Monday, September 16, 2013

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 Review

Evidently it's been nearly 16 months since I reviewed the first three chapters of Cockroach Inc's The Dream Machine. When I played those three chapters, I was immediately hooked and couldn't sing enough praises for the game. An interesting story with great narrative pacing, intelligent brain-teasing puzzles that felt incredibly natural and plausible in context, and a fairly unique atmosphere and visual style had me anxiously awaiting the release of chapter four. And yet it's taken nearly two years since the release of chapter three for chapter four to finally become available.

Fortunately, chapter three didn't end on a major cliffhanger -- there was still obviously a lot of the story yet to be told, but it sufficiently resolved one prominent story arc before promising others. Chapter four picks up right where chapter three left off; after rescuing your wife Alicia from her own dream, you realize that you have to do the same with the other residents of your apartment building in order to shut down the landlord's haywire dream machine. Chapter four thus consists of a self-contained dream sequence as Victor goes into the dreamscape of his elderly neighbor Edie. 

As much as I enjoyed playing through the first three chapters, I found chapter four much harder to get into. The biggest issue is just getting back into the swing of things after so much down time between episodes because there's still no recap to bring you up to speed. It was therefore quite jarring going into chapter four, trying to remember exactly what had just happened at the end of chapter three, and figuring out exactly what I was supposed to be doing in chapter four. Consequently, I spent an awful lot of time in the beginning aimlessly wandering around, clicking on everything possible, unable to remember what I'd already examined or used in previous chapters and unsure of what was important or new to me now.  

It becomes especially problematic when the game expects you to remember an obscure, previously unsolvable puzzle -- something you encountered in chapter two but weren't able to find a solution to until now. After so long of waiting, it's just hard to remember what you have and have not used in the environment, and it's even harder to connect the dots between this particular puzzle's clue and its solution when they're in completely different areas and when such small environmental details aren't still fresh in your memory. So early on, I found myself completely stumped and unable to make progress in the game until I'd consulted a walkthrough.

Those issues aside, chapter four still leaves a little something to be desired, and doesn't offer a whole lot of substance to sink your teeth into after so long of eager anticipation. Chapter four is incredibly short and can be completed in under an hour if you figure out where to go and don't struggle too much with the puzzles. Particularly underwhelming is the fact that there are basically only two puzzles in this chapter: one where you have to brew a sleeping potion by reading through the landlord's old journal, and another in Edie's dream sequence, which is a more drawn-out process of navigating a maze by rearranging the layout of rooms and experimenting with different combinations of things within the room.

With such a slow, clumsy start to chapter four, things picked up tremendously once I was finally in Edie's dream, presented with a fresh slate of environments and puzzles. It's in this sequence that the brilliance I'd come to expect from the previous chapters finally came to life. Navigating the "maze" of rooms welcomes interactive experimentation, allowing you to creatively discover things on your own rather than being forced to figure out a rigid, linear path of a solution. The storytelling in this sequence is especially enjoyable; subtle things in the environment and overheard conversations let you piece together Edie's past on your own, without the game ever explicitly telling or showing you anything.

Chapter four of The Dream Machine is probably not as satisfying or as fulfilling as anyone was hoping it would be after so long of a wait between chapters; too much of the game's episodic momentum is lost with the nearly two-year delay, and it's ultimately not very long with not very much content. But even still, there are touches of brilliance to enjoy with Edie's dreamscape and the puzzles are generally good, which, if you've already played the first three chapters, will make chapter four worth your while. If you still haven't played any of the chapters by now, though, I'd probably recommend waiting for all six to be completed before starting, simply to avoid the problems I encountered waiting so long between episodes. 

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