Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nights: Journey of Dreams Review

Ladies and gentlemen, five days ago today, I witnessed this:

This is something that should have happened several years ago, but hey, better late than never, as they say. I always thought that Nights into Dreams would be perfectly suited for an arcade release, considering its play style and general size. Not to mention that my own SEGA Saturn hasn’t been functional for a very long time, which unfortunately still leaves me unable to play this wondrous and nostalgic masterpiece until this remastered version is finally released, a fact that greatly saddens me. I still remember receiving the dusty old thing around six years ago and Nights alongside it, ready to play this Sonic Team cult classic that I had never experienced before. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, but once I was into it, boy, was I ever into it. The magnificent soundtrack, the amazingly creative levels, the surprisingly well-aged abstract visual design, the simple storyline that expressed so much without a single line of dialogue, the fluid gameplay, the perfect controls, the general originality…good Lord, it was an experience. It was a very short game, but I replayed it far too many times to count. My SEGA Saturn’s save battery was dead long before I received it, so I had to start over each time I played, but did I care? Not in the least. To my 10-year-old mind, this was one of the best games I had ever played, and I actually wouldn’t expect my opinion to have changed too drastically over time. Of course, I suppose I will ultimately have to wait and see until I have finally experienced it again, but still, I’m expecting to have a pretty freaking good time.

Ah…and reminiscing about Nights into Dreams reminds me of its heavily belated sequel, Journey of Dreams. Had you asked anyone so many years ago, they would certainly tell you that this game simply called for a sequel, but years passed and there was no word. Nights received many cameos in later SEGA games and there was a prototype for a new Nights game on the Dreamcast, but it never went beyond that stage. Then, finally, in 2007, a sequel was announced, for the Nintendo Wii no less. See, this was back before we realized that the Wii is a terrible console that wants to eat everyone’s babies, and instead were dreaming of all of the ways in which the new Nights game would take advantage of the Wii’s amazing and innovative technology. Who gives a crap that Sonic Team had only just been responsible for two of the worst abominations to ever be crapped out of their core franchise? They were making a new Nights game, and it was going to be a masterful sequel that would do the utmost justice to its eleven-year-old predecessor. So, did it succeed after all? Well…it’s a bit hard to say. Let’s just dive right in to the controversial Nights: Journey of Dreams.


Since I don’t want to start the review on a negative note, I believe I should begin by talking about the visuals and music. The visuals of Journey of Dreams are for the most part simply splendid; the game’s worlds inherit the abstract and colorful aesthetic design of the first game, which is, of course, appropriate, since the game takes place in a dream universe. The worlds are very diverse, as well, with each having its own look. Cutscenes do suffer from a bad framerate and there’s some slight uncanny valley on the human characters in both in-engine cutscenes and FMV’s, but on the whole, visual design holds up very well even five years after the game’s initial release. The soundtrack is…probably the game’s biggest strength. In fact - no exaggeration - it may very well be one of the greatest soundtracks I’ve ever heard from a video game. It’s all just wonderfully composed, upbeat and extremely catchy. Yes, the lyrics to “Dreams Dreams” are just as cringe worthy as ever, but hey, at least the instrumental version is great.

But then, we have…*sigh*…the story. The original Nights told a very simple storyline about two children who are dealing with insecurities in their waking life and, throughout their journeys through the dream world, Nightopia, with the mysterious creature Nights, they grow more confident and courageous and are eventually able to work together to defeat the evil king of nightmares, Wizeman. The endings show them fully conquering their fears and even meeting each other in person, at which point something of a romance is implied. The storyline had very few cutscenes and no dialogue, but conveyed a lot in spite of that. I know the phrase has been used before, but it very much applies here: it talked so little, yet said so much. Journey of Dreams has a very similar premise to the original Nights, but rather than the children being solely concerned with their talents and how they are viewed by their peers because of them, a lot of the insecurities of these two children – named Will and Helen – involve their relationships with their parents. The story of Journey of Dreams would also be able to use better technology to provide in-engine cutscenes and spoken dialogue for said in-engine cutscenes, which, if used well, could have delivered a more compelling narrative.
I think you know where I'm going with this.
Unfortunately, while there was a lot of potential in the storyline of Journey of Dreams, the execution is absolutely dreadful. The narrative is…coherent, I suppose, and there aren’t really any plot holes that I could see, but aside from that, the entire story is horribly written and, on the whole, just very boring. While the game pretends its focus is on the children’s problems and how they come to terms with them over the course of the game – as it should have been – it…really isn’t. We don’t actually know exactly what’s bothering these kids so much that it’s causing them to have horrible nightmares. There are some implications, sure, but we’re never 100% sure exactly what’s bothering them or even why. For instance, Will could possibly be afraid that his father won’t be able to show up at his big soccer game - and spoiler alert: he does - which kind of sucks, but if I’m getting the story right, he should be used to his dad going on these sorts of business trips and he seems pretty competent at playing soccer besides. I could see him being a bit nervous, but scared out of his mind? Or maybe the problem is that he feels lonely because he isn’t able to spend enough time with his dad? The problems are never made completely clear for either of the two kids, and neither was particularly likable besides. They were pretty bland characters and all of the “character development” and the meetings between them felt really forced and contrived.

Actually, every time the story did seem to touch on something that could have been interesting, it didn’t elaborate on it at all. Each of the worlds are said to be a reflection of the visitor’s heart. This could have made for some great opportunities for actual, legitimate character development, but wasn’t. At one point, Owl (who is basically this game’s equivalent to Navi) brings up that most visitors to Nightopia lose their memories upon waking up, and this scene occurs after a pretty big “character” moment. This is brought up once and never mentioned again. There was also the fact that Nights is actually a creation of Wizeman that ended up rebelling against him, while his evil twin brother Reala remains loyal to Wizeman. Both children end up learning this and have very brief moments where they question whether they should trust Nights or not, which is another thing that could have been expanded upon so much more and made into an interesting conflict. Actually, that’s another thing: there was a pretty big opportunity here to give us a deeper understanding of Nights’ back story. We know almost nothing about him…eh…her…IT aside from what I’ve already stated, and because of this, it comes off as a very underdeveloped character. It wasn’t bland if only for the fact that it had an actual personality, but the story still gave me no reason to care about this character, even at its dramatic sacrifice. Yeah, this is a storyline so horridly written that I didn’t even care when one of the main characters supposedly died. Have you ever actually seen that?
Actually, I'm not entirely sure if this game's story is better or worse.
I suppose I shouldn’t even need to mention that the dialogue and voice acting are simply nauseating and the cutscenes all move very slowly. The only parts of the story that I thought even remotely succeeded were the endings. Being completely devoid of anything that made the rest of the story an utter trainwreck, they accomplish exactly what the original Nights did. Not quite as well, but they still do it. Other than that, though, I’d say I might have actually enjoyed this storyline less than that of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. I guess it’s more comprehensible, but Sonic 06 was bad in a sort of “it’s terrible but I can’t look away” manner. This was just…ugh. Now, you may be thinking that I shouldn’t be harping on this so much; considering exactly what kind of game Nights is, I shouldn’t be devoting so much time to explaining in detail why the story sucks. However…it really is emphasized a lot more than you would think and I can definitely tell that they wanted to make a solid story. Heck, you actually can’t skip the cutscenes in this game; it forces you to watch them the first time. I’ve played very few games that have actually caused me to dread the coming of the next cutscene; this is one of them. In the end, this does leave the storyline as a rather significant fault, which is sad, to say the least. It’s basically the exact opposite of the first game’s storyline: it talks so much, but says almost nothing.

But, of course, while the story is a bit more important to this game than it probably should be, it’s really not the point. The point of Journey of Dreams is its gameplay, and, at its base, it’s basically the same gameplay style that made the original game so unique and fun. You spend the main levels of the game controlling the titular Nights, flying in a 2.5D perspective, which will occasionally switch to behind-the-back or top-down perspectives. You fly through rings, collect Blue Chips and defeat Nightmarens as you make your way through the level to accomplish the goal at hand and get the highest score possible. Nights also has a drill dash move that is used to gain speed as well as attack enemies and destroy obstacles, but as you use it, the gauge depletes. Said gauge is refilled by flying through rings.  By creating an enclosed loop with the trail that Nights leaves behind when flying, you can also perform a “paraloop” move, which kills all enemies and collects all Blue Chips inside of it. Flying through a set of rings and collecting Blue Chips will create “Links”, or combos, which can be maintained for extra points. Nights has a time limit, and if it runs out, you will have to control one of the kids and make your way back to the place that Nights is being held, which basically cripples your potential score. Upon completing the level, you finally face off with a boss.

So, Journey of Dreams is fundamentally similar to the original game. However, there are some key differences that significantly affect the experience. Despite the time limit, Nights into Dreams was a rather leisurely game. The objective was to collect the Ideya from the stationary Ideya Captures, and taking one of the Ideya back to the Ideya Palace would start a new course of the level. To break the Ideya Captures, you had to collect twenty Blue Chips, which would respawn along with the rings every time you flew past an Ideya Palace, and even when you got the Ideya, there was no need to start the next course just yet, and you would have to make use of this to get the best ranks. In fact, you would actually get more points if you hit the checkpoint while you were down to your last ten seconds. Into Dreams also felt like its level design, while more compact, was a bit more multi-faceted and there was more of a focus on finding secrets in them.

In comparison, Journey of Dreams is more focused on being fast. In the main levels, you are required to chase down a bird that is carrying a key in order to unlock a cage, which will start the next course. Levels are much larger to accommodate this, but feel more streamlined and aren’t quite as multi-faceted as those of the original Nights, nor do they contain as many secrets. Links are also a lot easier to maintain than in the original Nights and are more important because they add to your allotted time in this game, and the more time you have when you break the cage, the higher your score will be. It feels like they were trying to create an experience more similar to, say, a Sonic game, and while I find the approach of the original Nights more enjoyable, Journey of Dreams’ approach does what it wants to do well in spite of some rubber band AI on the birds. Level design is also great and even creative, with each level having some very unique gimmicks and attributes. I’m particularly fond of Crystal Castle. Some areas in this level have objects that only appear in mirrors, and there are prisms and whatnot that split Nights into tiny clones or even make him/her/it gigantic, which are put to various uses. They’re all very imaginative and are generally great fun.
Oh yeah, the new power-ups are pretty cool, too.
Of course, you may be curious as to how well this game makes use of the Wii’s technology.  Yuji Naka, the programmer of the original game, said himself that the Wii would be the perfect console for a Nights sequel because of the motion controls. One of the possible control styles for Journey of Dreams allows you to use the Wii Remote’s IR to control Nights. Does it work well? Ehhhhhhhhhh...not really.  The Wii IR controls aren’t awful if you know how the game wants you to use them. You’re supposed to keep the Wii Remote’s position relatively the same and use only subtle movements to control Nights, but…quite frankly, that’s a bit impractical, and can become cramp inducing after a while. It’s not exactly easy on the thumb, either, since you have to keep the “A” button held down the whole time to continue moving. Doing loops is also made needlessly difficult with these controls because of how easy it is to lose your position, and half the time, straight up and straight down movements, while rarely required, are nigh-on impossible to do correctly. It’s really disappointing, honestly, because there was a lot of potential here to enhance the experience, but ultimately, you’re going to want to stick to analog control. Analog control is decent, but unfortunately, even then, the game feels weirdly stiff in comparison to the nigh-on perfect controls of the first game, which takes away some of the fluidity of the gameplay. The game is still plenty fun, but it is noticeable and does hurt the experience a bit.

Each world in the game has four missions aside from the main ones. The fifth one is always a more difficult rematch with that world’s boss. Bosses in the game get points for originality, but not all of them are particularly fun. I suppose most of them are decently enjoyable if a bit tedious, but there were three that were just bad. The boss battle of Lost Park required you to perform paraloops in order to uncover the boss, which was hiding behind a curtain, within the time limit. This came off as pretty much entirely luck-based, and while cards in the background could possibly give a clue as to where he was hiding, generally they didn’t help much. The second fight was even worse, since bombs with unfathomably large blast radii were randomly peppered throughout the arena. The mechanics of Crystal Castle’s boss, while unique, suffered from poor physics that made it needlessly difficult. Memory Forest’s boss fight was fine in the first battle, but in the second just dragged on forever and made it difficult to get a decent rank.

Most of each world’s other missions were actually pretty dang fun. Generally, they used the same mechanics of the main missions, but put them to a different use or gave you a different goal, which helped to add a lot of variety to the game. In particular, I enjoyed the Octopaw missions, which had you following this blue octopus creature that…crapped out rings in order to get a high number of Links. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense, but it was a lot of fun. Another that I found especially enjoyable was a mission in Memory Forest that was played something like a rhythm game, which I thought was a very unique and fun use of the Nights gameplay. There were a few missions that were rather insipid: namely, the “platforming” missions played with the two kids. There were four of these, and they were about as bland as the kids themselves. They were slow, tedious and almost completely devoid of any actual platforming, puzzles or anything that could possibly have made these missions salvageable. They’re also considerably longer than most other missions in the game. These missions make up only four out of the game’s thirty, but they were so bad that they just needed to be mentioned. Just…ugh.

The Good:

+ Great graphics
+ Amazing soundtrack
+ Gameplay is still fun and unique
+ Very fun and creative levels
+ Plenty of variety
+ Endings are satisfying…

The Bad:

- …but the story is otherwise horrid
-  Wii IR controls are disappointing
- Analog control isn’t as polished as in the first game
- Some bosses just suck
- Missions with the kids are an utter travesty


So, how does Nights: Journey of Dreams compare to its predecessor? Well…the first is most definitely a far superior game in…basically every aspect except the graphics and possibly the music. But though it has several noteworthy faults, as a whole, Journey of Dreams is still a pretty good game. While controls aren’t nearly as fluid as in the first game, they really aren’t bad enough to keep the gameplay from being very enjoyable. The story is intrusive, over-emphasized and, to be blunt, downright awful, but the gameplay is still Journey’s primary focus in the end. It’s pretty short, but there’s a good amount of replay value here and the game has been out for five years anyway, so it probably wouldn’t cost too much. At the very least, you should consider renting it. It’s not a great experience, but it’s an experience worth having nonetheless.

Grade: B-

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