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Friday, 26 June 2015

Dreamfall Chapters - Book 3: Realms.

Dreamfall Chapters
Book 3: Realms.

Gosh, this came out sooner than I expected. After a near five month wait between episodes one and two of this series, episode three appears, nigh-on unannounced, a little over three months later. That's a fairly drastically cut development cycle. I approve - as I approve in general of shorter development cycles, provided they don't result in a loss of quality.

Picking up a short while after the second episode, which saw Oldtown come under siege by the Azadi and Zoe get caught in a bombing, episode three sees our viewpoint characters in even direr straits than before. In Stark, Zoe finds herself in the middle of a draconian military dictatorship as the Syndicate takes over Propast - deciding that she has to dream her way into Arcadia once more, she is sent on the run when agents of the Syndicate attempt to kill her. Meanwhile, in Arcadia, Kian sets out to find the purpose of the Azadi pipes - a search that brings him into a confrontation with his mentor, Hami. Meanwhile (or, perhaps, very much not meanwhile), in the mysterious house, Saga accidentally opens a Shift into another world.

Well, first thing's first: Crow's back! Yay, Crow! It did occur to me during this episode that he might be intensely irritating to people who didn't play The Longest Journey and thus maybe don't have that emotional attachment to him, but I do have that emotional attachment to him, and he's one of the characters who Chapter has been very much teasing us with (I think he's been referenced or seen from afar in both of the previous episodes), so it was a joyous experience for me to have him show up and, even better, talk - with the same voice as Crowboy from Stark, I think, thus kind of confirming that Crow and Crowboy are in some fashion related - probably by way of Crowboy being inspired by dreams of Crow. Or something. How much Stark and Arcadia parallel each other has always been kind of confusing.

Also, we saw Arcadia in the day. It's been a while.

Of the characters we're being teased with, that leaves April (who you know is going to show up sooner or later - yes, I know she was stabbed and drowned and I think may have also been set on fire, but people have suffered worse and walked it off) and, of course, the Prophet, our main villain, oft mentioned but as-yet not seen at all in Chapters. If Saga's drawings and ominous descriptions thereof are anything to go by, it is even more likely now that Brian Westhouse is the Prophet.

It's safe to say that I really enjoyed this episode - like my Tales from the Borderlands review earlier this week, I feel like there's not a lot new I can really say, bar that unlike Tales, this episode was in many ways a turning point in the plot, setting things up for events to start getting very fraught very quickly in upcoming episodes.

It wasn't a slow episode, either - the second episode had problems with occasionally slowing to a crawl with fiddly, unwieldy 'match the maintenance tool to the vent' puzzles and suchlike. This is a much more streamlined episode, and the gameplay is starting to approach at least some kind of happy balance between the not-even-really-puzzles of the first episode and the not-really-difficult-but-awkward-puzzles of the second episode. I say 'some kind', because the gameplay is still entirely too easy, I think: In Dreamfall Chapters, for example, you can knock a man out by locating an opiate leaf and giving it to the sympathetic bartender to mix into his beer - but adventure games have always been predicated on puzzles within puzzles, and in The Longest Journey, for example, that puzzle would have had you  find the opiates, distract a goat away from the opiates so that you could pick them, and do several more puzzles procuring something to cover up the taste from a merchant, only to find out that the man will now only drink a rare wine that can only be found in the locked cellars of an entirely different tavern. And also there's a cockatrice in those cellars that you have to get past. 

That's the kind of gameplay I want. Adventure game gameplay has always been characterised by its absurdity, and its challenge has always been following the maddening thought processes of lunatics to try to find a solution to your puzzles. I don't want to just be able to pick up some opiates and drop them in some beer. It's not a puzzle if I don't need to stow a live corgi in my coat for three hours to solve it.

What a charming game of golf.

The puzzle that comes closest to what I'd like from Chapters, and which is also just comedic gold, is Zoe's reprogramming of a robot to get around a mob warehouse. Given three (later four) choices of personality - a stealthy ninja, a kung-fu master, a hauler, and an enthusiastic baseball fan, she has to use the right personality in the right context to get around the warehouse. It's an interesting set-up, and more could have been done with it. 

I realise, of course, that more convoluted puzzles would eat into development time, which for episodic games is somewhat at a premium. So here's what my suggestion would have been if this project was just starting out: Remove the choices mechanic. I realise that choice is all the rage in episodic gaming, but it isn't a requirement, and to be honest, in my old age I increasingly find it a bit tired. I am absolutely okay with a game not bothering to give me the illusion of choice, I really am.

Absolutely not ominous.

But I did adore this episode, and I'm looking forward to episode four - which should see Kian heading into the Azadi prison camps, Zoe meeting the resistance, and the Prophet's arrival in Marcuria, just in case anyone had forgotten that the Tower opening ceremony is imminent and the Prophet is coming for that. One does wonder what he'll think of Vamon and Sahya's plans to assassinate Hami and Utana. Something tells me that he won't be pleased.

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