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Review: The Longest Journey



(IDG) -- Meet April Ryan: Student of the Future. She's a penniless painter shacking up in Newport's Venice District, prepping for her big student art exhibition, spending her off-hours chatting with Robocops wearing cybernetically enhanced exoskeletons. April Ryan, as it turns out, is also a Shifter - a human granted the ability to open glowing blue rifts in time-space that lead to the world of Arcadia, a surreal fantasy universe populated by glowing silver dragons, talking trees, and creatures who exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future.

The Longest Journey is a graphic adventure tale of two worlds, and it's this brilliant genre-crossing idea that makes the extensive travels of April Ryan shine. This is a game where the possibilities are endless, supported by a concept that gives way to countless opportunities and endless surprises. Just as you're getting tired of the dreary post-apocalyptic sci-fi gloom of April's future, a mystical furry thing pops out of your wardrobe and does a little dance, whisking you away to the magic-addled fairy-tale land of Arcadia, where Balance is on the verge of being undone thanks to the untimely disappearance of a being called the Guardian. Then, just as all the magic marketplaces and mystic temples begin to grow tedious, it's back to "reality" and all the hovercars, drug addicts, and seedy back-alley theaters that come along with it. It's a brilliant notion, expertly executed and perfectly paced, and it keeps the aptly named Longest Journey (which spans 12 lengthy chapters over 4 CDs) from being bogged down in the repetition that sometimes sinks other adventure titles.

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The control is simple, using the same standard point-and-click/inventory systems that graced all the graphic adventures of yore. Simply move the cursor to what you want April to interact with, click, choose examine, talk, or use, and she interacts. The designers have wisely gone with the "you can't screw up, and you can't die" philosophy that LucasArts has been employing for years. Most puzzles are challenging, but entirely logical (with a few baffling exceptions) - so long as you "notice" little hidden on-screen details with your mouse. Plus, items in you inventory flash when you pass them over another item onscreen that they can combine with, minimizing the "randomly click on things with items in your inventory" play style that many other graphic adventures inevitably force you into.

The graphics are composed of 3D-rendered characters milling about in pre-rendered backgrounds. While the backgrounds look awesome, lush, colorful, and hyper-detailed, the characters tend to have a low polygon count, and faces look pretty hideously deformed when viewed close-up. The sound is great too, with crisp voices and haunting ambient music. The game never crashed once, and the voices stuttered on the rarest of occasions. In addition, the in-game load times are very quick once you get through the insanely time consuming install process, that is.

The Longest Journey is helped along royally by the fact that April Ryan is one of the strongest, most well-written, and most likeable heroines ever to point-and-click her way around a PC game. Even minor characters, from the worldly lesbian that runs April's apartment building, to the hoverchair-bound cyperpunk that lives by the dockside, to the tense-scrambled time-unhinged being that lives in a stone tree in the center of Arcadia, each have their own unique and rich personalities and histories. Their voices are excellent, too, and the dialogue is written with a healthy mix of drama, humor, and humanity. Occasionally, you'll come across long passages of babble about Chaos and Order and Balance and the White Dragons that bind them, but such things are easily forgiven when April's baffled response echoes exactly what was running through your own head.

While graphic adventures have fallen out of fashion in recent years, shining examples of the genre (such as LucasArts' latest Escape From Monkey Island) still call out for attention every now and then. The Longest Journey is a voyage well worth taking, just make sure you've got enough vacation time left - that title is more appropriate than you'd think.

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