiracies and highs takes political conflicts in both of its worlds, Dreamfall Chapters finds its finest moments in the shrugs and quiet sighs of its strongest characters, and the occasional petty, self-centred actions of otherwise decent people.

And, while it’s still too early to say how well the bigger decisions will play out, choices in the first book do make a difference. Red Thread have managed to nail the sense of regret that has mostly bypassed Telltale’s decision-making and, as with Kian’s slow-burning self-discovery, there’s potential for all the threads to pay off handsomely when the story is complete. That’s why I’ll keep playing, despite my reservations, and why I’m still eager to see what happens next. The storytelling shines through, even when the process of working through that story frustrates.

Dreamfall Chapters sheds some of the baggage associated with a traditional point and click adventure, but when I found myself in a miniature stealth section combining inventory items around an interactive but almost invisible hotspot on the floor, I wished it were travelling even lighter. You’re going to spend a lot of time consulting maps and running through the Europolis hub again. You’re going to hunt for items, not because there’s a compelling or convincing reason to do so, but because you want to move the plot forward. The medium obscures the message.

In short, I admire almost everything that Dreamfall Chapters is doing but I’m not quite so enamoured with the way that those things are done.

27 Comments

  1. draglikepull says:

    There are things about Dreamfall Chapters that I love. I think the world building is fantastic, as is the dialogue. The Longest Journey Games have long had far more believable and interesting dialogue than just about any other game series, and that remains true. The over-arching plot is also strong. So, basically, I think the writing is excellent.

    But the “game” portion often left me frustrated and confused. The primary problem, as stated in the review, is lack of direction. I often didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing. And not in the sense of “How do I solve this puzzle?” which is a good kind of puzzlement, but “What is the game even expecting of me right now?”

    For example, once the game asked me to find someone named Abby. But no character named Abby had even been introduced (as far as I could recall), so how was I supposed to know where to look for her?

    A lot of the “puzzles” seem to involve wandering around the cities until a cut-scene triggers at the appropriate location, or the game highlights something that you can focus on. There’s nothing to “solve”, you just wander until the story decides to move on.

    A big reason for this problem is that the cities are confusingly laid out. This is especially true of Propast, which has become frustratingly maze-like in the second act because the EYE are blocking off a number of streets. I spent a huge portion of my Chapter 2 playing time just running around, trying to figure out where to go, or even how to get somewhere.

    The small number of inventory puzzles that are in the game were fun (like when Kian has to blow up the weapon shipment). Sadly, those were far and few between, and most of the “puzzles” are just running around the map aimlessly until an animation triggers.

  2. bleeters says:

    Also, Enu is completely adorable and my favourite addition to the series in a long time.

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    gritz says:

    Really glad to see this episode getting WIT.

    I want to say that I was really quite angry with my first “playthrough” of this episode. *SPOILER*

    I didn’t think Kian had any believable motivation to join the rebels, particularly when a big blue guy spent the entire “join us” pitch openly threatening him. The rebel leader, and the game itself, hammered home the message “there is always a choice”. Except there’s not. If you make the “wrong” choice in not joining the rebels, the game chides you for going “against the flow”, and if you persist, the game ends and you get an achievement about how you’ve just doomed the world to die.

    Fuck you, game. Don’t tell me there’s a choice and then shit on me for making it. Maybe if Kian was anything but a moody set of abs I would be more interested in seeing him take an active part of the story.

    I tried to give it another go, but the idea of sitting through that ~10 minute intro which is basically a blank screen with hammy dialogue on repeat (in which the interesting protagonist from the previous games tells the terrible protagonist from the current game that she’s glad to be dead) was too much to overcome.

    • draglikepull says:

      I made that choice too, and was also bothered by the fact that the game wouldn’t let me actually make it. You shouldn’t have to re-watch the intro though. The game auto-saves moments before you have your final chance to make Kian join the rebels.

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        gritz says:

        Ah, that’s true. But I was going to redo the entire set of non-choices since it seems more likely that if Kian is going to have a change of heart, it’s going to be during the initial pitch and not when the game puts him in timeout.

        • Faxmachinen says:

          Indeed. It seemed reasonable after Kian telling telling Shepherd she had given him no real choice, that Kian would not be very happy about joining the rebels. Therefore it was very frustrating when Kian instantly became chummiest of chums with them and refused to even acknowledge the conveniently unguarded exit.
          I would much prefer the game saying “oops, you drowned” than that. Besides, I think Enu would have little problem guilt-tripping me into staying if I did have the option.

    • Azeltir says:

      (in which the interesting protagonist from the previous games tells the terrible protagonist from the current game that she’s glad to be dead)

      I don’t think that was April speaking – if I recall correctly, at the end of the first chapter Kian muses about how is only memory of his mother was of her singing him this song about death. My impression was that the voice was his mother’s, rather than April’s.

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        gritz says:

        It drones on for a while, and his mother definitely “sings” a bad lullabye, but April eventually chimes in to say her death is what she wanted: “I’m free now.”

        • EhexT says:

          They killed off April? I kickstarted this back when they claimed it was the rest of Dreamfall they didn’t get to make, then hugely regretted it when they turned around and went “our playable characters are Zoe (who already got most of the story in Dreamfall) and Kian (who’s a complete non-character) and maybe we’ll do a small 2D spinoff game with April if we feel like it”. It was a giant fuck-you to everyone who wanted to see the part of Dreamfall and TLJ finished that didn’t already get most of the spotlight – Aprils story. Now they killed her off? Fuck you Tornquist.

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            John Walker says:

            April died at the end of Dreamfall, you angry person.

          • EhexT says:

            Confirmed her dead then – the implication was always that she’d survive, since the whole mantra of Zoes part of Dreamfall was “Save April” and the Kickstarter was built on finishing Dreamfall including Aprils story.

    • thelongshot says:

      Yeah, I kinda saw that the path was going to be a dead end, so I left the room to continue on with the story. I was kinda hoping that they had a way to loop it around into the plot, but it looks like they didn’t have a way out there.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Adam, FWIW, you are explicitly told what to do with the information when you have it (when you’re being given the briefing for the mission). However, given the enormous amount of exposition I certainly don’t fault you for not remembering it (I had to really search the depths of my memory – but then, I also waited for the speech to end).

    But yes – ultimately, I think the play experience is probably suffering from its episodic nature for most of the audience, where the payoff for the slow burn is so delayed. I worry this will effect its ultimate reception and sales. But oh man am I glad I backed it – there’s nothing else quite like it, and (overdose of notifications aside, now thankfully optional as of the upcoming patch) it’s nice to see someone take Telltale’s smoke-and-mirrors structure and try to add reactivity to it.

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      Aerothorn says:

      Also, I want to ask Adam about all the choices he made but this no-spoiler-tag venue isn’t the proper place for it :(

      • somnolentsurfer says:

        For several weeks after the release of book one, I spent every spare moment on the official spoiler forum. I’m quite disappointed I just don’t have the time for that this time round, ’cause all the theorising really added to the experience of playing it one episode at a time.

        I also compliantly missed the explanation of what I was supposed to do with the information from the meeting. I actually reloaded after it ’cause I just hadn’t understood what I was meant to be doing, which isn’t something I would ever normally do in a game like this. Partly, though, I missed the information because I was so engrossed in listening to what the speaker was saying that it got to the end of the talk and I was kicked out. He may not be an impassioned fiery ranter, but his quiet malevolence was reminiscent of so many evangelical preachers I’ve heard. He has the manner down so perfectly that those parts that didn’t crack me up were genuinely terrifying.

        I agree about Marcuria though. It’s not nearly as interesting as Europolis. Which is a shame, ’cause I loved Marcuria in the last game.

  5. thelongshot says:

    My issue of what to do wasn’t with the National Front meeting, but with intercepting the runner. First, it wasn’t clear that you needed to reach a certain point to start the whole quest, then once it starts, I expected I needed to take a more active role in doing the intercepting. It took a couple of rounds to realize that a more indirect approach is needed.

    I still have mixed feelings about the game, given that I haven’t really liked the direction the series took in Dreamfall, but I have wanted to see how the story ends. That being said, I think the best thing about the game so far has been how dialog trees are handled. It is very good at giving you a detailed explanation of what each choice means to the character and giving you an informed choice. There are times I wished the quests had as much thought put into it.

  6. Sucram says:

    I’m enjoying Dreamfall Chapters, though it does seem to be a bit too ambitious for a team of only 10 people.

    There are a few puzzles which I found frustrating (how to sneak into a drain!) and it feels like some of these design issues should have been picked up. Much like the first chapter the game also suffers from performance issues.

    But the games does a good job of making choices meaningful (in many ways more so than with Telltale games) and the story is interesting manages to make both the wider arc and ordinarily mundane parts of life interesting

    Kian is just be a bit dull though isn’t he.

  7. Vandelay says:

    I had the same confusion over what to do on a couple of occasions too. Sometimes this didn’t feel so bad, such as looking for Hannah, but other times, like the aforementioned Docks and National Front meeting, went to a bad level of lost.

    On the Mole though, I think Kian even says that the guard isn’t doing a very good job, so I guess that is a case of her not needing strong protection as everyone knows not to fuck with her. Could have been communicated better though.

    I did really enjoy the episode, despite having similar issues that Adam raises. I can’t wait for the next part, but, even more, I really hope that this will lead to a true The Longest Journey sequel, as was one of the unreached stretch goals.

  8. khh says:

    With this review I find myself disagreeing most of the complaints you have made, while you failed to mention the thing I missed the most in this episode.

    First is the exploring. I really, really love the exploring part. I thought that Marcuria felt like a vast and interesting location, and the design was breathtaking. I actually love the decisions they’ve made that force you to explore these locations. Gamers are very goal oriented people, normally, but by the designs they’re making people run around and experience at a slower pace. This is obviously intentional, and it’s giving the first part of the series a steady feel. As they move forwards I expect that the combination of our getting to know the city and the story shaping up will highlight other nuances, and make it all feel more streamlined.

    Once book 5 is out I could see them adding an option to speed things up for replays, akin to the timeskip in The Longest Journey, but for the first play through I think this is absolutely the right choice.

    That is to say that I don’t think that the book lacks momentum. But at the start it’s a big ferry lumbering over the waves, and not a speed boat. It is accelerating though, and near the end I felt like the story pulled me along tightly.

    I did not feel like the puzzles you mentioned were in the way, but then I solved those quite easily. One puzzle later on did give me trouble, but by consulting a forum I quickly got the answer I needed. I think it’s fair to say that Dreamfall Chapters is a 3D point and click adventure game, the first successful one of it’s kind as far as I’m aware, and as such it does somewhat invoke it’s roots. That is part of it’s charm, I think.

    You touched on the down-scaled ambition of some of the locations – this is a point. While I wasn’t bothered by this, I can see why you might have that reaction. Connected to this, however, is my biggest regret with this Book – the comparative lack of hotspots. Book One was great in this regard, there was so much commentary and interactivity around the world that really fleshed out the characters, locations and atmosphere of the game. Here that was somewhat lacking.

    This, as well as the complaint you made, is probably a direct reflection of the fact that Dreamfall Chapters is made by a smaller team with a smaller budget. There’s no doubt that this has it’s advantages in some places, but with the team working on such a monstrously huge book as it must be admitted that Book Two was, resources were stretched thin.

    If the next books are shorter, or reuse more assets (now that two main hubs have been created), then I think we will get more of these luxuries again next time around.

    While I read your review as mixed, I would personally say that this is the best story driven game I’ve played in years. And I can’t wait for it to continue.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      Yeah, I was quite surprised when I read in the Kickstarted posts that there was loads more dialog than book one, ’cause the comparative lack of hotspots made it feel like there was less.

      Aside from reloading after I failed to understand what to do at the NF meeting the only puzzle that gave me trouble was the one to find Hannah. I wandered around Europolis for about an hour and a half before finally working out how to distract that damn guard.

      The stealth section is fucking terrible though. Like, considerably worse than any of the stealth in the original Dreamfall. What you need to do is obvious. Doing it is a frustrating series of being knocked back because the guard’s patrol route is to short to accomplish what you need to do, and theres nowhere to hide where you can both be out of site, and keep track of where he is. Just horrid design.

      Generally though, yes, loving it. The text that flashes ups saying ‘Your choices have brought you here’ or whatever it is are not exactly subtle, but so much more meaningful than anything from the Tell Tale games I’ve played.

      • Vandelay says:

        I really loved the puzzle to distract the guard in Propast! It probably helped that I previously made the same action elsewhere, so knew what would happen, but it felt like a good puzzle of old, a rarity for a 3D adventure game. Certainly better than the guard distracting Kian has to do, which felt incredibly forced (“Oh, I just so happen to have this magic gear lying around!”)

      • draglikepull says:

        I finished the “stealth” section you’re referring to on my first try. Maybe dumb luck, I dunno. I agree about the puzzle where you have to distract the guard in Propast, though. After spending half an hour running around with no idea what to do, I ended up having to look up the solution to that one online. And then the game glitched the first time I tried it, making me think I *still* didn’t know what to do.

        • somnolentsurfer says:

          I managed to do it without looking at a walkthrough, but only at the point of trying to use everything on everything else. I guess because I wasn’t expecting much of different reaction from that interaction than from several other very similar ones, both in this book and the previous one.

      • Faxmachinen says:

        I was able to loiter at either corner of the dock without being spotted, and from each I had a good view of at least half his patrol route. The reason I failed miserably at stealth (achievement and all) was the horribly fiddly inventory system (which doesn’t pause the game!) and not being sure of what I needed to do. And they could have given the guard some audio cues so you could tell when he was approaching.

        • somnolentsurfer says:

          Exactly, and without an audio cue it’s impossible to tell he’s coming because you have to stare at the floor to complete the inventory puzzle. By the time you can hear him he basically already has line of sight to where you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

          I found, though, that even standing with Kian firmly behind the city gates, just using the camera to try and make out where the guard was, he could still be seen well enough to break stealth.

  9. tomimt says:

    Personally I’ve been digging D:C quite a bit, but I do agree that the tight budget shines through. But at the same time it is very admirable what they’ve managed to do with the game none the less. And I do hope Telltale is taking notes from them on how to handle choises and consequence.