Console Yourself: NiGHTS Journey of Dreams
“You’re scared of everything, aren’t you?” - NiGHTS
Format: Wii • Developer: Sonic Team USA • Released: Dec 2007
NiGHTS occupies a curious place in Sega’s canon of classics. The work of Sonic Team circa 1996, it’s arguably the game that the hedgehog’s 2D outings grew up to become. Despite repeated requests from lead designer Takashi Iizuka, Sega have been reluctant to green light a sequel, only relenting after the commercial success of Iizuka’s recent work. However, half-hearted support for the initiative has lead to an extremely short development time, with little of the fine-tuning period available to the first game. The result is a fitting companion piece to the original, but will probably fail to win any new converts.
The plot of Journey Of Dreams is almost a remake of the first game, once again charting a mutually beneficial friendship between NiGHTS and two sleeping children. Wiseman, the Lord of Nightmares, is launching an attack on humanity, and only NiGHTS, a creature originally created by Wiseman to lead his army’s invasion of Nightopia, stands in his way. With Will and Helen’s support, NiGHTS is able to drive back Wiseman’s advance, while his words to the children, and the dream worlds he takes them to, help them overcome the difficulties they face in the real world. While Claris and Elliot’s problems centred mainly on simple fears of failure, Will and Helen’s neuroses are more complex, and closely tied to their relationships with their parents. In contrast to the original’s minimalist storytelling Journey of Dreams contains a considerable number of cut-scenes, which draw attention to several aspects of events that would otherwise probably pass the player by. The standard of voice acting is generally high, with a good job done in casting the previously silent characters that return from the original game. Surprisingly, it’s one of the new figures that lets the side down, with Helen’s performance noticeably sub-par. These cut-scenes are a necessity in the light of the game’s rather out-there concept, only becoming intrusive when starting the second character’s quest, where the player is forced to jump through the hoops they’ve previously negotiated, in order to prove that they can successfully control NiGHTS. The game’s new hint character, Owl, proves to be surprisingly endearing, although his animation suggests that he’s moulting continually.
The core gameplay of each dream remains unaltered. A level opens with the player controlling each child on foot, and they must locate the imprisoned NiGHTS and free him, before the bulk of playtime starts. NiGHTS flies around the level on a looping 2D course, attempting to complete his objective (in the original, he had to bring 20 blue chips to a hovering claw, but here must simply catch up with a fleeing enemy). Working against the clock, NiGHTS then returns to his starting point, completing the course. After all the courses in a dream are complete, NiGHTS enters into the dream’s parallel Nightmare, seeking to defeat the powerful enemy that functions as the level’s boss. Most of the fun in the game comes once these levels are mastered, as the game transforms into a compelling score attack. While most high-speed games see the player simply asked with shaving seconds off a completion time, NiGHTS demands that you string it out your limited time as NiGHTS for as long as possible, performing the greatest number of actions possible to gain points from the resetting course, before fears of running out of time (and “the resultant “Night Over”) forces you to return to your starting point. A conventional time attack element only comes in when facing the bosses. Vanquishing the Nightmare quickly can double your existing score from the level, while a poor performance may give you only a miserable 1.0 or 1.1 multiplier. In the original game, this was the entirety of each level, but Journey of Dreams introduces a number of missions to pad out proceedings. These take the form of challenges based around the level’s unique features and inspirations, before a final face-off with a boosted form of the Nightmare. While these supplementary tasks never equal the fun of the main chase mission, it’s hard to begrudge the bonus content’s inclusion. In fact, the main deficiency in the game is found in the main missions themselves. While in the 1996 title, you were free to move around the resetting course also long as your remaining time limit would allow after completing your task, passing the starting point here will automatically end the course. This move probably arose from a lack of time to hone the points allocation, and while the score attack aspect is compelling on its own terms, it feels castrated compared to the unrivalled depth of the original.
Unusually for a platform game, NiGHTS’ levels have a strong link the to the narrative, embodying various traits of the children’s unconsciousness. With one exception, they are largely able to match the superb art direction undertaken during the first game. Will’s dreams are the livelier of the two, with his opening level, Pure Valley, a return to the alpine paradise that served as the original’s signature level. The dream still manages to establish its own identity, with several elements of Will’s childhood included, and the fast flowing river presents a contrast to the tranquil feel of the original. The two dreams that follow this are similarly accomplished, with Delight City an impressively original concept. Helen’s dreams are more varied in terms of quality. Her opening level is reasonable enough, presenting a bustling aerial seascape, but her other two dreams are poles apart in terms of entertainment value. Crystal Castle is easily the best level in the game. Rooted in the more brittle elements of its creator’s personality, it presents innovation after innovation, with a superb choral soundtrack. Unfortunately, the level that follows it is a pale and uninspired retread of the first game’s Mystic Forest, with lead composer Tomoko Sasaki uncharacteristically dropping the ball though a rather twee and unmoving score. Disappointingly, the game’s music remains static- in the original, how the player behaved towards the Nightopians living in the dreams would affect each level’s aural accompaniment. After extended play, the tune would often be nearly unrecognisable, with new arrangements and section being worked into the composition. Again, the absence of this feature is presumably due to the rushed development of the game, with the limited period available to the returning audio team of Sasaki and sound director Naofumi Hataya giving rise to a more conventional approach to scoring the game. Interestingly, Hataya reveals himself to have a talent for composing boss music, with his pieces perfectly complimenting the collection of extended metaphors that serve as Wiseman’s attack dogs. The design standard of Journey Of Dreams’ Nightmares actually manages to better the creations deployed during Wiseman’s original offensive, possibly reflecting the years that Iizuka has spent mulling over this follow-up.
A thought-provoking, original and coherent piece of work, Journey of Dreams compares favourably with the majority of games released today, and certainly doesn’t disgrace its illustrious predecessor. However, with the original’s USPs of a magnificently designed score attack and continually self-remixing score missing, the follow-up fails to achieve true greatness in its own right.