The first thing we have to admit before we start is that, no matter how strong the hype, getting a four-disk adventure game, supposedly sporting revolutionary graphics, from an unknown team in Scandinavia filled us with deep suspicion. Thoughts of The Ring Cycle and Myst -- pretty nothings that served to make good screenshots for their respective boxes -- were paramount in our minds when we installed the 2+ gigabyte game (don't panic -- there are smaller install options). Our sense of foreboding was replaced with wonder less than two minutes after we double-clicked the desktop icon. The Longest Journey is first and foremost a labor of love, which shows in each and every aspect of this incredible game.
Written and produced entirely by one person, the story that weaves its way through The Longest Journey is intelligent, tight and quite mature. The protagonist of the story, April Ryan, is an 18-year-old artist in the 23rd century, and has fled to a big city from the surrounding countryside, trying to pursue her art and escape her abusive family at the same time. The full backstory plays itself out slowly, but the more you learn about April and her father's relationship -- it's revealed early in the game that she left him with a broken arm -- the more her character comes to life. A couple of good friends and an exceptionally believable lesbian housemother throw some good vibes into April's college life. Offsetting them is Zack, a scumbag who lives across the hall from April and who, in one breath, can ask her to go pop some pills and put out for him and threaten to smash her face in. This all comes together to create a life for April that, while not always pleasant, seems refreshingly real.
Thus, when the crap hits the fan and April's life begins to fall apart, the shock and denial she feels are that much more believable. It begins with dream visions and creepy old men who seem to know too much about her, but eventually April's visions begin to appear while she is awake, forcing her to face her new reality or risk going insane. While we don't want to give away any of the wondrous plot, April is the classic outsider forced to save a world she doesn't understand, real Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court meets Alice in Wonderland stuff.
The gameplay in Journey was obviously designed by a team that not only loves adventure games, but paid attention to what was annoying about them. You can't die. Ever. It's a pointless thing to spend your game doing while adventuring, so they just left it out. There's no hunting for exits either. Press the X button on the keyboard and every available exit appears onscreen, even ones that aren't onscreen at the moment. Confusing camera angles? Not a one. Each scene is presented with all items easy to access. There is the occasional pixel hunt, but even this has been kept to the bare minimum.
Adventure games are about more than just story, though, and even though the story arc in The Longest Journey is hands-down the best we've ever played through, it wouldn't be worth the trip without the puzzle aspects. Happily, these are more thoughtful than brain-twisting for the most part, and usually things either make sense in the real world (take your time sheet to your boss to get paid, get money for the subway, etc.) or make the right kind of nonsense in the parallel world (magicians who rely on chaos can be taken down with a calculator, and old ladies are always going to try to eat your bones). There are a couple of old-school block and gear puzzles, but these are nothing the average gamer can't work through.
Each aspect of the plot leads to the next seamlessly. There's never a point where you don't know what it is you are trying to accomplish, and at those rare times when you have to play errand boy, April bristles at it as much as you do, making a silly convention into a bonding moment. That's a pretty remarkable claim for a game that can easily take players 40 hours to complete. That's twice the size of even the lengthier adventure games we've seen before.
Okay, to the much-vaunted graphics. Yes, they're beautiful. In fact, they are occasionally unbelievable. Painted backgrounds blend seamlessly with the modeled architecture and present scenes that can instantly take your breath away. In a game this good the visuals are almost forgettable, though. We're not kidding. What impressed us more was the voice-over work; it is as high quality as anyone could ask for. Every character in the game speaks all their lines, with no subtitles (they're there as an option, though), and not once were we disappointed in the result.
The Bottom Line: The best adventure game released since the genre's glory days.