Point and click adventure games are usually at home on a PC. From their inception in the early 80’s to their LucasArts heyday in the 90’s, their limited mechanics and minimal graphical requirements worked well on a platform with a rather nondescript technical output. Time marched on and the genre evolved (mostly thanks to Telltale Games). Modern adventure games incorporate most of the antiquated mechanics into a more refined formula, but generally operate under a contemporary design approach, thus gaining a wildly appreciative audience. Dream Chronicles seems to have deliberately forgotten the genre has moved past the trappings of a limited interface. Originally released on the PC in 2007, it feels even older. While some may appreciate this sort of manufactured nostalgia (hey, it worked for Mega Man 9), Dream Chronicles’ squanders its goodwill with a myriad of problems.
Adventure is a bit of a misnomer. When I think of adventure I think of a journey, and when I think of a journey I expect to be taken somewhere, literally and metaphorically. In time honored fashion, getting there should be at least half the fun. Dream Chronicles goes nowhere because there is no journey to speak of. Screens are shuffled and arranged in sequential order with puzzles that increase in complexity but not difficulty. There are no red herrings to follow or obscure workaround to the obvious solutions. Every part of Dream Chronicles has an intended purpose, with little freedom otherwise. Billed as a “Hidden Object Game,” it’s more comfortable as the cool page of Highlights magazine than a voyage.
Context states the Faye woke up and found her fairy husband Fidget abducted (so to speak) by Lilith, who happened to leave behind a non sequitur series of puzzles and clues to carefully limit Faye’s progression around a small town. Narrative is occasionally relayed via bits of dry text in and in between some of the chapters, leaving all of the nuance under construction in the player’s head. To its credit, Dream Chronicles offers a focused art direction along with a casually interesting, low-fantasy world. The environments are ripe with detail and slightly ethereal in nature, offering that Myst-like impression of an enchanted village. It’s a bit limited, but at least it’s inspired.
18 chapters are defined by 18 screens, each approached in a linear fashion. Chapters usually offers two distinct chances at interaction. The first order of business is to scour the plane for interactive objects, usually hidden or obscured from view, that can be collected. You know the drill; search high and low for slightly off kilter or discolored objects that might serve an overarching purpose. Next, those objects are stored in an inventory and used to solve a puzzle or two before progressing to the next chapter. It’s quite simple.
So what’s the problem? Dream Chronicles was originally constructed as a PC game, and the transition to console was rather clumsy. The left stick controls the cursor, which functions as a painfully slow mouse. Selecting correct objects relegates them to the bottom of the screen, where they can then be reselected and used in context sensitive matters to solve puzzles. The time it took you to read that is actually faster than the time it takes to move about the screen because the cursor is slow as molasses. A few shortcuts are mapped to buttons, but most of the time you’ll have to discover an object, watch the object go to your inventory, drag the pointer down there to pick it up, and then drag it back to wherever you think it needs to go. In puzzles with multiple objects, not to mention not knowing exactly what to do with said objects, this can get understandably tedious.
Maybe that wouldn’t have bothered me so much of the interaction was on point, but, sadly, it wasn’t. Many of the objects you need to find are obscured from view. Dream Chronicles throws you a bone here, allowing you to zoom in a bit and look slightly left or right, and it can be fun to approach this in a seek-and-find manner. The problem is these objects are all mortally wounded by a low pixel count. The resolution was probably fine on a PC monitor, but was handled rather poorly in transition. The “area of discovery” that separates an object from the background to an interactive thing is painfully small, and when I wasn’t pressing my face against my 46” television to try and take advantage of Dream Chronicles I was mashing the X button over and over in a futile attempt to click on the correct set of pixels in order to pick up an object. Needless to say, frustration was a constant companion in my effort to collect objects.
Puzzles are the objective backbone of adventure games. In an ideal environment puzzles provide a logistical challenge that not only has a detectable relation to the fiction, but also makes some sort of tangible sense when in search of a solution. Dream Chronicles’ puzzles rarely do either. It’s not that they’re bad, the few that don’t rely on genre tropes are actually rather intuitive, it’s that your goals aren’t explicitly stated beyond picking stuff up and then trying it out. On one occasion I had to pick a bunch of pictures up off the floor, arrange them in their correct place on the wall, which revealed a crank that, when placed in a piano, summoned a crowbar out of the ether that was then used to pry open a floorboard to reveal a key, which unlocked the piano and allowed me to play Simon Says with five-key melodies supplied by the paintings. I suppose Dream Chronicles rational lies with the nefarious antics of Lilith and her ultimate desire to hamper Faye, but in terms of playing the game it felt forced and disconnected from the world. Trial and error took the place of logic far too often.
Worse, the puzzles often fall victim to the same pixel problems suffered by locating objects. In one particularly frustrating bout of willpower I was forced to use a shovel to repeatedly stab eight or so arbitrary sections of the ground in order to reveal a key, which, by the way, needed to be washed with wate-you get the point, right? Puzzles that actively fail on a mechanical level are demoralizing and, while their logic is occasionally sound, completion doesn’t offer the slightest perspective on progression or growth.
There isn’t much incentive to return. Finding all of the dream stones scattered about the screens might appeal to completionists, but they suffer from he same pixel pointing problems as the rest of the objects (but at least they’re brightly colored). There’s a trophy for beating the game in 25 minutes, which, again, is reliant more on luck than skill, even if you already know the solutions to the puzzles. A two player mode is included as well, which adds an additional cursor to the screen. It’s a nice addition, especially with the generous option to play online, but it’s in service of a poor game. I can’t recommend playing Dream Chronicles with a friend.
I played Dream Chronicles in two sessions lasting about three hours. This is sort of relevant because in between sessions I attended a four year old’s birthday party. During said party I played with the four year old, who was quite adamant about showing me her Leapster 2, which looked like an indestructible Gameboy Advance. Why am I mentioning this? Because that thing had a game in it that offered nearly identical “find the hidden thing” experience with a far greater measure of success. It was designed for its platform and was well aware of its audience, something I instantly recognized as lost in Dream Chronicles. It’s possible to create a good adventure game on consoles, last year’s Axel and Pixel proved that, but attempting to do so with a thoughtless port of an uninspired game isn’t going to get any accolades.