I’m not a huge gamer, mostly because I don’t have the time to be, but when said time does make itself available to me, I do enjoy the occasional video game, especially a game with a strong story and characters. It just so happens I have had some of that free time recently, so I decided to dive into a widely acclaimed series of adventure games which I had never managed to play before. I’m speaking about The Longest Journey series from Norwegian designer/writer Ragnar Tornquist. Both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, its sequel, are regularly ranked among the greatest adventure games of all time, alongside some of my personal favorites, like the Broken Sword series and Indigo Prophecy.
I didn’t have to get very far into The Longest Journey to see why this is the case. Tornquist’s story is quite simply the deepest, richest video game story I’ve experienced, outside of maybe the Mass Effect series. There’s no way I can do its complexity justice in this review, but I’ll at least provide the bare bones of it. In The Longest Journey, you play as April Ryan, an 18 year old art student living in the futuristic city of Venice. As the story opens, we learn that April has been experiencing strange, surreal dreams that feel almost lucid. Looking for an explanation, April is drawn to a shadowy man named Cortez, who sits outside the boarding house where April lives and seems to know everything about her and her dreams.
Soon, the bizarre images from April’s dreams start spilling into the real world for everyone to see and that’s when Cortez reveals the secret which sets the series in motion: April is living in a parallel universe. The cyberpunk world she has resided in for her entire life is called Stark but, unknown to April and most others in Stark, there’s also another world, a magical, medieval metropolis known as Arcadia. April’s dreams are indicative of the fact that she has the rare talent of being a “Shifter,” meaning she can move between both worlds. And according to Cortez, not only is April a Shifter, but she is also the chosen one who will restore the balance between worlds which has been gradually shattering (i.e. the weird images seeping into Stark).
A huge part of the fun in The Longest Journey is simply exploring the colorful, old-fashioned world of Arcadia. Sure, the plot is compelling, but it’s also massive and labyrinthine almost beyond belief. If there’s one complaint I can lodge about the story, it’s that it is almost too rich. This game is long, as the title implies, and certain scenes and conversations do smack of unnecessary eloquence. Long, unbroken, unskippable sequences of dialogue about the history and mythology of Arcadia and Stark sometimes struggle to hold attention. The game is best when it sticks to the traditional, goal-based adventure game structure, though of course some exposition is necessary.
The game is also best when it focuses on April, who is a smart, brave, and totally engaging heroine on par with gaming’s best. She makes the occasionally tedious parts of the journey only minimally annoying with her undeniable charm. That’s not to say that The Longest Journey is an April-dominated experience, however. There are plenty of other superbly drawn characters who add humor, gravitas, and conflict to the proceedings, from the enigmatic but honorable Cortez to the mad magician Roper Klacks to smarmy sea captain Horatio Nebevay, and, of course, Crow, the snarky talking bird who becomes April’s sidekick. All of these characters, I should say, are impeccably voiced by a capable cast. In a lot of ways, the skill in which Tornquist navigates the vast cast of characters of all different races and cities reminded me of Mass Effect. The way he lends a unique personality to every character and group is truly one of this game’s greatest achievements.
For those reasons and others, I think the Longest Journey deserves all of its acclaim. Though the plot is sometimes messy and the puzzles are often befuddling (I had to look at a walkthrough a lot, which I don’t usually like to do), that’s only because it’s so deep and intricate. And it overcomes those minor hurdles with its ease, thanks to its sheer freshness and originality, infectious spirit, and memorable characters. It’s an absolute must for all lovers of adventure or story-driven games.
6 years later, The Longest Journey was followed by an inevitable sequel called Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Though the original game is slightly more acclaimed by critics, I actually enjoyed Dreamfall even more and would even say it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. It improves on the minor flaws in The Longest Journey by giving us a more streamlined, but still brilliant, story that doesn’t have the impenetrability of the first game’s, or its punishing puzzles or its drawn out expositional scenes.
It also gives us three playable characters. First, there’s Zoe Castillo, a despondent teenager from the cosmopolitan city of Casablanca in Stark, who is desperately searching for purpose in her life. That purpose soon arrives in two forms. First, Zoe begins seeing bizarre messages on screens around Casablanca that are targeted only at her. In them, an enigmatic little girl whispers Zoe’s name and tells her to “find April Ryan. Save April Ryan.” Then, later, Zoe’s ex-boyfriend Reza disappears shortly after Zoe goes to pick up a mysterious package for him, and Zoe begins to suspect the two events are connected. Zoe’s story soon becomes a conspiracy thriller that really brings Stark to life in ways that the Longest Journey perhaps did not. That was really something that struck me about this game, as opposed to the first. I was drawn equally to both worlds and when the story spent a lot of time in one of the worlds, I couldn’t wait to return to the other. That really speaks to Tornquist’s achievement here. It’s hard enough for a writer to create one world that is uniquely fascinating, but Tornquist manages to create two.
In Dreamfall, we also meet another new playable character, a bruising warrior named Kian Alvane, who is an assassin for the Azadi people, a devoutly religious race who has taken over the city of Marcuria, where most of the Arcadia action in both games is set. Kian is sent to Marcuria to uncover and assassinate a figure known as the Scorpion, who is a supposed scourge of the Azadi people. The Scorpion’s climactic revelation is one of the many great plot twists that Tornquist treats us to in Dreamfall.
Finally, of course, we play as April, who now lives permanently in Arcadia and has become much more jaded about her role as heroine in the 10 years since the events of the first game. The interactions between her and Zoe are some of the best written scenes in the series. April clearly sees herself in Zoe and tries to advise her, but Zoe is a different character and person and there’s a believable tension in her scenes with April.
If I have one quibble with Dreamfall, it’s the ending. Though the game comes to a profound and surprisingly emotional climax, it also leaves a host of unanswered questions dangling. I’ve already begun playing the 3rd and final game in the series, Dreamfall Chapters, but I’m not sure how far it will go in answering some of those questions. After the investment I put into both games, it was just slightly disappointing to see Tornquist so blatantly leaving things open for a sequel at the end of Dreamfall.
But like I said, Dreamfall is an incomparable game. There’s truly nothing else like it out there that I have played. It takes a lot to get me involved in a fantastical, supernatural story like this one, but this game has the goods. It’s also beautiful to look at and, again, the sound and voice acting is unmatched. I honestly can’t recommend this game enough, though after you’ve played The Longest Journey, of course. Both games represent the cream of the crop when it comes to adventure games and deserve all of the acclaim and awards they have received.