Virtually all of us have suffered some sort of horrible event. Dreamscaper from developer Afterburner Studios and publisher Freedom Games explores the struggle against the inner demons that can arise from that trauma, which makes it a unique game to review. In this roguelite game, you’ll guide Cassidy through night after night of struggling against her nightmares. Along the way, she’ll try to improve herself, make friends in a new city, and try to break the cycle of pain that torments her dreams and her reality.
Dreamscaper under the covers
Dreamscaper is all about the loop. Every night, Cassidy has horrible dreams and must get as far as she can into them before the monsters overcome her. The nightmare areas are composed of procedurally generated rooms arranged in a grid, and the layout changes with each visit. There are combat rooms, challenge rooms, bonus rooms, puzzles, shops, and boss fights. As you go on, you’ll receive random gear with randomized bonuses — typically including melee and ranged weapons, shields, dodges, spells, and keepsakes (beneficial effects). There are six areas in all, each capped with a giant boss battle.
When you die, Cassidy wakes up, and she can see friends in various locations, giving her new stats. You can also use materials gathered in the dream world to give Cassidy persistent buffs, alter certain aspects of the nightmare dungeons, and insert new gear to find. It falls into a rhythm right away, one that fans of the genre will be familiar with.
A wonderful dream
What makes Dreamscaper interesting is how the gameplay revolves around the story. Cassidy is a person who is trying as hard as she can to be better. She can Meditate at the park, which allows her to obtain new buffs by spending Resolve. Each one has a name like “Develop a Healthy Mindset,” which grants higher starting health, and “Be More Fiscally Savvy,” which grants more Sand currency in the nightmare world. Likewise, she can Sketch pictures of gear she wants to find in her dreams and Daydream about how her nighttime excursions can be better. Lots of the gear is modeled after things from Cassidy’s life. Art Supplies are a keepsake that increase the amount of inspiration that she picks up, and there’s a big ol’ “Breaker Sword,” right out of her favorite video game.
Each of the six nightmare areas represents an important location in Cassidy’s life — her hometown, for instance, or the campgrounds where she went on family vacations. The bosses contain deep symbolism too. Fear is represented by a giant fish that has lots of unpredictable attacks. Isolation is a ghost trapped in a cage, and it surrounds itself in a force field that must be destroyed before Cassidy can attack it. The rest follow suit, and I’d have to say the bosses were my favorite thing in the game.
There are a lot of little things that make Dreamscaper gameplay a great experience. The rumble is subtle, but spot-on. The visuals for each area evoke that dungeon’s theme, culminating in the boss battle. When you make a particularly skillful dodge, time slows down for an instant, which is immensely satisfying. The controls are tight, and there’s a rewarding sense of improvement from start to finish.
A persistent nightmare
However, I couldn’t get into the story as much as I wanted to. I didn’t love anyone in the game. None of the characters have faces, which I’m sure is a stylistic choice representative of the anonymity of urban life or something like that. However, it wound up making them off-putting. Everyone is going through their own issues, and very few of their interactions with Cassidy are pleasant, at least for a while. Cassidy herself starts the game running away from painful truths about her own life, but never really stops. Her nightmares represent all of the things she needs to acknowledge, but given the nature of the game, those things still exist for her. Dreamscaper presents a harsh world, which can hit a little close to home for some people. It’s a great story, just one that can feel a bit raw or personal.
Some other little gripes include that the non-boss enemy monsters are a bit bland, and you see same ones pop up throughout the game. Sometimes the visual effects get in the way, and it’s difficult to tell a lava pit from the ground if there’s a lot of glare. The overworld is generally dull too, with Cassidy jumping from location to location only to find nothing worth doing anywhere.
To sleep, perchance to dream
Dreamscaper was a rich, deep, intimate experience through the mind of a person suffering under the weight of her trauma. The gameplay and the story serve each other in a way that’s rare to see in video games. There are a ton of little touches that make it a joy to play, and I found myself wanting to learn more about Cassidy and what happened to her after her sister died. While not everything wound up being a home run, I enjoyed the game overall. I’m grateful to the team at Afterburner for this sometimes satisfying, sometimes painful piece of art.
A Nintendo Switch review code for Dreamscaper was provided by the publisher.