- Developer: Afterburner Studios
- Publisher: Freedom Games
- Release Date: 5/8/2021
- Price: £18.99 / Currently unavailable on US eShop at time of writing
- Review code provided by Freedom Games
It seems we are well into the age of the roguelike! Anthropological analogies aside, Dreamscaper is one of many roguelike games being released onto Nintendo Switch at the moment. With the most recent being the highly successful Hades, it is often difficult for any one title to break the shadow of it’s competitors. With that, Afterburner studios released Dreamscapers back in August of this year.
What is brought before us today, dear reader, is a game that walks a very fine line, almost a tightrope. With the slightest error plunging it into eShop obscurity at the expense of waves similar titles. But whilst that risk is there, the rewards are even greater. So the big question is… did Dreamscaper fall? Or did I wake up with that horrible falling sensation?
I really wanted to fill this introduction with my usual array of awful puns. But truth is, dear reader, every time I wrote something, I felt a pang of guilt. That I wasn’t doing Dreamscaper justice. The fact of the matter is, the story and plot behind the game is the first thing that sets it apart from other roguelikes.
Yes, roguelikes have stories and some of them are dark etc. But unlike a lot of roguelikes, the plot isn’t just “drag yourself out of the tenth circle cause… reasons.” There is more of a connection in Dreamscaper that, frankly, gives it an early edge. You play the game as Cassidy and she has moved away from her hometown while continuing to be haunted by her past. As you progress you help her deal with various emotional aspects that have manifested as enemies within her dreams.
This won’t be the only time you hear me draw parallels to the “Life is Strange” franchise in this review. The subject matter clearly creates a comparison to draw on that I couldn’t ignore. And as you’ll see later on, it’s evident that Afterburner Studios were at least aware, if not influenced by, the popular title. But take this as a warning to anyone of a fragile mental health.
Gameplay – R.E.M Sleep
The traditional roguelike element takes place in Cassidy’s dreams. There is an awful lot to explore in each level, which creates a grid like system as you progress. The great thing here though is being able to fast travel to areas you have already completed! What is in the room ranges from puzzles and mental challenges to brawler like combat. There is also the ability to purchase items with your collected loot and find keys to unlock areas further on.
The tutorial is a great example of how learning the basic mechanics doesn’t have to be tedious. Cassidy has ranged and melee attack options at her disposal as well as a parry attack. This usually fills me with dread as parrying is a mechanic that can sometimes make or break a game’s combat. Thankfully, Dreamscaper is generous enough with it’s timing that I know it’s my fault when I don’t make a hit! Cassidy also has lucid attacks. These are best described as they sound. Those moments you realise that you are in a dream and all of a sudden you just… remove whatever was upsetting you.
Finally, each area ends with a boss battle. This is linked to one of Cassidy’s emotional traumas, such as isolation. Working out the boss’ pattern and timing your hits is all that really matters here usually. The patterns and “rules” are pretty predictable after a while, but there is also the ability to skip boss fights that you have already completed. Obviously this is at a cost, but sometimes, you just want to move on.
But There’s More Out In the Real World!
Eventually Cassidy will meet her match, but rather than ending the game, she wakes in the real world! This gives her the opportunity to meet up with the characters in her new home. Hopefully, Cassidy will make some friends, create some art and build some bonds in her new town?
This is something you want to do for sure! Building relationships with NPC’s unlocks perks for Cassidy to use in the dream world. Cassidy can also use her artistic talents to design items that will appear in the dream world, because who wouldn’t want to leave yourself that awesome blade? Finally, Cassidy can also increase a number of her stats through meditation. By going to the park, she is able to increase a number of stats, all of which have a link to her mental health in the real world. So by making Cassidy stronger, you’re making her… well… stronger!
The art style gave me strong hints towards a cross over between “Life is Strange” and the real world of the movie “Coraline”. The colour palate has an almost watercolour feel to it. This tied in great with the theme of the game though. Having that lack of vibrancy just kept reminding me that I was playing a character suffering from depressive episodes. That’s not to say the game lacks vibrant colour, just that it’s used to emphasise a point.
The same can be said for the soundtrack. The music changes from soft ambient tunes that give off a real sense of calming atmosphere to the area being explored. But this is brought into stark counterpoint when danger is close by. These quick changes in atmosphere prevent you from being brought out of the experience by that 5th rendition of the same 4 bars.
My biggest gripe with the aesthetics is that this is not a game for handheld mode. The art models are gorgeous, the backgrounds and the world in which we inhabit are gorgeous. But the scale makes it difficult to enjoy this title in any other way than on a larger screen. Maybe this will be different now we are in the world of the OLED screen. But there are more reasons to buy an OLED than “Dreamscaper MIGHT look more crisp in handheld mode.”
I enjoyed Dreamscaper! I’m not huge on roguelikes for a few reasons. The biggest issue being permadeath for me. While I completely get why people like permadeath, someone with a reduced gaming window combined with writing deadlines often would prefer to not have it. A few times I would get close to completing only to have to repeat a whole sequence again. I did put the game down at those moments and can imagine many others would too.
The game plays a lot on it’s artistic approach I felt. The faded, watercolour style is not the only link being made to mental health. The obvious choice of having characters WITHOUT FACES was certainly something that took some getting used to. It played heavily on my own anxieties at the start and I’m almost certain that that was the point. Creating a sense of unease around these people new in Cassidy’s life and not being certain on who to trust certainly plays into a lot of aspects.
So, while I said I’m not a fan, I have played quite a few roguelikes now (it is pretty hard not to…) I have to say that Dreamscaper really traverses that tightrope well. It has had a lot of time and polish spent on it, that much is clear! The mechanics have taken a long hard look at what works well, not just in roguelikes but in action RPG’s, dungeon crawlers and even brawler games. What it does it does well!
Where it lets itself down is in the little areas. Reusing the same enemies with the same combat tricks isn’t a game breaker on its own by any means. But it is something you may pick up on while playing this game. There’s also the aforementioned desire to stop playing. But then if they pandered to players like me, it would lose a strong part of what makes it a roguelike I guess! Definitely one to pick up if you are a fan of the genre!
- A hugely deep story that sets it apart from most roguelikes
- Ethereal atmosphere that somehow never feels repetitive
- Generous mechanics that reduce rage quitting
- Permadeath mechanics are off putting to some
- Boss battles, and combat as a whole can feel repetitive
- Not a game for handheld mode