Dreamfall Chapters: Book One: Reborn

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey had one of the greatest game stories of all time and if you are a fan of science fiction and story-driven games, then it is a game that you should go back and try if you missed this 2006 cult favorite.  Its world was fascinating, its protagonist (Zoe Castillo) was a realistic and sympathetic character and its plot was a captivating and unpredictable mystery.  The story was somewhat confusing at times and it left all kinds of threads unresolved when its cliffhanger ending arrived.  Despite its somewhat underwhelming gameplay, the game acquired a fan base that has awaited the sequel with baited breath since the credits rolled.

Thanks to some hefty crowd funding, that sequel has finally arrived in episodic form. Dreamfall Chapters: Book One: Reborn has been released so that everyone who has been on the edge of their seat for eight years can finally see what happens next to Zoe in this unique and memorable universe.  It is a short game that Dreamfall fans will want to check out, albeit one that does little more than act as a teaser for future installments.

Like its predecessors, The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, Reborn takes place in three locales.  Most of this book happens in our world, aka Stark.  A short prologue takes place in Storytime (the world of dreams) and there is a short section in Arcadia, a magical parallel universe.  During this section you play as Kian Alvane, who you may remember as the assassin who was supposed to kill April Ryan in Dreamfall but disobeyed orders when he realized that his cause was an unjust one.  Like the previous games, the most interesting place is Stark, a futuristic, dystopian cyberpunk version of Earth.  It is ironic that although Stark is supposedly the “real” world, more creativity, quality writing, and imagination has been put into developing this part of the universe than the other two.  Arcadia has yet to make itself a memorable place and not enough time is spent in Storytime to discover much about it.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was an interesting experiment in video gaming when it came out in 2006.  It was largely an interactive story, but the video gaming world had yet to embrace that style of game.  It wasn’t until the 2012 smash hit The Walking Dead that this formula was recognized as viable.  Dreamfall attempted to bolster its gameplay repertoire by adding in some stealth sequences and a poor, half-baked fighting system. Dreamfall Chapters, on the other hand, appears to have fully embraced its “interactive story” nature and its design feels more focused as a result.  If Book One is any indication, all semblance of action is gone, and puzzle solving is as light and straightforward as it can be.  The answers to the game’s puzzles are obvious and if they aren’t, you can solve them through a little bit of trial-and-error.  The game has, instead, placed a much greater emphasis on story choices and consequences.  Almost immediately, you will see that the Dreamfall Chapters have taken a page out of The Walking Dead playbook with frequent choices and constant reminders that your choices mean something (namely, the constant “so-and-so will remember that you said that” remarks that show up after most of your choices).

Whether these remarks are telling the truth is debatable. At one point, you (as Zoe) visit your psychiatrist.  He asks you how you are doing and you can tell him that you are either doing well or doing poorly.  The game makes a “the doctor will remember your choice” remark at the time.  My reaction to this remark was to question whether this little bit of chatter truly has consequences down the road.  It didn’t have any consequences in this installment as the psychiatrist character doesn’t show up in any other scenes.  The game is bursting at the seams with these moments, where inane chatter is flagged as something that somebody will remember.  Is any of it really going to matter?  For what it's worth, not every choice comes from small talk.  There are a few weighty gameplay choices that seem as if they could have very significant consequences down the road, but, by-and-large, the chapter ends before you get to see anything of consequence.

Most of the first chapter is spent playing as Zoe, getting familiar with your surroundings and going about a typical day.  You visit your shrink, pick up lunch, run a couple more errands, etc.  After waiting eight years to see how the story would play out, it is disappointing that the first chapter is so light on story advancement.  It is also disappointing that none of the numerous lingering questions from Dreamfall: The Longest Journey get answered.  The game is, instead, very heavy on character development and world building. This material will no doubt be valuable as the story progresses but it would have been nice to have more plot progression.

In terms of character, in just a few hours, you will get to meet a colorful cast with interesting backgrounds and roles in the game.  The best of these characters, by far, is the hilarious and appropriately named "Shitbot".  The half hour of interactions that I had with Shitbot provided me with some of the best laughs that I have had in gaming this year. The episodic format is a poor fit for this game and appears to have been more of a budgetary necessity than anything else.

This series has always been heavy on quality writing and dialog and that trend continues with this entry. Zoe has a lot to say about the world around her and whatever situation she is in and so do all of her friends, allies, and other acquaintances.  One of the best features of this series has always been its world building and how it allows you to learn by immersing yourself in it and having conversations with all different kinds of people.  The game doesn’t need a codex or a big info dump to give you a feel for what Zoe's life is like.  Instead, the game’s beautiful visuals tell you half of what you need to know just by exploring and checking out the sights.  Future Earth is an interesting dystopia – one with obvious major problems, but also one where most people sort of just go about their business because it is all that they have ever known.  Still, you can barely walk two feet without stumbling onto a conversation about current events or seeing some jack-booted soldiers harassing a citizen.  There is a huge backstory to this world that you slowly absorb through osmosis.  By reading news headlines and listening to chatter you can piece together what has happened to humanity over the past couple of centuries – pollution has blocked out the sun in large parts of the world, countries collapsed and merged into superstates ala George Orwell’s 1984.  Corporations wield as much power as governments.  Fans of Blade Runner and Shadowrun will feel right at home in this setting.

This game does, indeed, tell a lot of its story with its visuals. It is a beautiful game with some impressive, brightly colored scenery.  The game’s limited budget does rear its ugly head with its really poor animations and lip syncing, however.  The characters in the game look good (as long as they aren’t talking) but where the game truly shines is with Propast, the huge metropolis where Zoe now lives.  After starting with a couple of linear sections, the game then opens up and lets you explore a large, crowded hub area.  It is a feast for the eyes, filled with all kinds of interesting characters, neon signs, political posters, advertisements, vending machines, military police, and robots.  There are a ton of landmarks in the city and it is easy to simply lose yourself in its splendor.  Reborn is one of the more impressive efforts that I have seen when it comes to a crowd funded/indie game.  It isn’t very long, but it is very densely packed with content.  The game doesn’t reuse many of its assets and it sports tons of variety.  The voice acting is mostly high quality, although I am not a big fan of Zoe’s new voice, which is a bit flat.

This first book of Dreamfall Chapters is difficult to judge.  It is a delicious but unsatisfying appetizer that may or may not be offering a taste of something great.  It is mostly expository, which means that how we remember it will be determined by the quality of future books.  What is offered in this installment feels like the foundation for a great epic, but nothing more.  Rather than make progress towards explaining the mysteries of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, it spins an even greater web. If future chapters pay off in the story department, then Book One will be seen as an essential piece of story development.  Without the rest of the story in place, it is still worth experiencing, but you should keep your expectations in check.  Reborn is a beautiful but short-lived experience that continues building this interesting universe while introducing more questions than it answers.