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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Dreamfall Chapters Book Two: Rebels.

Dreamfall Chapters
Book Two: Rebels.

Cor, this was a long time coming, wasn't it? The other major episodic games loafing about the internet right now are Telltale's two offerings and Life is Strange - and of those three, two, Life is Strange and Game of Thrones, are updating every two months, with Tales from the Borderlands having its second episode released just today, three and a half months after its first episode. Dreamfall Chapters, meanwhile, is updating every four months, and if you're going to do that then you need something pretty goshdarn special. 

Rebels puts us predominantly in Kian's shoes this time, as he joins the resistance, working to take down traitors, get information, and blow up weapon shipments - all tasks that will bring him into contact with a young boy named Bip and a mysterious Bandu, the Mole. Meanwhile, Zoe completes her task for Queenie and is put on the trail of potential political corruption within her own party, which could have dire consequences. 

I'd like to say that this was a very special offering to make up for the long wait, but unfortunately, I'm not certain it is.

Propast is very pretty, in a gritty dystopia kind of way.

As promised, there is a decent amount more content in this episode as compared to the previous one, but that's not quite enough to make up for some of its problems. For starters, we spend a lot of time in Arcadia in this episode, and Arcadia - with its high fantasy kitchen sink theme - has always felt somewhat generic, ever since The Longest Journey. At this point, I'm not sure how you'd go about making it more engaging and unique, since a large part of its character is that it is every high fantasy novel, TV series or video game bundled into a single world. The result is that Stark is always the world with more character to it, and while that wasn't so noticeable in the last episode when we were almost exclusively in Stark, it's difficult not to notice this time.

There's no other way to say it: Arcadia is boring. It is not an interesting place, and moreover, it feels lazily written. If you asked me, after playing two full games and two episodes of an episodic game, to tell you about Stark, I could tell you the cities, the political situation, the economic situation, the food, the history, the technology. Ask me about Arcadia and I could - maybe rattle off a list of species? I could tell you about one city? I could mention recent historical events, but I would struggle to give you an in-depth idea of how they affect the current climate? Arcadia, ironically as it's meant to be the more colourful and vibrant of the two worlds, lacks colour and personality.

It does help that Kian, at least, is an interesting character to play as. While Zoe's choices (and it feels like they both get more balance-shifting choices between them in this episode) are often the result of outside forces coming into conflict around her, requiring her to change the balance of power by tipping her hand in favour of one or another, Kian's choices are very often internal, a clash of opposing moralities (the old 'do a good thing' vs 'be a pragmatist' model), and it makes a nice change-up.

I didn't even remember the character on the left, but she was apparently important in Dreamfall.
Man, if only it hadn't been over seven years.

Which leads us onto talking about the gameplay. The gameplay, whose designers may or may not have forgotten what kind of games Chapters' predecessors were. There's very little point-and-click adventuring in this episode - a smidgeon more than in the previous episode, but still hardly anything, and when you do get puzzles, they're alarming simple, like the developers just put them in to change things up. 

That's not good game design for a couple of reasons: For starters, unless you're Telltale Games, I never want to see a game entirely built around 'making choices in a set narrative.' They get away with it because they kind of introduced it, but objectively speaking, it's poor game design. Much as I might complain about Life is Strange, its developers realise that, and the choice-making mechanic is bolstered by some quite robust point-and-click adventure gameplay. Not so with Chapters, whose puzzles remain laughably simple, enough so that they barely qualify as gameplay at all. Adventure game puzzles should be the meat of the gameplay, with choices as the seasoning, not the other way around.

(It kind of pains me to write all this. I adored The Longest Journey, and I deeply enjoyed Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, so my disappointment at certain parts of this extremely highly anticipated continuation is - palpable.)

Also, there's this mysterious new character.

The graphics, at least, remain very pretty (verging on gorgeous at times), the soundtrack is good, the voice acting is excellent - Kian in particular, whose voice will sound eerily familiar to people who played Dragon Age II, is a joy to listen to. These episodes have a lot going for them, but they're falling down on some of the most basic things.

Book Three has as of this moment not had a release date announced, but I am given to assume it will be another three or four months, so settle in for a long haul, I guess.

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