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.