If you’re visiting this site, chances are you have a guilty pleasure or two made by Sonic Team. A game with flaws that you overlook because there is something else about it you love. I myself have enjoyed a few Sonic games that are, at best, divisive. But out of all of Sonic Team’s less critically acclaimed games, there are none that I’ve gotten more enjoyment out of than Takashi Iizuka’s NiGHTS sequel, Journey of Dreams.
My feelings on JoD have always been…mixed. But in recent years, I‘ve come to realize it shares more qualities with Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 than some of Sonic Team’s less well-thought-of games. Like the Adventure games, JoD has its flaws, and there are many parts of the game I never return to, and some areas I just don’t like. But what I enjoy, I enjoy a lot, and I’ve gotten hours of entertainment out of periodically returning to them over the years. At this point, it’s probably my favorite Sonic Team game from the post-Dreamcast, pre-Colors era. It is, in my mind, their most underappreciated game from this entire period.
Before I get into the good or the bad, I should probably layout what the game is, right?
JoD is a game about two children, Will and Helen, having adventures in a dream world, with the titular dream jester, NiGHTS. The core game style of JoD is side-scrolling flight levels. The longest of these levels are “chase missions.” These might be best described as JoD’s equivalent of Sonic Adventure’s speed stages: they are what the game is built around, and act as its central attraction. In these missions, players fly through rings and collect items, earning points while they chase down jailers riding giant birds in order to obtain their keys. These keys are then used to destroy three cages, so that NiGHTS can be freed. These levels are then followed up with a brief boss fight.
The chase missions differ from the first NiGHTS in one key way: they encourage players to complete them as quickly as possible. There is no way to lap a course repeatedly to rack up points, and instead players must move onto the next course after getting the key. While not catching the jailer on the first lap will let you go around a course repeatedly, this only results in a lower grade.
In addition to these chase missions, each level has four other missions, which must be completed to move on to the next level. Most of these missions try to put a new twist on the flight game play, or elaborate on a level gimmick. Some are platform levels starring the children.
It’s in this mission structure where JoD’s greatest flaws lie.
Journey of Dreams is a mid-2000s game from Sonic Team, and it has all the problems that this entails. Unfocused design? Check. Far too much focus on a plot that isn’t especially good? Double check. Technical hiccups? The game struggles to maintain a steady frame rate, and even the cutscenes chug sometimes!
The chase missions are easily the best missions in the game, but the other missions vary wildly in quality, and sometimes feel like something slapped together over a weekend to fill out the game. One mission has players wandering around a 2D maze to find and kill 30 enemies. In a game where combat is simple and enemies are meant to be little more than a minor obstacle, having an entire mission centering around killing enemies simply isn’t fun.
The platforming missions are easily the game’s worst offenders. There are four platforming missions in JoD, and each of them are bland, simple, and tedious. In terms of design, they are about as basic as 3D platformers can get, and would feel primitive even by the standards of 1996. The children can only do two things: jump, and throw blue chips to kill enemies. And since the blue chips rely on an auto-lock, it can be difficult to hit what you want. This is only mitigated by the fact that there typically isn’t more then one target to hit! Unlike other missions, which are typically quite short, the platforming stages can be relatively long, at 5-8 minutes. This is made worse by the complete lack of checkpoints: if you fall into a pit even once, you need to start the whole level over.
Then there’s the plot, which simply….fails to engage. The original NiGHTS had a plot that was simple, but effectively told through pantomime, game play, and level aesthetic. JoD goes the opposite route, preferring to explain everything, sometimes repeatedly. The game’s central characters never become interesting, despite loads of cutscenes and spoken lines. It certainly doesn’t help that many of these lines are often poorly delivered, since JoD’s voice acting is an incredibly mixed bag.
In addition to all of that, JoD’s controls just aren’t quite as smooth and precise as the original NiGHTS. This is at least partially due to the console it was built for, the Wii. Its analog stick utilizes an octagonal gate, rather then the circular gate of other controllers (including the Saturn’s). This inhibits NiGHTS’s ability to maneuver through the air fluidly. Thankfully, JoD was largely designed with these less precise controls in mind, and the issue can be further mitigated (though not eliminated) by playing on a controller with a regular, circular analog gate.
Despite all of this, I really enjoy JoD because there is a lot to love. I spent the last few paragraphs bagging on it to make it clear that this game has issues that will definitely turn people off. Ultimately, however, JoD is saved by its chase missions.
JoD has seven chase missions, and they are all a blast. While I ultimately prefer the level structure of the original NiGHTS to JoD’s, there is still plenty of fun to be had in chasing down the birds as quickly as possible while still trying to fly through rings and grab items to maximize points. What really makes these missions great, however, is that each and every one of them are filled with gorgeous set pieces and creative, memorable gimmicks.
These unique set pieces and gimmicks are what always bring me back to JoD. There are light prisms that split NiGHTS into four smaller versions of themselves, and magnifying glasses that make them gigantic. There’s a tower full of giant slot machines that you can hit as you fly up it for extra points, and a giant pool table with massive billiard balls that you can send flying and knock into holes. One level can be switched between a blue oasis and a dry desert on the fly by hitting floating TVs, and another features giant musical notes that you need to hit to as you go. These are only a few of JoD’s many gimmicks, with each giving every level their own unique look and feel, making them all memorable.
These levels are also gorgeous and brimming with creativity in their appearance. From Crystal Castles’ orange grass and blue crystalline soil, to Pure Valley’s strangely shaped hills and giant floating spheres of dandelions seeds that explode upon being tossed into something, Journey of Dreams does a lot with its dream world setting.
The bosses are also mostly well designed. Though I personally think JoD’s character designs don’t approach the ones from the original, the boss battles are largely an improvement. Each boss is unique, and effectively tests player skill. There’s Girania, a giant fish that, when attacked, bursts into dozens of colorful spheres that need to be destroyed with paraloops. The more balls destroyed, the smaller it gets, until finally its small enough to kill with a drill dash. Queen Bella is a giant spider queen who tries to hurt NiGHTS by dropping balls of webbing into lava at the bottom of the arena. NiGHTS needs grab those balls and toss them, sending them bouncing around the stage and destroying Bella’s platforms, until she eventually falls in the lava herself.
Even the missions, while a mixed bag, are usually fun and rarely overstay their welcome. As I said earlier, most of them take advantage of the game’s flight mechanics, and often elaborate on gimmicks. The musical notes from Memory Garden, for instance, become the basis for a superb (and very difficult) rhythm mini game. Easily the best and most consistent missions outside of chase are the Octopaw missions, which is all about flying through rings and gathering blue chips to get really high links.
Do I go back to these missions often? No. But what’s important is that this means most of the game is still entertaining on a first playthrough, which is more then I can say for most Sonic Team games of the era.
NiGHTS Journey of Dreams is not exactly a hidden gem. There are bad missions you will need to get through, a mediocre story you will need to sit through, and a frame rate that is inconsistent and mars an otherwise nice looking game. But in spite of these flaws, Journey of Dreams brings a lot to table, and is well worth experiencing at least once. My personal hope is for the game to one day get an HD port that smooths out the frame rate and controls. Until then, copies of the game remain dirt cheap, and it cleans up nicely in the Dolphin emulator, which is how I play my copy these days.