Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: The Longest Journey

I love me some point and click action, so when a game like The Longest Journey drunkenly stumbles itself into my life, I can't help but want to love it. Not in a way two drunk uni students would in the middle of the uni bar or two trashy bogans would in the middle of whatever pub they happen to be in; more in a way where we're both in my bedroom as we gently caress each other before we make love. In short, The Longest Journey offers naught but excellence in most any given field of not only basic game design, but also in how we truly play video games. For a lot of people, stories are either an arbitrary add-on to justify why we do what we doing in games or can add a layer of depth to a game... for a lot of people, video game stories can be seen as complete shit when taken on their own terms and it's a viewpoint I tend to agree on. Planescape: Torment, Red Dead Redemption and the Mass Effect trilogy may have great stories, but Final Fantasy games have the sort of story that'd bore readers to tears and only really work in context of being a video game. The Longest Journey is the kind of game where the story has more than enough depth to justify its existence, could easily work well in the form of a book and best of all, the setting and the gameplay compliments it to a point where the game flows at a natural pace, swallowing you into the world portrayed in the game. Many games claim to do this kind of thing, but very few actually succeed in truly immersing you into their worlds.

But what is this game actually about? It's about a normal everyday girl named April Ryan, an art student at the Venice Academy Of Visual Arts in the Venice district of Newport City. She is plagued by nightmares involving dragons and black vortexes - among other things – that take place within a world much more colorful than her own. The thing is however, the dreams are real enough to be real as you learn throughout the game that not only are there two parallel worlds, but that April has the power to shift between the worlds. The thing is that she doesn't realize it until she meets a guy named Cortez who reveals to her that there are two worlds and that she can shift between them. The thing is that Newport City is a part of an industrialist world full of gritty landscapes known as Stark. The thing is that outside of some flying cars, this is about as realistic of a portrayal of the future as it gets as while it seems not a whole lot has changed between 1999 and 2209, it just feels rather different given the more corporate landscape. The other world is Arcadia, a world full of whimsy and wonder. Both worlds are full of chatty people as, especially in the beginning of the game, people can and will talk your head off, although unlike a Metal Gear Solid game, the writing comes across as natural and with some genuinely funny lines (along with enough swear words to make Samuel L Jackson blush, though not quite enough references to sex and drugs to ban this in Australia), it never really impedes on the game's progress – if anything, it adds more personality and depth to the game.

The idea is to restore the balance between the two worlds, but throughout the journey, you'll watch April grow and truly develop into a truly amazing character. Her interactions with the worlds – including people she knows, people she doesn't know and each object that she can interact with – allows you to feel for April's character as her dialogue is rather witty and can elicit some chuckles. But where her character works oh so well is in her development. She starts off as a rather plain Jane (albiet one with a good sense of humor) who ran from home to chase her dreams in Venice... by working at a cafe, doing an art class at a school, finds herself annoyed by her best friend and life in a small room, and finds solace in small talk with her landlady while being ignorant of her powers; the world of Arcadia deeply intrigues her as it's vastly different from her own, almost dreamlike in appearance. It's like what she would paint, only it's real. Eventually, she meets a man named Cortez, who tells her about her powers. Over the course of the game, she'll find herself more confident with her powers as she has to restore the balance between the two worlds. Even thirteen years after release, April is still one of the deepest characters in the realm of video games and experiencing her journey is – as much as I hate to use the following term, I feel like it more than applies here – unlike many, if any that you've experienced before, both in the concept and the quality of the writing.

But good writing cannot succeed without some masterful voice acting, so here's some good news - the voice acting is fantastic. It excels where it needs to excel, and that's in April's voice. Goddamn, talk about fantastic voice acting – every breath of every syllable of every word from Sarah Hamilton brings April to life as her voice conveys just the right emotions for the situation at hand. Whether she conveys the humor at a fine tone or distraught at just the right amount without it being hammy, there's no doubt that you'll be more than willing to pay attention to everything she says. Same with a lot of the other voice actors. Sure, they're not quite as good, but they still do a fine job of bringing their respective characters to life and their interactions with April are certainly entertaining to listen to, especially in tandem with the excellent writing on display. If anything resembling a flaw exists, it's that it's rather obvious that multiple characters have the same voice actor, and even then, there are only so many voices out there that some are bound to overlap. So really, the voice acting is fantastic.

The music is just as good. It's not exactly melodic in the sense that you'll be humming it well after playing the game, but it's more melodic in the sense that enhances the emotion conveyed in each and every scene, or it provides the player with the appropriate ambience while sitting in the background somewhere. Stark's music tends to be more classical and feels like you're exploring a cave while Arcadia's music has more flutes and sounds more fantastical than anything else. The music during certain scenes tends to have chanting choirs to build up an epic atmosphere – and why not? The scenes usually depict big events like crossing over into another world or some other huge event. The choir does a fine job of making these scenes dramatic enough to feel significant without going overboard, which is something I can appreciate when games nowadays can hardly, if at all, get that right.

Speaking of the scenes, the graphics... to put it simply, it succeeds more in the mood that's produced rather than raw power. Mind you, they looked good by the standards of its time, but by 2013 standards, it's clear that they haven't aged too well. It's not because they put 3D models on top of 2D backdrops; it's the 3D itself. In particular, the in game 3D models are a tad on the “blech” side of the fence as they tend to look like they're lacking a few polygons, looking all blocky and whatnot, and the animations tend to be indescribably lame. The cutscene graphics scream late 90s CGI as they look more like claymation models than computer generated models. But then you look at the designs of the worlds and their inhabitants, take a deep breath and realize that The Longest Journey has a hell of a look to it. From ugly, grimy looking ghettos to cheery looking villages ripped right out of a Tolkein novel (or some other fantasy adventure novel), the way that everything is constructed manages to suck you right into the experience. The colors, the designs, everything – it all looks as you would expect their respective worlds to look like based on whatever's established by the characters and the music. It's the kind of game that other games wishing to be more then mere play things should aspire to be – ambient. Not just shallow eye candy.

To compliment the overall package is the gameplay – being a point and click game, it's more about interactivity. Whether you're observing objects, putting objects into your inventory for later or talking to people, there's plenty of stuff to interact with. As with any good point and click game, you're given a lot of incentive to interact with everything you can as you can find clues to the puzzles that you'll encounter throughout your journey. Plus... why not get immersed into the worlds presented in this game? The cursor will change its shape depending on what it's highlighting, whether it's broken to signify that you can'd do anything with it or a certain shade of color to signify whether you can simply walk or run there, exit to another screen, interact with an object or use an object that you've just picked up. To help people out a bit, when you've picked up an object, if it flashes when you're highlighting something with it, it can interact with that.

The puzzles are generally what you'd expect from this type of game where you'll either use items in your inventory or interact with objects around you to operate a mechanism or cause an event to happen that'll allow you to proceed. Whether you'll need to search for an item you've missed or combine some items in your inventory together to make a new one depends on what the puzzle needs. There are some puzzles with bizarre solutions, but unlike games with outright ass-backwards solutions like The Whispered World, you'll be able to find the solution if you think a little outside the box. On the whole though, it's not quite as hard as you'd expect from this genre. Besides the cursor highlighting what you can and can't interact with, Oh, and advice to newcomers – pay attention to what's being said, because you can find some helpful clues from their dialogue if an item or a piece of scenery doesn't clue you in as to what you ought to do next. If necessary, you can look up conversations (among other things like saving and loading files, settings, FMV scenes you've already viewed and her thoughts on what's been going on in the game) in her diary.

The best part about the puzzles is how they're integrated into the game. Each logic puzzle, each inventory puzzle, each puzzle that contains both – they flow incredibly well with the rest of the game. They're all based on their location – whether it's a room in Stark or a portion of somewhere in Arcadia, if there's a puzzle, it fits within the context of that location and whatever characters and/or objects just so happen to be there, especially since puzzles are either triggered by interacting with certain items or whenever an event happens. To put it simply, Stark relies on cold, hard logic as it's a science fiction world, and Arcadia's puzzles require more creative logic as it's something of an abstract fantasy world. Understanding these simple rules will allow you to understand what is necessary in order to solve the puzzle. Due to being more story driven than your usual point and click game, The Longest Journey's puzzles are hardly a challenge, especially when compared to some of the brain busting riddles you'll find in Myst and King's Quest games. But given their implementation in the game and its story driven nature, it's more than forgivable.

That's what drives The Longest Journey well and above the rest of its contemporaries – ambience. Every action, every interaction, every piece of scenery, every note of the music, every vocal chord; it all conglomerates into an experience that makes it stand above the rest of its competition. Clearly, the story was the star of the game, but everything this game offers placate themselves to help it further stand out. It's through a culmination of everything that's integrated into the game that it becomes an ultimately captivating experience second to none and sits atop the throne as one of the best games ever made. There's really not much more to say other than this – buy it and experience it. You won't regret it.

9.5/10 (Fucking Excellent)

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