How does the long-awaited Sega sequel hold up for someone new to the series?
I've never played the original Nights game on Sega Saturn, and I'll probably never get a chance to. However, I love games with flying, so I was curious to try the highly anticipated sequel to such a beloved game. I came away from it… amused. Nights: Journey of Dreams is a charming title with simple but fun gameplay. I wouldn't say that I've been converted to a Nights fan, but I had a good time with the game.
It's a bit hard to understand how Nights is played until you try it. Most of the game involves flying on a 2D plane through 3D environments, so it's more like Uniracers than Pilotwings. There are several mission types, but the main one has you chasing after birds to get keys. Nights is not just the name of the game but also the name of the main character, a flying clown who lives in the world of dreams. He has just one flying speed, though you can dash much faster as long as you have dash power. That meter is refilled by flying through rings, which is more difficult to do while dashing. The game plays much like a race, in which you hit the gas on straight-aways and slow down to make turns. Meanwhile, a beautiful 3D world is scrolling by, and the course often spirals around or dips under objects in the environment. Although the gameplay doesn't exactly feel like flying, it is fun and exhilarating.
I also like the fact that you can play most of Nights with just the Nunchuk, because all it needs is a joystick and one button (to dash). The Classic controller also works well, if you have one. The Remote-only option is best avoided – it involves pointing a cursor in the direction you want Nights to move, which is too slow and inaccurate for this type of game. With a joystick, Nights moves fluidly and responsively, and my only complaint is that his turning radius is larger than you might expect. That may cause some initial frustration with creating Paraloops, which appear when you draw a circle with the trail of sparkles that Nights leaves behind. This issue goes away with time and practice, though. There are some camera troubles, in Sonic Team tradition, as the camera sometimes zooms in too close to tell where you are going or what you are supposed to be doing. There's nothing you can do about it, but the camera will usually move to a better angle if you keep moving through the level.
The real problem with Nights is that the best parts of the game are interrupted by a lot of bad storytelling and mediocre side-missions. The idea of inhabiting your dreams is an old one but holds many possibilities. In this game, Will and Helen are two children who enter the world of dreams and have to combat the Nightmares, led by a huge villain named Wizeman. This would be a fine framework, but the game takes its story way too seriously, with cut-scenes before and after almost every mission. The plot is clichéd and boring, and the child actors are quite terrible. Listen for their fake English accents to come in and out randomly, or take bets on whether Helen's voice actor will make it through her lines without falling asleep. The only bright spots are the exquisite CG movies in the intros and endings for each character. The real-time scenes played through the rest of the game struggle to reach the gravitas of a Saturday morning cartoon.
The other problem, which should be no surprise coming from Sonic Team, is that the basic and very fun gameplay described earlier makes up about a third of the game. The rest of Nights is padded out with confusing mini-games and sleep-inducing levels where you directly control Will and Helen through bland mazes, the latter being more prominent in Helen's half of the game. There are also several uneven but very interesting boss battles that have nothing to do with their corresponding levels. Even though the boss battles range from excellent to tedious, they are all so creative and unusual that you'll look forward to each one, hoping it will be one of the good ones.
Equally inconsistent are the visuals. All of the bosses look incredible, while Nights himself looks like a misshapen clown, and the children have an eerie, robotic appearance, especially in their faces. The environments look spectacular when scrolling by quickly in flying levels, but they are much less impressive when viewed up close in cut-scenes and on-foot levels. Where you can expect more uniform quality is the soundtrack, full of orchestrated songs that are so catchy, you'll have them in your head for hours afterwards. I can hear the music even now, hours after trading in the game towards a Smash Bros. pre-order.
That leads to one last gripe, although it's a minor one. Nights is an average length game in terms of content, with totally distinct levels for both Will and Helen. However, nearly everything in the game is rather easy for an experienced player, so you can blow through several missions in the span of half an hour. Each one is graded, and there are good rewards for improving your scores up to a point, but even that goal is quickly accomplished. The lifeless "My Dream" feature (essentially the same as Sonic's Chao Garden) is not worth your time. Local and online two-player races are a fun diversion, but it's hard to imagine anyone but very hardcore Nights fans playing them more than a few times. The game has good replay value, but you'll see every level, mission, and boss in the first few hours.
Despite significant problems, Nights is a truly charming game that's not quite like anything else out there. It is probably designed for children more than anyone else, and they will get the most out of it and be less distracted by the poor acting and storytelling. Older gamers should definitely try it out, but you can probably wring it of satisfaction during a weekend rental.