Game Review - 'The Secret World - Nightmares in the Dream Palace'

4 stars for 'Nightmares in the Dream Palace'

When we first arrived in Tokyo, we were treated to the sight of an entire district of that major city that had been entirely overrun by demons, ghosts, and Filth-infected citizens - and, that had been hastily quarantined behind a massive wall. The story that we were given to follow in those first days in Tokyo introduced us to a cast of new characters, and gave us hints at the events surrounding the bomb which released the Filth, that mysterious and seemingly sentient substance which players of The Secret World have been fighting in various forms since the game launched. We met mercenary demons, chaos-worshiping Yakuza, and Samurai desperately trying to protect the city - and, as we progressed, we picked up the trail of an eccentric assassin, wielding a katana and wearing a strange rabbit-head mask, who always seemed to be a few steps ahead of us. Then, it all ended on a frustrating cliff-hanger. The assassin had managed to escape from our grasp, and the quest-tracker taunted us with the knowledge that we would have to wait for the release of Issue 10 before we could continue. Sure, there has been additional content released since then, but those were side-stories - the central story-line that so many of us who love this game had been eager to continue had been left frustratingly incomplete. Until now, at least, with the release of Nightmares in the Dream Palace.

It's a reasonably smooth transition. The road-block that had been placed up in front of players at the end of Issue 9: The Black Signal was, of course, the quarantine wall, itself. The mysterious assassin we had been tracking had managed to slip over the wall, and we would have to do the same before we could pick up the trail. With the release of Nightmares in the Dream Palace, though, that little problem has been taken care of for us. The quarantine wall, which had once seemed like an imposing obstacle, has been breached and the Filth has spread even further - and, as a result, we are finally free to explore the southern sections of Kaidan. Here, we are able to explore the Orochi Housing Projects, a residential area of cramped and narrow roads which was once the home of employees of the Orochi corporation, but which now seems to be the home of spirits and Filth-infected former denizens. There is also the docks, which seems to have been taken over by a unique, evolved, strain of the Filth.

Picking up the trail of this mysterious and eccentric assassin will also lead us to the newest additions to the cast of The Secret World. First up, we have Jake Hama, a sleazy private investigator who does not seems entirely aware, yet, of exactly how far out of his depth he actually is. Jake is also on the trail of the rabbit-headed killer - and, seems convinced that his stolen rabbit costume will improve his chances of making contact.

Next up, we have Jung - a young boy with a genius level intellect and powerful psychic abilities, who looks like he could have been taken straight from the classic Japanese anime, Akira. Jung has laid claim to the housing project's kindergarten and, with his potent abilities (which include the ability to make anyone who bothers him 'forget how to breathe'), he seems perfectly capable of holding on to it. He also seems quite happy to have all of the playground equipment to himself.

And, finally, there's Kaoru, manager of the Dream Palace - a love hotel which caters to the many, and varied, fantasies of its clients. A young woman with a fair share of secrets of her own, and direct connections to yet another of the many factions currently operating in Tokyo, Kaoru's true role remains unknown, though she does seem to know a great deal about the events leading up to the bombing of Tokyo.

Presumably, much like with Tokyo's original cast of characters, each will receive additional content in later 'side-story' updates before the release of Issue 11 - but, for now, we simply have to be content with brief introductions. Then, of course, there's the rabbit killer, herself. I have to admit that, before now, I did struggle a bit with the entire idea of a killer who wears a rabbit-head mask. I was worried that the whole idea might be a little too out there to take seriously. Though, I suppose I should have learned by now to have a little more faith in the people behind The Secret World. Seeing her in action, here, did a great deal to actually sell the whole idea to me - she's dangerous, and more than a little creepy.

Of course, it's not all rabbit-headed killers, here. As the new quest-line takes us through the new areas of Tokyo and, finally, back to the Dream Palace, itself, it also includes plenty of revelations on what actually happened in Tokyo, who was involved, and why - before once more coming to a close, leaving us with yet another mission we will not be able to complete until the release of Issue 11 will allow us to head into the Orochi tower, and brings this story-line to its conclusion.

Gameplay-wise, Nightmares in the Dream Palace offers up the same occasionally frustrating, and surprisingly steep, learning-curve that I have come to expect from this game. The quest-line, itself, includes a bit of everything. There will be some puzzle solving, as you track down a series of clues which will lead you to a hidden 'Clubhouse' for gifted children, you will find yourself exploring a building filled with traps which you will need to carefully circumvent (which can be extremely frustrating), and there will be a trip into another surreal dream-world (something which the game has gotten surprisingly good at portraying). And, of course, there will be plenty of creatures to fight. For the most part, it's all as well put together as you could hope. Though, I suppose I should admit that trying to weave my way through the narrow streets of the housing projects, with its assortment of tightly packed together foes, can be an extremely frustrating experience. It is much too easy to find yourself overwhelmed by multiple foes as you inadvertently draw the attention of creatures that you couldn't see, while trying to manage those you could. Seriously, they're everywhere in there.

Your first steps into the new areas of Tokyo are likely to be difficult, as you find yourself confronted by creatures who seem to hit harder than anything you are used to. This is especially true if you find yourself stumbling into the dock area unprepared. Of course, you simply need to press on to find the reason for this - as well as a solution.

The AEGIS system which was introduced back with the release of Issue 9: The Black Signal has also seen an update, with the inclusion of AEGIS shields. By completing a quest that will become available early on, you will be able to acquire a new piece of technology which will allow you to generate your own shields, similar to those generated by all enemies in Tokyo. At any point, after acquiring these items, you will be able to protect yourself with one of the three types of shield available - either psychic, cybernetic, or demonic. Match your shield-type correctly with the type of damage done by your enemies, and it will offer an extra layer of protection which will absorb part of the damage. And, you will need that extra layer of protection when dealing with the enemies in the new areas of Tokyo. Without a shield of the appropriate type equipped, the AEGIS damage done by this new, more powerful, enemies is applied directly to your health bar - which adds up to a significant boost to the damage that they are capable of doing, should you try to take them on before getting your AEGIS shields. Of course, at the moment, it really is only the enemies in the newly opened areas of Tokyo which do this increased damage - anywhere else, the shields are practically useless.

In practice, AEGIS shields are fairly straight-forward - you simply need to take a moment to study the creatures you are about to attack, equip the appropriate shield type, then proceed as normal. It forces you to be more careful in your approach, since trying to fight these new enemies without the correct shield can be punishing, but it doesn't really add anything new to the game's strategy. One thing that does seem strange to me is the fact that you can, actually, only have one shield equipped at a time. While, with the capacitors which form the offensive side of the AEGIS system, you could only have one active on each weapon at a time, it was still possible to equip all three - meaning that you can easily cycle between them. But, with the shields, there is only a slot for one - meaning that you will have to swap manually between them. And, this is something that you just can't do once combat starts - so, if you do go in to combat with the wrong shield, or you need to change for one reason or another, you're effectively stuck. It seems like an odd decision to make, to me.

In the end, though, Nightmares in the Dream Palace added up to another worthwhile addition to The Secret World. It is, also, yet another clear example of the developer's preference for quality over quantity. As someone who, admittedly, tends to play the game much more like a single-player role-playing game, this works out just fine for me - and, I'm quite happy to keep sticking with the game, as long as they are able to maintain this level of quality.

© 2014 Dallas Matier

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