NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams (Wii)

Now, I only have limited access to a Wii, but when I found this game going for £2 at a local shop I could hardly say no. The original NiGHTS Into Dreams, which I have a few brief posts about is one of my favourite games, dare I say, ever. I was of course aware that its 2007 sequel, Journey of Dreams, got a fairly muted reception upon its release, garnering fairly average reviews and I imagine less-than-fairly-high sales. But, thankfully, from the little I’ve played, Journey of Dreams does at least retain the exact same gameplay of the original, with the expected modern visual effects and clarity. I haven’t played enough yet to talk much about the game as a whole, but I felt compelled to post because the opening to this game is revealing of a number of issues from the word “go”.

These aren’t definitive impressions, but booting up the game only to go through a lengthy tutorial on controlling NiGHTS delivered by a talking owl named “Owl” is enough to tell me there’s something wrong here. I also haven’t played any of the children stages – which is probably a good thing if I want to keep my memory of the original game unsoiled.

NiGHTS talks in this game. To me, this was a disappointment, but thankfully it isn’t as badly handled as it might’ve been. NiGHTS is voiced by a woman, with what sounds like an Aussie-South-African hybrid accent. Strange choice perhaps – but the very moment I realised NiGHTS was about to talk, the horrifying visions of Haley Joel Osment in the Sega-hired recording booth started. Maybe Haley’ll show up later, who knows.

Nice mustache, Tails.

My worst nightmare.

The children (or at least Will) are almost as creepy as Haley in the picture above; their eyes almost glow… again, the voice acting is okay. Not the worst, but you’d prefer they were silent, the way children should always be.

A few other interesting elements about Journey of Dreams that are worth putting out there in miniature form: the music is lovely – it’s by the same composers who did the music for the original game. The game also looks great for the most part. Many of the sound effects are reprised from the original Nights, which feels strange at times. The control isn’t as sensitive as the original game, making NiGHTS easier to control in some ways, but to me the lack of direct control makes it less satisfying. There’s also more time allowed to you before the combo (or link) fades, so I was able to rack up 200 links on the second stage of the game with hardly any trouble.

All told, the gameplay is very solid and it seems like a worthy sequel in that regard. What bothers me is the heavy presence of the story. This criticism comes partly because I’ve also been playing the original Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast, so you might call this a veritable Sonic Team binge, and the way their games use cutscenes to tell the story is aggravating at times. Journey of Dreams isn’t as extreme as the Sonic Adventure games (at least not the first two I’ve tried), many of the cutscenes are fairly short and there is conventional text dialogue for some of the parts which keeps it shy of interminably long. Having said that, you only have to go back to the original 2D Sonic games and the original Nights into Dreams to see that Sonic Team haven’t always handled story in this way.

NiGHTS journey of dreams 5

Having the story elements front and centre in my opinion, in these franchises, diminishes what these games do. For one, having an owl explain to me that I should fly through the floating rings in front of me is rather patronising. Anyone who has ever played a videogame before knows that when floating rings are involved the player’s aim is to be the best damn dolphin they can be. I’ll be the first to admit that Nights, especially the original – from what I can tell they toned down some of the obscurity in the sequel – is obtuse to start with. I spent some time with the manual with the original game because I was confused, and I still didn’t get it. “Ideya Palace”, “Ideya Capture”, “Blue Chips”, “Dualize”…? It’s not easy to decipher, and all of this is mandatory, let alone understanding the optional stuff – “Trick Ribbons”, the “Link” system, and so on. I can see how a tutorial would be potentially very useful here.

At the same time, there’s something to be said about Nights as a kind of sandbox experience in which experimenting and discovering things without necessarily knowing what will happen beforehand is encouraged. After all, the A-Life system in the game is entirely optional, but if you have a grudge with the Nightopians, you could easily discover by accident that the music will change!

NiGHTS journey of dreams 4

Its all about blue balls in NiGHTS – and an occasional set of purple ones for variety.

What’s striking about the older games from Sonic Team is how pretty much the entire story occurs “off-screen”. When Sonic moves from one stage to the next, the player isn’t treated to a cutscene explaining why it was necessary for Sonic to go to the Casino Zone, or the Oil Zone, or wherever. He’s just there, and we infer (or, perhaps, as children, we imagine) what happened. And, as was the case for a great many console games back in the day, if you wanted to know what was going on, you had to read the story in the manual. Even in the first Nights game, you’re treated to an opening cutscene (optional of course) which sets up the plot. Once you’ve moved beyond the title screen however, there’s no more story intrusions until the final level, which incorporate plot elements in the level itself and afterwards with a final joyful cutscene to wrap things up.

There’s a certain minimalism to that set up which focuses the player entirely on gameplay. I described the use of cutscenes in games like Tomb Raider recently on the podcast as serving as book-ends, or another way of putting it would be to say the wrapping on the present. The story holds it together, and contains the experience. But in terms of what you will be experiencing, well, here you are and its gameplay. Gameplay is right at the core of Nights and Sonic, in my opinion. When I’m playing the game, that’s what I’m after and its what keeps me coming back.

How exactly did Sonic and Tails get to the Middle East anyway?

How exactly did Sonic and Tails get to the Middle East anyway?

So what am I saying? Less is more. The reason the original Nights is so powerful is because it left so much to the imagination. And that’s precisely the issue with the sequel, and more recent Sonic games, where very little is left to the imagination. Was it really worth the Team’s effort, writing sub-fan fiction quality dialogue between Sonic the f’ing hedgehog and the American president, in order to justify Sonic and co’s exploits? Why do we need to be made of aware of Tail’s hacking skills to get to the game? Why does Sonic have to reassure the president? This is exposition on a gargantuan scale! I challenge any normal person not to feel dirty after watching this.

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4 comments

  1. moresleepneeded

    I played the original NiGHTS when I was younger and have a limited experience of the sequel (basically the beginning of the game). Even though I hadn’t played the game for long, I was able to notice it was a lot more complicated than the previous one. The story for the first game seemed to consist of the two kids having nightmares about an event that was causing anxiety (such as singing to Steven Spielberg), while the stories for the new game seem like psychological case studies and includes Wiseman more prominently. The game was also simpler with the player following a flight plan to collect objects, rather than the missions used in the second game. The new game also eliminates the possibility of irritating your friends by avoiding NiGHT’S palace and spending time evading a giant alarm clock (like the original game does). The choice of levels for the first game also seemed random, while the landscape for the levels in the second game seemed to be designed to reflect the character’s previous experiences. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the remainder of the game and whether the new game is as strange and mysterious as the original.
    Also, I have played the first Sonic Adventure game, but not the second. I actually enjoyed having a story added to the game (even though it was a bit annoying that the story for the Tails adventure seemed to repeat the same story as the Sonic adventure), but I found it hard to follow the backstory because so little of it was presented at a time and the player had to complete a character’s adventure to gain more information. The character of Tails can be used to demonstrate how these newer games are more complicated than the previous games. In the original games, Tails appeared in the second Sonic game and was more useful in later games in the series. Some people might suggest that the character was created as a secondary playable character to allow the games to become cooperative and more sociable as two players can play instead of one. In Sonic Adventure (a single player game), part of the Tails adventure features him realising he is over reliant on Sonic and he becomes more independent, which provides a psychological reasoning for a previously gameplay solution. I have not played the Sonic Adventure game and am happy that I hadn’t seen the conversation between the American President and Sonic before. By the way, some later Sonic games (such as Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic Heroes) seem to return to an emphasis on fast gameplay and limited story.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for your comment, you raise a lot of good points. Since my initial experience with Journey of Dreams, I’ve been distracted by other games (Little King’s Story to be specific), and I had sort of assumed at this point that I wouldn’t go back to Journey of Dreams. Your comment is making me think I ought to continue and see it through, because as you said I’m sure there are more, hopefully interesting comparisons to find with the original. I noticed that, with the mission objectives and the way you’re forced to pass through the cage/Ideya Palace/whatever bizarre name they give it, but I’m not sure whether that sticks around throughout the game or if it’s just in the first few missions I played. I’d also like to write more on it because I haven’t paid the original Nights anything like the attention it deserves on this blog (although I reference it constantly). To me the story of the original game is really clever, mainly because it handles everything without words, which personally I reckon holds it back from being overly sentimental or cheesy. I don’t need to talk about it however because another blog, Reset Tears, wrote this post ages ago which perfectly describes the way I feel about the story in Nights, and it’s written way better than anything I could possibly manage: http://resettears.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/nice-end-to-dreams/. I (grudgingly) accept however that other people have different opinions – here’s another blog which didn’t like the story: http://stefangrassogamereviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/sega-saturn-review-nights-into-dreams/. (Looking at Stefan’s review again my comment on it is proof that I’m basically obsessed with Nights…)

      As for Sonic, that is some very interesting analysis about Tails’ role. You’re absolutely right that Tails is in a bit of an awkward position in a single-player game – what use is a sidekick helper in that situation? No wonder he has an existential crisis on his weird gloved hands.

      I’ve never played Sonic Heroes, but I did play Secret Rings when it came out. From what I remember it’s a decent game with an unintrusive story. I find it hard with the 3D Sonic games though because, although I love to rant and moan about the story, there are bigger issues to do with the gameplay and controls. There’s a certain polish, I’ll go so far as to call it a professionalism, which I just don’t think is there. I’m actually writing a post on that very topic now (mechanical issues in the original Sonic Adventure). Whining is never far away on this blog 😛

      Anyway I will get back to reading your blog now, since I haven’t finished reading your latest review!

  2. Hatm0nster

    For awhile now I’ve been thinking that games lost something of themselves when the medium gained the ability to make heavy use of exposition, both in cutscenes and out. It’s a crutch in movies, it’s a crutch in literature, so it’s most definitely a crutch in a medium that’s primarily interactive! In the past game stories were mostly limited to being passive/indirect due to technical limitations. They had to be that way in order to fit on the cartridges and CDs they used to inhabit. Once we got to the PS2 era and the DVD, suddenly there was so much more opportunity for storytelling, but it’s often come at the cost of that very same indirectness that only games can deliver.

    Indirect story-telling isn’t completely dead, and those games that employ it still truly shine! Just look at LIMBO, Braid, or even last year’s Transistor! They’ve all been praised for how they handle their stories in a way that let us piece them together and fill in the gaps. These are games mad e by people who know exactly what the strengths of the medium are and how to use them. Sonic Team used to know that, perhaps it’s something they need to learn again before Sonic fans will get the “return to glory” that we’ve waiting to see from the series.

    • veryverygaming

      As you say, something went very wrong around this time with shoehorned cutscenes and other cinematic pretenses. And while exposition is bad in any medium, films and lit can get away with it in a way that games can’t due to their interactivity – or lack thereof at those key moments when we’re are being spoon-fed the “message”! Obviously there are certain genres like RPGs and adventure games where those rules don’t apply to the same extent, but I agree 100% that indirect storytelling is where it’s at. And no doubt there’s been plenty of pushback recently against the excesses of the PS1/PS2 era.

      As reassuring as that is, I’m fascinated by that same excess 😛 Sonic’s great because the series for several years has been one enormous, easy target – check out the depth of Sonic’s character on display in “His World”! – but there are so many other offenders it’d be impossible to name and shame ’em all. Sorry to link to another post (again) but a special mention in this regard is Space Invaders: Invasion Day – just an earth-shatteringly bad example of an overtold story, and a hilarious misjudgment from start to finish. https://veryverygaming.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/space-invaders-invasion-day-ps2-and-the-lost-art-of-cutscenes

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