Dreamscaper Review: Confront Your Nightmares In This Surreal Adventure
Dreams are a funny thing. In the moment, they seem utterly vital, yet we can’t remember them fully once we wake. Yet without dreams, we’d have nothing to fuel our passions and aspirations. After writing this Dreamscaper review, I realized that, in many ways, it’s the perfect dissection of what a dream is. Not only does it represent a dream project for Afterburner Studios, but it also explores what makes dreams tick. Because the flipside of a dream is a nightmare, and the game has you confront several to help Cassidy succeed. Can you defeat her negative emotions and help her become a stronger person in the process?
Take a Nap, Stay for the Nightmare
Cassidy has just moved to the town of Red Haven, and it’s clear she’s overwhelmed. As you play through the game, you get small glimpses of her life before, and start to understand why she’s so anxious. Despite this, she’s a very creative young woman, and trying her best to fit in. Luckily, she’s not alone. As she starts to befriend strangers and cultivate relationships, she’ll get new passive boosts to her stats. One friend might make her run faster; another boosts her defense; and some enhance her elemental powers. But what’s important is that you’ll want to go out of your way making friends. You do this by talking with them and giving them gifts you craft at home. This is but one vital element found in the core loop of Dreamscaper.
Rumble In the Subconscious
Whenever you take Cassidy into her dreamscape, you’ll come face to face with vicious monsters. They range from slime-like foes to humanoid shamans, robotic turrets, and much more besides. You have to defeat them to open room exits while also avoiding dangerous traps. There’s a ton of traps in the game, from toxic ground to spinning saw blades and other fun nuisances. Cassidy must avoid them while dealing with foes, and eventually take out each dream’s boss. And though there’s only a handful of realms in the game, they’ll make you earn every victory.
Please Don’t Eat Me…
Speaking of bosses, they represent the things that most stress our heroine out. You start by facing Fear, a gigantic sea creature that stalks you under an icy lake, bursting free to assault you with all manner of projectiles. They only get harder from there and range from Isolation to Negativity and Loss. Each boss is significantly harder than the one that proceeds it, and they each have distinct tells and attack patterns. Isolation likes to hide in fog and poison you, for example. You’ll need to master all of Cassie’s attacks to have a chance, and even then, you might need a helping hand. Thankfully, each time you play, you’ll get rewarded with resources that can unlock more options.
Come Visit Red Haven
Besides making friends, Cassidy can also sketch, meditate and daydream. Sketching helps her bring ideas to literal life, allowing her to find new weapons and abilities in subsequent runs. Meditating increases things like her health and Lucid meter, which is used to activate her more exotic abilities. Daydreaming opens up more areas in the dreamscape, such as healing wells, shops full of equipment, challenge rooms, puzzles, and much more. And perhaps best of all, once you have encountered a new ability or piece of equipment, you can manually choose Cassidy’s loadout at the start of each run. So if you really like wielding a yo-yo or katana blade, you can make certain you’re equipped with it from the get-go. That said, there’s some charm in using random equipment, though that can also prove dangerous in many situations. Mostly cause Dreamscaper is not easy.
Don’t Die In Your Sleep
Now, I’ve been a fan of the rogue genre for a few years now, since I first played The Binding of Isaac. And while I hear many folks comment how hard that classic is, I never found it overly difficult. That said, I think Dreamscaper is pretty challenging. Not unfair, mind you. I just think it ramps up much faster than some other rogues I’ve played. And keep in mind, that’s just playing it on the basic difficulty. I tried tinkering around with the difficulty settings, which increases the Intensity level and subsequent rewards. Let’s just say that’s not a good idea until you are really confident with how well you can play the game. Cause even on normal, I got my butt handed to me pretty handily.
That said, the core gameplay in Dreamscaper is really diverse and mostly pretty satisfying. You will have a ton of weapons to take into battle with you, from primary to ranged weapons, shields, and keepsakes. The latter gives you powerful boosts once equipped. You’ll also have access to two Lucid powers, which utilize Cassie’s Lucid meter to execute powerful attacks. Set loose bolts of lightning, summon swarms of knives, freeze the ground, and all sorts of other mayhem. Plus, if your meter is full, you can invoke a Lucid Awakening, slowing foes in place for a few vital seconds. Oh, and lest I forget, I should mention your shield uses Lucid to protect you from projectiles.
Besides those basics, you also have some more nuanced aspects to the combat. When Cassie attacks, she’ll glow white. If you continue attacking the moment that happens, you’ll perform a Perfect Attack. Basically, each weapon has set points you can use these, and they let you string together powerful combos that generally stun foes and send them flying. I fought this for a while, but eventually found it worth my time to learn the timing. You can also parry attacks by blocking with perfect precision, and do really complex elemental techniques I have yet to accomplish. The point being, there’s a wealth of complexity in the combat, and paired with a handy dodge, it’s not too hard to pick up on. That said, I strongly recommend PC gamers use a gamepad. I cannot imagine successfully playing this with a keyboard and mouse.
A Beautiful Dream
Visually, I find Dreamscaper very attractive. It has a unique, almost handcrafted aesthetic that really spoke to me. There’s a watercolor painting quality to everything, especially when Cassidy falls through the dreamscape to her next challenge. That said, there’s one thing that kinda threw me off – how characters don’t have faces. I know this is a conscious choice on Afterburner’s part, but it hurt in one key way. It made it harder to emotionally connect with characters as they told me their stories. Otherwise, the visual style was pretty great. Musically the game is somber and sometimes haunting. There are lots of great orchestral beats, and it ramps up nicely when battling tough bosses. Visually and musically, the game is pretty outstanding.
Some Lingering Night Terrors
While I enjoyed the game a lot, here are a few areas that I feel fell short. I found it very frustrating how traps in rooms don’t disappear or turn off once you clear out all the enemies. Another peculiarity was how it was hard to tell when Cassidy’s health was full. I’d think the meter would be fully filled, but that was rarely the case, even when the game told me I couldn’t pick up any more health vials. And while at first, I appreciated the hint prompts that pop up as you play, they quickly became irritating. Luckily, the game lets you turn those off.
The last issue I have is one of balance. I know the game just recently got the 1.0 patch, and there’s a lot of fine-tuning happening behind the scenes. But in my mind, the goal of those patches should be making the game experience smoother. As of the most recent update in my copy of the game, the Isolation boss got MUCH harder, to the point I had a hard time beating it anymore. This didn’t appear to affect all the bosses, though, much to my surprise.
Keep On Dreaming
I appreciated the time I spent with Dreamscaper, and I think Afterburner Studios is a team to watch. That said, the game isn’t as polished yet as I would hope. It’s demanding and very grindy, leaning a bit too much on what I consider Souls mechanics. And given how much time is required to unlock enough features to succeed, I really think the best way to play the game is portably. Sadly, I couldn’t do that on my PC, though it did inspire me to buy a Switch edition shortly before writing this review. But if you’re a fan of rogue and don’t mind a steep challenge, I’d definitely check Dreamscaper out.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), Switch; Publisher: Freedom Games; Developer: Afterburner Studios; Players: 1; Released: August 5, 2021; MSRP: $24.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.