Hand-crafted point-and-click The Dream Machine is taking Swedish indie devs a lot longer to make than they'd planned. So it's a shame that this extended development is really the series' only weakness. As Chapter 4 finally appears, almost two years after Chapter 3, the story of Victor and Alicia is pretty hard to have remembered this far on. But it's worth remembering, because this continues to be an absolutely superb experience. Here's wot I think:
I shan't explain the story so far here, since I think a few are waiting for all six chapters to be released before playing, and others will be coming to the story fresh because they just weren't born two years ago. But the vague outline of the overall plot sees newlyweds and newlypregnants Victor and Alicia moving into a new apartment, where peculiar things are happening with their dreams. With Alicia in peril, Victor has to unravel a mystery of peculiar machines, a sinister landlord, and the moebius-logic of the dreamworld.
Chapter 4 picks up immediately where 3 left off, and bearing the time between the two in mind, it's very peculiar that the game's opening puzzle should involve noticing a difference in a room in this chapter, changed from the last. In fact, there's almost no effort to précis the previous events. Which I think, at this point, is a mistake. Most people aren't going to want to play through the previous chapters again to carry on, but would likely appreciate a quick "previously on" to awaken all the memories.
Fortunately, revisiting the familiar locations should jog most of it back to the fore, and quickly you're about working your way into another head's dreams. And once again, the puzzles to get there are superbly crafted.
In fact, this fourth chapter features the best puzzle yet, in an extended sequence that involves rearranging the rooms of a dream house in a fantastically smart way. And as has been the case throughout the story, not only is there an interestingly challenging conceit to fathom, but it's delivered with an emotional resonance too. This time out it's perhaps more subtle than ever before, the background of the dreaming character's life alluded to in a series of vignettes that only vaguely suggest at a far more complex tale. (With one exception - there's a bedroom scene that rather over-explains the point in its text, which is a bit of a shame.)
And of course the smart puzzles, the affecting story, and the deeply imaginative approaches are all given the enormous leg-up of the series' art style. The hand-crafted cardboard-and-clay backgrounds and characters are utterly gorgeous once again, this time in a higher definition with lots more detail. There's a tree in one scene which you'll just stare at in wonder at how long it must have taken to meticulously construct (and you can start to see how the chapters can take so long to appear - this is as much animation as it is game design, and that's a notoriously lengthy process).
I think the chapter winds up a little too quickly, especially after such an extensive wait. Depending upon how fast you solve the puzzles, there's an hour to two hours tops here. And knowing that chapter 5 is "a slew of months" away doesn't help with the extraordinarily disjointed arrival of a game that - ridiculously at this point - takes place over a single day. But what you get is exquisitely created, with a huge dose of brain and heart behind it.
If you've not picked up the series before now, I think this is a great time to buy it. You get the whole lot for £13, no matter how many chapters it eventually becomes (the originally planned five is now six, so who knows). All four in a row will give you a sizeable chunk of game, well worth sinking your teeth into. If you've been following along from the start, then you'll obviously play this anyway, and likely find yourself as frustrated as I am by the brevity after the wait. But when the frustration is born of just how good it all is, it's probably the best kind.