Stitcher Reviews: Dreamscaper

2021-08-15

Header art by Elthar Nox

PAPI sucks, Delve is healing, we fucking won and TEST is next. 

There. I’ve done my due diligence as a Goon. Subject touched upon. The inexhaustible thread of articles has been acknowledged. But really, there are so many people down in that particular mine, blasting and swinging their picks, that I kinda feel tempted to just ignore it and write something else.

And now for something completely different…

So instead, here’s an article about the dreamy new rogue-lite action RPG Dreamscaper from  Freedom Games and Afterburner Studios.

Quick precis: Although Dreamscaper has been available on early access since August of 2020, version 1.0 was just released to Steam and Nintendo Switch in the first week of August 2021, bringing with it a host of QOL improvements, rebalances, turning it into a complete experience.

Our protagonist is Cassidy, a faceless, gloomy and traumatized young artist who recently fled her tiny hometown for the big city. She’s fond of hanging out at the coffee shop and sketching, meditating in the park, daydreaming at the bar, or hanging around in the bookstore and record shop without ever buying anything. She lives in a single-bedroom apartment with her Playstation and some fairy lights around the bed, crafting hand-made gifts for her friends.

Oh, and she also has the power of lucid dreaming, which she uses to spend each night running through her dreams. Armed with all the weapons her imagination can provide, she battles through her memories and inner demons on the road to making peace with herself and healing. Waking each morning with whatever new reserves of resolve and creativity and (for some reason) glass she has been able to gather to help her grow as a person, she in turn begins to delve deeper and more easily into her nightmares.

Anyone familiar with rogue-lites will immediately recognize the gameplay loop buried in that summary.

Addressing the bisexual Greek god in the room

Rogue-lites are a genre with some inevitable comparisons. Hades, in particular, set a pretty compelling gold standard against which any newcomer will be compared mercilessly, and against which Dreamscaper compares well.

The gameplay will be familiar to fans of the genre, especially of Dead Cells. Run through a randomized dungeon, use a randomized assortment of abilities, weapons and powerups to defeat enemies, gather resources, defeat a boss, descend to the next level, and keep going until something either beats you or you reach the end of the run, which resets you to the beginning with some permanent upgrades. Rinse and repeat. 

Cassidy has a weapon, a shield, a ranged attack, and two “lucid abilities,” any of which she can swap out at any time when she finds a suitable replacement. Alternatively, if she wants to keep what she has, she can dismantle the pickups for a temporary currency – sand – that’s lost at the end of the run but which can be traded for upgrades to whatever she’s already carrying, or for whatever is in the shop.

I love literally every weapon and lucid attack. Cassidy’s arsenal includes such mundane items such as a baseball bat, a longbow and a lightning bolt, to stuff like weaponized yo-yos, laser eye beams, and the ability to slide on her knees to blast out a power chord on her imaginary guitar, which sends enemies flying.

That last move has a permanent place in my starting loadout, as does the shield, which more than doubles the length of the parry window to deflect ranged projectiles or stagger attacking enemies. I have favorites, for sure, but as yet, I haven’t found a single attack or ability that I consider bad. At worst, a pickup just doesn’t synergize with the build. Oh well. But even those I can trade for sand.

One feature I definitely like is the growing influence of Cassidy’s friends in her dreamscape. Their unique outlook shifts Cass’ own approach, and you can slot a single friend to be your “influence” in the dreamscape. The artistic, passionate, bubbly Alison enhances your Lucid abilities, for example, while the stoic and methodical Fernando enhances your armor and blocking skill. 

As with Hades, you progress your relationships through gift-giving, with Cassidy finding the creativity in her dreams to make her acquaintances, say, a coaster, or a poem, or a pair of gloves. That relationship-building provides one leg of the Waking World permanent progression, the others being Resolve, Glass, and Sparks. Resolve is spent while meditating in the park to enhance Cassidy’s health, damage output and so on. Glass is the currency of daydreaming in the bar to buy upgrades to the dreamscape itself. Sparks let you unlock new pickups by sketching in the coffee shop.

You may be sensing a theme here. Cassidy is definitely a certain kind of hipster. But that’s what this game is going for.

Beautiful, moody, and bittersweet

This review would definitely be incomplete without mentioning Dreamscaper’s artistic side. This is a game with an aesthetic.

Let’s begin with the art style. You’ve seen the screenshots above, so you know good and well which engine Dreamscaper runs on: it’s got the Unity Look, the same one you’ll find in everything from The Long Dark to Valheim.  But these developers lean into it and it works. That watercolor aesthetic is pervasive, giving even the Waking World a dreamlike, dissociative quality that sets a mood. By making Cassidy herself, and all the people she can interact with, faceless and fingerless, the end result is that the dream world feels somehow more vibrant and alive. Appropriate, considering you’ll spend far more time there.

This dissociation is reinforced by the fact that, in the Waking World, things are run down, dirty, messy and cluttered. Everything is cleverly designed to give the impression of a time frame that is recent but not quite contemporary. Cassidy has a PS1, which she plays on a CRT TV. Her childhood memories are of riding around on a bike with her sister. There’s no mention of smartphones or the Internet. It’s like this world got stuck in the year 2001 and has been slowly going shabby ever since.

To your humble and shamelessly millennial author, it feels . . . nostalgic. Very deliberately and effectively so.

Underpinning the art is the competently atmospheric soundtrack from Dale North. It’s missing the presence of a vocal performance – I really feel like an ethereal soprano could have ascended it into something truly remarkable – but that’s like docking an Olympic gymnast a few tenths of a point for being slightly off vertical on the dismount.

Instead, it rests on a triumvirate of piano, strings, and synth. At times it’s quiet and poignant, at times swelling and epic, at times warm and reassuring. You could add most of the soundtrack to your D&D session playlists, and it would set the mood wonderfully without ever being obtrusive, which is a shame, because it also never evolves into the real iconic bangers that peppered Hades’ soundtrack, such as “The Painful Way.

That may seem less than perfectly complimentary, but the soundtrack isn’t crafted to stand out: it’s crafted to fit the aesthetic. It’s another brushstroke in the beautiful painting, not a piece on its own.

Last but not least is the writing, which is excellent. Cass’ story – precisely why she’s so gloomy and distant, why she left home for the big city, and so on – isn’t delivered up front. Instead, you piece together the flashes of it found in memories from the dreams, or in conversations as she opens up to her friends and coworkers in the Waking World.

As mentioned above, this is done through gift-giving, but each tier comes with a conversation. You get to know these people, and they’re all so well-crafted. I’m personally most fond of Bruce, a mustache-and-bowler-hat-wearing older gentlemen and historian, who can talk Cassidy’s ear off about trash and make it sound interesting, but who clearly has his own trauma and insecurities lurking under the surface. 

Cassidy is no bland everyman herself. She has a pleasantly sarcastic sense of humor that readily surfaces and which often left me laughing. She’s nostalgic, grieving and adrift, doing a job to pay the bills rather than out of passion, wondering if that’s all her life is going to be, and wishing things were different somehow. A cast of eight on-screen characters isn’t much, but it’s enough to tell a story. A damn good one that I’m hungry for more of.

That’s the thing about the Waking World – although it’s sculpted to feel less real and vibrant, it’s also the place where the real progress happens. The developers struck that balance well.

But what about the dreamscape?

Cassidy’s dreams begin with her hometown. She’ll find memories at her old house, the church, the playground and diner. It’s a place out of time, an American small town that could be literally anywhere in any flyover state where a couple hundred people live and nothing new has come along since the 1960s. Here, she faces her Fear and moves on to the city, whose dark and rain-damp streets glimmer with neon, but there’s not a soul to be seen except Cassidy’s nightmares, culminating in Isolation.

From there, the story moves to the woods where she went camping when she was young and from there . . . I don’t know. That’s as far as I’ve got. The ramp up in difficulty from each level to the next is punishing, forcing you to have both a solid grasp of the game’s mechanics and plenty of Waking World upgrades under your belt if you want to proceed. I’m sure if you’re good enough you could blitz right through to the end in a single run, but I’m not good enough. Yet.

In that regard, however, Dreamscaper is solid, tight and well-crafted. Not once have I had occasion to yell “bullshit!” at my monitor: every single run-ending death (causing Cassidy to jolt awake in her bed) has been purely down to my own incomplete skill, not knowing a boss’ patterns, or simple overconfidence.

Getting that part right is absolutely central to delivering a good rogue-lite experience. And that’s my overall verdict here. It’s good. Damn good. Excellent even. If you’re a fan of the genre, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Somehow, it doesn’t quite make it over the same threshold Hades did, that being a game I’d recommend to absolutely anyone. I can’t quite put my finger on why, because there is nothing wrong here. I can’t say there’s anything missing. It just isn’t quite transcendent in the same way.

But again, that’s like saying a silver medal isn’t quite as good as a gold medal. It’s true, but by any remotely fair appraisal, a silver medal is still absolutely worth having.

Just like Dreamscaper.

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Comments

  • George Yth

    Well this obviously won’t fire up the comment section as much as INN’s usual fare, but I’ll just say you’ve convinced me to pick Dreamscaper up on the next sale after I’ve previously put it on “Ignore”.
    Also. the name Dale North caused a flash of recognition, back from when I used to trawl video game remix sites religiously. It will be interesting to hear an original VGM work from him.

    August 15, 2021 at 1:20 PM
  • Michael Porter

    This seems appealing

    August 16, 2021 at 1:39 AM