NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams is a beautiful, sweet-hearted game with a warm, chewy center that's tough to resist. As the titular inhabitant of Nightopia, you'll give chase across a variety of gorgeously crafted environments, befriend two children piecing their hearts back together, and ultimately prove that friendship is something to be valued and trusted. You'll probably smile much of the time you play, thanks to all of this good-natured charm. But you won't be all smiles: Journey of Dreams, for all its visual dreaminess and elegant simplicity, trips itself up with some surprisingly awkward levels and a Wii-centric control option that detracts from the game rather than enhances it. The game will keep you in a good mood, though, so forgiving its faults is an easy task in light of its breezy gameplay and a handful of excellent boss fights.
As in 1996's NiGHTS Into Dreams, the game's Sega Saturn predecessor, you will play as two different children whose stories intersect. This time, those kids are Will and Helen, both of whom have some parental issues to sort out, and both of whom enter the dream world of Nightopia while they slumber. Nightopia is under attack by the evil Nightmaren, the followers of an evil, hulking entity named Wizeman. It's up to Will and Helen, who can merge with an androgynous jester named Nights, to defeat Wizeman, free Nightopia, and retrieve their scattered ideya--orbs that represent different aspects of their hearts. If you're a fan of the original, this probably sounds familiar, and indeed, it owes a lot to the basic premise of the Saturn game. On the other hand, some of the dialogue is simply cheesy.
Most of the dream worlds you visit are split into five levels. The first level is where you will find the familiar Nights gameplay that fans have looked back nostalgically upon for years. Here, you soar through the air as Nights, navigating through rings and collecting blue chips. Blue chips are no longer the key to completing the level, however. Now, you must free Nights from imprisonment by chasing birdlike Nightmaren guards. These guards possess keys that unlock a series of three cages, and to complete the level, you must unlock them all before time runs out. The game never makes it quite clear why you have to unlock these cages once Nights is free from his original trappings, and fans may miss the clearly defined, story-driven purpose of the similar levels in the game's predecessor. Yet it still provides a satisfactory backdrop for Journey of Dreams' flight-based gameplay.
Nights flies on rails, so in terms of horizontal movement, he is always on a straight path--though you do have plenty of room to maneuver him vertically. You can do this with any Wii-supported controller: Wii Remote only, remote and Nunchuk, Classic controller, or GameCube controller. The remote-only scheme is the only one that puts the system's motion controls to use, unless you count the amusing but pointless acrobatic moves also available in the remote-and-Nunchuk scheme, which are performed by tilting the remote. Too bad the most Wii-specific control method is easily the most cumbersome. Gliding in this manner involves pointing a large, blue focus cursor in the direction you wish to move and holding the A button to fly forward. You can get used to it in time, but it feels, amusingly enough, much too floaty in light of the more precise movement afforded by the other methods. Considering the precision needed to earn a high grade on each level, flying is best accomplished using the analog stick on your alternate controller of choice. Even then, however, the octagonal cutout around the analog sticks on all of these controllers can get in the way of truly precise maneuvering.
Once you get settled in with your preferred controls, you'll find Journey of Dreams is an often joyous experience. You'll soar through some lush, colorful dream worlds, from a fragile land of glass to a Broadway-inspired neon utopia. You will often interact with elements of these worlds in clever ways, such as bumping into huge floating billiard balls or having to watch your reflection in the mirror to collect blue chips and fly through rings. These levels will also mix things up by changing perspective (suddenly, you may be facing upward and zooming toward the clouds) or transforming you into another object such as a train car (for some literal on-rails action). It's simple but effective, and the game's smooth sense of speed and collection of goodies to discover will keep you engaged.
Nights does have a few tricks up his sleeve. You can execute a drill dash, which sends a spinning Nights zooming forward at a quick pace, though you need to keep your dash power gauge filled by flying through rings. You can also perform a loop to capture the various items within the shimmering circle you create, and even transform into a couple of different forms, such as a rocket or a dolphin. Some of these moves come in most handy during Journey of Dreams' excellent selection of boss fights. In each world, you actually encounter bosses twice--an easier version in the first level, and a more challenging version in the final one. Considering Nights' small collection of special moves, boss fights are surprisingly fun. In one, you attach yourself to a gigantic and apparently helium-filled jester and fling him upward (it's more fun and challenging than it sounds). In another, you roll black cats into holes in an amusing Marble Madness-inspired confrontation. Not all of them are consistently enjoyable--the second appearance of the chameleon boss jumps to mind--but for the most part, the boss fights are enjoyable and memorable. And if you are a fan of NiGHTS Into Dreams, you will be pleased to know that the final boss is a familiar one (and perhaps less pleased to know that another crowd favorite is nowhere to be found).
The chase levels and boss fights are mostly great. The intermittent levels...well, not so much. In some cases, they're obvious filler, like trying to fly through the rings an octopaw leaves behind. Others are boring, such as the traditional (and bland) platforming levels in which you directly control Will and Ellen. A prime example is the on-foot Broadway level, in which you play as Will and must lead Ellen across a tedious, annoying sequence of jumping and orb-switching. And in some cases, such as an infuriating level where you have to play a tune by hitting musical notes, things get downright frustrating. It's admirable that developer Sonic Team tried to throw in variety, but the game too often veers from its obvious and impressive strengths and journeys into mediocrity. If these levels were the exception rather than the rule, they would be easier to swallow, but they constitute three of the five levels in each dream world.
Once you're done with the two campaigns (which takes around five hours or so if you don't bother collecting dreamdrops or gunning for higher grades), you can fool around with some of the game's multiplayer options. Race mode is the better of the two multiplayer game types, and you can speed toward your goal against a friend locally in split-screen, or against a friend or random player over the Internet. In battle mode, you simply fly around and throw balloons at each other--certainly not the most entertaining activity. The most fascinating online feature is My Dream, a meadow filled with nightopians you've collected during the campaign. You can visit other players' dreams, take your nightopians as gifts, and even communicate with your buddy with emoticons. You can even sync your dream with the local weather. Not that such a visit adds anything to the gameplay proper, but it's still an amusing distraction.
Visually speaking, Journey of Dreams is deliciously vibrant. Each dream world is unique and colorful without veering from the overall art design. From beautiful underwater vistas to a busy carnival complete with exploding fireworks, environments are created with painstaking care. Nights is smoothly animated, though in the ground levels, the children don't move as fluidly. Cutscenes are also well done and often poignant, thanks to expressive facial animations. You will encounter frequent moments where the frame rate dips a tad, but it doesn't usually get in the way of smooth flight.
Not enough can be said about the stupendous soundtrack, which features both updated tracks from NiGHTS Into Dreams and new, equally fantastic tunes. In fact, its sound design is Journey of Dreams' finest feature, not just due to the evocative soundtrack, but also to some high-quality voice acting. Not that Nights' vocal personification will be everyone's cup of tea. As previously mentioned, the jester is genderless (though we've referred to Nights as "he" for purposes of this review), and the accompanying voice is, well, correspondingly confused. But whether you think Nights sounds like a young woman or a young boy, it's a good fit for the character. The children are also nicely acted, as are familiar personalities like Reala and Wizeman. The only real blemish is the constant, annoying cackling of a few of the boss characters.
Journey of Dreams is not a difficult game, though it does have its challenging moments, particularly within some of the more esoteric boss battles. It also has a number of minor issues. Most cutscenes are unskippable; if you continue the first dream level to the boss but lose, you can't start at the boss--you have to repeat the whole thing from the beginning. And so on and so forth. Yet despite these issues and other minor quirks that will have purists up in arms (Where's Jackle? Why was the giant alarm clock replaced with awakers?), NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams is a good, enjoyable romp through a clever collection of beautiful worlds. Playing it makes you feel warm and cozy, a nice treat indeed for the holiday season.