Dreamfall Chapters Book Two: Rebels Review
Coming off the heels of a rather sedentary first installment, Dreamfall Chapters Book Two: Rebels changes pace and propels the story into action. The first episode focused on finding your bearings and plotting your path; The second is all about setting that journey into motion. Book One did an admirable job of reacquainting its audience with the Dreamfall universe while providing a solid framework to build on in the chapters to follow. However, honing in that closely on the setup provided little room for follow through, and the lack of forward momentum left me less than satiated. Fortunately, the fruits of these labors are more than apparent in Book Two, which plucks off just enough to ramp up the action while leaving plenty to ripen on the vine in anticipation of what's to come.
Dreamfall is and has always been a story about duality--the yin & yang of Stark and Arcadia, magic and science, occupation and rebellion. These themes run deep in Book Two and offer a strong lens through which to view the bond between the journeys of two disparate leads: Zoe Castillo and Kian Alvane. Where Book One told a tale of parallel jailbreaks with Kian's escape from Azadi prison and Zoe's liberation from a Dreamtime-induced coma, Book Two continues this trend with a tale of two spies and a pair of fact-finding missions. With Kian embroiled in the Azadi conflict in Marcuria and Zoe finding herself at odds with the ever-increasing presence of EYE forces in Propast, the heroes launch headfirst into breaking down the mysteries and conspiracies within. And boy, do they have their work cut out for them.
For starters, Book Two is massive and takes over twice as long to complete as Book One. This is due both in part to the ample story progression and the introduction of a whole new, if familiar, environment in which to explore. While bigger isn't always better (and this is certainly true in some respects here), there is something satisfying about how the episode digs in, offering plenty of time to get lost in the world. There's a lot of meat on those bones, and this is excellent news for those of us who spent their time with the first book waiting for the story to go full-on Longest Journey. Book Two finally hits that stride and wastes no time getting there.
Book Two opens with Kian convalescing at Resistance headquarters, the underground ring of Arcadian rebels formerly led by the Captain to combat the growing Azadi threat. It is as if Robin Hood is being introduced to the band of Merry Magicals: Kian is ordered to prove his loyalty to the cause, and before long, finds himself roaming the streets of Marcuria. While wandering through the city in the game's third-person perspective, it was difficult not to get excited to be back on these old stomping grounds, and I had forgotten just how great a contrast the fantasy vibe of Marcuria provides when juxtaposed against the futuristic, Blade Runner-meets-Beyond Good & Evil aesthetic of Stark.
Like revisiting the house you grew up in many years later, Marcuria is simultaneously familiar and strange. The landmarks are still here (The Magic Market! The Journeyman Inn! The Rooster and Kitty!... wait, didn't that tavern go by a different name before?), but many areas are tweaked, askew, or entirely new. While several popular haunts have been abandoned since the occupation, there are plenty of new nooks and crannies to explore, leaving Marcuria feeling cautiously lively, like a party in a prison cell.
Where Book One told a tale of parallel jailbreaks with Kian's escape from Azadi prison and Zoe's liberation from a Dreamtime-induced coma, Book Two continues this trend with a tale of two spies and a pair of fact-finding missions.
This is not necessarily all for the best, however. As Kian ticks his way down the Resistance's to-do list, he must do so donning an Irhadian Veil so as not to be recognized by his fellow Azadi patrolling the streets. Narratively, this makes perfect sense. Since Kian was initially imprisoned for treason, anonymity should be a high priority. In practice, however, Kian's pace slows to a crawl anytime he passes a guarded gate or entryway, which yields a lot of tedious slow-walking as he makes the transition. As it is, navigating the town is sludgy enough, and you will find yourself holding down the run button constantly just to feel like you’re moving at a reasonable pace. These belligerently slow zones, while not terribly prevalent, are enough to frustrate when moving between areas.
Unfortunately, the same goes for Zoe's trek through Propast as well. While Kian works to dig up dirt on the Azadi in Marcuria, Zoe investigates a possible source of corruption within the political campaign she works for and what, if any, connection there is to the EYE and WATICorp. As Zoe gets closer to the answer, Propast's faux-pen world layout becomes less accessible to her. Roadblocks are increased, security is beefed up, and carving a path through the city becomes a puzzle all on its own. It's an effective way of communicating the EYE's growing threat through environmental storytelling, but as someone who often found himself disoriented on the streets of Propast, I did not appreciate the constant detouring required of Zoe in order to reach many of her destinations.
Perhaps the most baffling detour of Book Two occurs back in Arcadia when Kian is tasked with sneaking into Marcuria Harbor to sabotage a weapons shipment. Apparently, his magical veil loses some of its mojo in this area as the guards here are able to detect Kian's presence if he gets too close, initiating a fail-state. Not only is it an incredibly awkward slog to complete, but my attempts were riddled with bugs, robbing me of success the first couple times I managed to satisfy all passing requirements. It's aggravating and flies in the face of the more cerebral types of quests presented in the series so far. To add insult to burglary, when I finally managed to reach the cut-scene, I was awarded with the Steam achievement, "I Thought There Wouldn't Be Stealth!" Its description reads, "So you thought there wouldn't be stealth and also you suck at it," as if the lack of a proper toolset to engage in stealth--such as sneaking, or crouching, or any sort of visual feedback--had anything to do with the player's input. No, Dreamfall Chapters, it is you who sucks at it.
Mechanical flaws aside, Dreamfall Chapters soars when its quests provide the connective tissue between narrative mystery, tension, and resolution, and Book Two offers some excellent entries in this department. On their own, most missions offer little more than the deduction-based adventure-game fare familiar to Dreamfall vets. But string them together and a bigger picture comes into focus--one that leverages incremental progress with gratifying bursts of dramatic revelation. Without giving too much away, Dreamfall Chapters understands that what makes solving a key puzzle interesting isn't the act of opening the door, but discovering who's behind it and the intense conversations that arise as a result.
On this note, including dialogue choices is a natural progression for the series. As we have been told, Zoe's destination is predetermined, but her path along the way is not. This jives with the way the game's Bioware-style branching conversations work. The details change, but the big finish usually remains consistent. So while there may be less expectation for player choices to have a drastic impact on the final outcome of the plot, they do have a measurable impact on the smaller, more idiosyncratic moments (Reza's lunch will have repercussions!), and I found myself enjoying the smattering of incremental payoffs rather than anticipating a much larger one that may or may not come later. Again, it has a layered effect that, when added up, amount to an effective and intricate feat of storytelling.
It all comes back to the trilogy's bread & butter--its cast of characters. Book Two enjoys more colorful dialogue from the likes of Mira, the abusively foul-mouthed cybernetic chop-shopper; Baruti, the Botswanian campaign manager; and the nefarious Commander Vamon leading the Azadi occupation. If Kian is the Robin Hood of the story, Vamon is undoubtedly the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Dreamfall Chapters soars when its quests provide the connective tissue between narrative mystery, tension, and resolution.
To keep things fresh, there is also an influx of new and notable characters gracing the second act. For instance, in Arcadia there is Lihko, a wounded Dolmari warrior outspoken against Kian's presence who begrudges him for his Azadi heritage and the sacrifice made by the Resistance to save him. He's a complex and conflicted character whose intimidating presence is amplified by his booming voice.
At his side, there is Enu, a sassy feline Zhid with a curious mind and zero filter. In contrast to Lihko, her flirty frankness and positive attitude help to make Kian feel as welcome as possible given the circumstance. Without a doubt she is one of the more interesting and entertaining characters to be introduced so far. Her snarky dialogue and too-much-information attitude, especially regarding sex, inject much-needed comic relief within a group that is otherwise all business.
In addition, there's the mysterious Anna, a cunning rogue who appears to have a history with Kian despite his lapse in memory of any such relationship. Also crawling out of the woodwork is The Mole, Bip the thief, Hanna the punk rock runaway, and even a familiar face or two from Zoe's past. Other than an underwhelming showing by Reza, who's the most consistently mediocre brat of the pack, this episode walks the Dreamfall walk with plenty of meaningful roles to fulfill and subvert the archetypes within. With unique and diverse characters such as these, the series continues its tradition of utilizing a fantastic ensemble cast--an aspect that cannot be understated but was lacking by the end of Book One.
The Longest Journey series is a collection of inhabitable moments and by the end of this act, I appreciated what each moment had amounted to. This is emphasized by the radically tense cliffhanger the episode goes out on, which had me questioning every step that led up to it. As these pivotal moments pass, they offer new opportunities to reflect on the events that have come before them. They have a cumulative effect that changes the way in which you see the big picture. What happens in Stark can inform your understanding of what is happening in Arcadia and vice-versa, for their fates are interconnected. And as Kian and Zoe's worlds parallel each other, Dreamfall's world parallels our own, offering social and political commentary via the themes of its stories and the lives of its inhabitants. Book Two succeeds in reminding us that our destination may be predetermined, but our path is not. It's how we choose to travel, and who we keep by our side, that makes the journey worthwhile.