NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams
Hey. You awake? Don’t be so sure. How do you know? You could be slumped in your chair, drenching your keyboard in drool. Maybe the morning sunlight is creeping through the nearest window. It’s not like that would wake you up, anyway. You’re too far-gone to see it. You’re wandering through that strange and mysterious place called your subconscious, where reality and thoughts blend to create the most surreal visions of your imagination. It can be beautiful, awe-inspiring, and frightening all at once. It doesn’t really matter what you see during your slumber; none of it actually happens in the waking world.
But your dreams are real.
In the realms of Nightopia and Nightmare, at least. While a person is busy snoring away the few precious hours before the morning, his or her desires, hopes, and fears play out in these two dimensions. But underneath all of the fantastical settings and vivid imagery, there’s only one constant aspect: the struggle for power. Wizeman, the ruler of Nightmare, is on the brink of conquering Nightopia and the real world. There’s not much standing in his way, either; you’ve got NiGHTS, the androgynous jester-esque titular character, and a prissy, ineffectual owl. The real heroes are Will and Helen, a couple of adolescents who stumbled into the dream realm burdened with emotional baggage from their waking lives. The kids’ intertwining stories deal with themes of maturity, trust, parental relations, and plenty of other clichéd stuff. None of which gets explored very deeply, either; aside from an assortment of unskippable cutscenes and painfully cheesy dialogue, much of the plot progression is simplistic and unsatisfying.
But hey, you’re not interested in NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams for the story, right? You’re probably more interested in how this game stacks up to its much-celebrated predecessor on the Saturn. Here’s the good news first: you still get to control NiGHTS and fly through levels. The character will glide, swoop, and rocket along railed paths throughout a handful of massive areas. The most challenging parts usually involve chasing some kind of monstrous bird through sets of rings while having to deal with spiky rings, breakable boulders, and plenty of other obstacles. You’re never told why you have to pursue the birds, aside from the golden keys they spit up when you tackle them. There’s some sort of flimsy explanation of how the keys are necessary to free NiGHTS from Wizeman’s clutches, but there’s no relevant use for them. The same goes for the small assortment of masks you can use to morph NiGHTS into different, faster forms. The real point of these timed chases is to obtain the highest graded rating possible by completing the levels quickly, snagging as many blue pickups as possible, etc. While flying through a bunch of rings and killing nightmarish birds may seem pretty simple, the missions’ pacing and design can make for some truly challenging experiences.
Unfortunately, the rest of the missions are never as fun or demanding as the chase segments. Some levels will have you rushing through series of rings and pickups to see how many you can touch in a row. Others will have you seeking out and destroying Wizeman’s minions in a given area, saving a bunch of Nightopians from getting into a train wreck, and even flying by a floating piece of sheet music in attempt to play the game’s theme. While these are fairly brief and easy, they’re far better than the handful of platforming missions you’ll have to endure. In these undeniably low points in the game, you’ll control Will or Helen (depending on whose story you’re playing) and wander through some horribly linear and unimaginative levels. You’ll have to leap around a bunch of neon casino signs or wander through a maze of false mirrors, all while snagging items and avoiding enemies. There’s little exploration or challenge involved here; aside from the occasional simple puzzle, you’ll never experience any engaging gameplay. While having differently styled missions may give the game some variety, there aren’t nearly enough of them (well crafted or otherwise) to make the game’s completion worthwhile.
It’s not like the control schemes make the tedious areas any more fun, either. The WiiMote-only option forces you to move a large cursor around the screen to point NiGHTS in your desired flight path. The controls are too jittery and cumbersome; one wrong move could have your character crashing headlong into a wall or hazard. Considering the amount of precision needed to acquire the highest graded rankings, using just the WiiMote is impractical at best. The game also supports control schemes for the Nunchuck, Classic, and Gamecube Controllers as well, which focus more on using the analog sticks to guide NiGHTS with better handling. The octagon-outlined analogs don’t make flying completely smooth, however; you’ll have to adjust to the slightly rigid controls before completing the missions perfectly. Regardless of which controller you use, the characters’ movesets remain basic and easy to execute. Performing loops can net you several pickups or eliminate certain foes, while Drill Dashing can give you some boosted speed (at the cost of rechargeable energy) and annihilating tougher foes. The kids can perform a wimpy little jump and throw projectiles at a given enemy. While the on-foot gameplay mechanics are incredibly clunky, the simple control schemes ensure that anyone can play.
But assuming that getting high scores isn’t enough to satisfy your mastery of the game, there are also online multiplayer competitions as well. You and a random gamer (or a peer that supplies the necessary Friend Code) can race each other through the game’s major flight levels. Amazingly, there’s little lag involved here; the gameplay remains nearly as smooth as that of the single-player mode. There are no birds to chase here; just a couple of laps around a given level and victory for the faster flyer. There’s also a Battle Mode option, which allows you and a nearby friend to throw giant projectiles at each other. While the multiplayer might be pretty bare in terms of options, the game keeps track of your victories and defeats for its online ranking system. But if you prefer something less competitive, the My Dream mode allows you to create your own little world with the creatures and objects you capture during the game. The game even uploads data from the Forecast Channel to alter the weather, which adds just enough atmosphere to keep things from being totally bland. With options to visit other gamers’ dream areas online, this personalized gameplay mode offers some distractions once everything else gets stale.
That’s not to say that NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams gets boring quickly. Far from it. The game provides plenty of eye candy to keep you playing, even during the most tedious levels. You’ll float through murky, vine-crossed forests, zoom through skyscraper windows, and wander through a labyrinth of neon signs and platforms. The levels aren’t meant to be mere backgrounds; imagine soaring around a giant, sparkling carousel while dodging gargantuan horses, crashing through massive crystals, or rocketing up the side of an impossibly large tree. Even the boss fights, while remarkably easy to complete, are a psychedelic blend of nightmarish monstrosities and beautiful light shows. NiGHTS’s animation remains consistent throughout the levels, giving off the image of graceful and acrobatic flight. Though the cutscenes are annoying, a handful of them are crafted with graphics that rival those of the Wii’s best titles. However, it’s the soundtrack that really steals the show; between the wonderfully dramatic orchestrated theme to the feverish, upbeat remixes, the unlockable music tracks will have you coming back for more.
Of course, such things alone can’t save this game. NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams isn’t a bad title, but there just aren’t enough positive aspects for it to deserve its hefty price tag. The wide variety of simplistic (and somewhat clunky) control schemes ensures that anyone can pick up the game. While there are two story modes, they are both utterly brief and unsatisfying. The aerial missions are incredibly well crafted and a blast to play, but there are nowhere near enough of them to make up for all the crappy filler missions you’ll have to endure. The tedious, unavoidable cutscenes and one-dimensional characters add little to the experience, regardless of the flashy graphics and vivid presentation. The online gameplay is surprisingly well done, even if it is limited to a handful of options. Thus NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams is not a horrible title, but it could have been so much more.