Dreamscaper Review – A rose with thorns

Gare – Monday, September 6, 2021 4:26 PM
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I think it’s safe to say that even the best video games have things people don’t like about them. Dreamscaper is no exception: tackling the concept of (literally) fighting your inner demons, the game presents this wholly interesting setup in the framework of the classic roguelike dungeon crawler, which, I feel, ends up becoming more of a yoke than anything. But that doesn’t mean the overall experience is bad, mind you – it just means that when people ask me to describe Dreamscaper, I’m probably going to tell them it was a game I sometimes enjoyed, and sometimes did not.

The duality of man

Let’s start with the basics – the whole premise of Dreamscaper revolves around juggling your day-to-day life with your nightly escapades into a realm of hostile creatures and fantastic, dreamlike locales, and no, this isn’t the setup for a Persona joke. The dream world plays pretty much like your average action-RPG – you’ve got your dodge rolls, your melee combos, your cooldown skills and your ranged attacks, and you move through a series of procedurally generated arenas while fighting baddies, dodging traps, buying/upgrading gear and beating bosses… which will then allow you to proceed to the next layer of the dream to once again do everything I’ve just described. Sure enough, it’s an addictive enough formula that works quite well for the most part: combat is satisfying (hitting monsters with a heavy attack and seeing them bounce off walls like pinballs is always fun), the various abilities you can acquire are fairly varied and the dreamscapes themselves positively ooze atmosphere and style. That said, there are problems with almost everything I’ve just praised, and this kind of duality (“this is good, BUT…”) unfortunately ended up defining most of my time with Dreamscaper.

Aesthetic issues

The combat, for example, feels great when everything works as intended – when you dodge out of the way of enemy attacks and projectiles, parry hits at just the right time and use your abilities to stun or destroy everything that stands in your path, it’s like poetry in motion. Unfortunately, the otherwise gorgeous visual style of the game can often sabotage the player: I’ve had several instances where I legitimately couldn’t see what was going on due to a series of flashy effects and explosions blocking my view, forcing me to rely on mindless, chaotic button-mashing during combat – which, as you might imagine, becomes less and less effective as you progress further and the difficulty starts ramping up. The other big problem I have is that enemies, due to their rather dull design and indistinct visual aesthetic, simply don’t stand out enough; especially on darker maps, they can very easily blend into the background, which makes fighting against them an exercise in frustration, and can lead to taking unnecessary damage. I found this issue to be particularly egregious on the fourth biome, consisting of a set of levels with mostly black and red as the dominant colors – and it’s probably no coincidence that the vast majority of my deaths happened on this stage.

Once more unto the breach

Being a roguelike, Dreamscaper pits you against randomized enemies in procedurally generated dungeons, meaning that – on paper – every run should feel reasonably fresh. Frankly, I didn’t quite feel this way. Sure, the rooms are positioned differently and finding different sets of weapons and abilities can spice things up ever so slightly, but other than that, every single run felt extremely samey to me, leading to a growing feeling of repetition that not even the otherwise rock-solid gameplay could alleviate; instead of tackling something new and unexpected every time I dove into the dream world, I genuinely felt like I was replaying the exact same thing over and over again. Later on, you can make bonus areas like puzzle rooms, challenge rooms, merchant rooms, etc. to spawn during a level, but these have to be unlocked individually for every single one of the game’s six biomes, which can be a bit of a grind, to say the least.

Upgrades & chit-chat

I also expected the waking world segments to be significantly more engaging than they ended up being. The premise of the game made it seem like I’d be juggling my dungeon crawling exploits with a full-blown social life, but instead, everything felt overly artificial and gamified, as social interactions mostly boil down to buying gifts for random NPCs in order to unlock various bonuses granted by their gradually increasing affinity levels. As these affinity levels increase, you’ll occasionally be treated to short, fairly mundane conversations that did little to make me view these characters as anything more than glorified stat bonus dispensers. I rarely felt like I wanted to learn more about them; instead, I quickly spent all my accumulated points and jumped back into the dream-dungeon to enjoy the real meat of the experience. And I say this as someone who, more often than not, tends to value a game’s storyline and characters the most – however, I just didn’t find much to latch onto here.

In conclusion

In keeping with the spirit of roguelikes, allow me to repeat myself: all roses have their thorns, and so it follows that even the best video games have things people don’t like about them. Dreamscaper is a game that does many things right. The core mechanics are solid enough, the soundtrack would deserve a separate essay detailing how incredible it is, and the basic gameplay loop of whacking monsters around within vividly designed dreamscapes while using cool dream powers provides for neat, bite-sized bits of action-RPG fun. But for me, this was all hampered by the inherently repetitive nature of the game’s roguelike elements, the occasional messiness of the combat mechanics, and the lack of an immediately engaging narrative to make me want to come back for more. At the end of the day, I still think Dreamscaper is a decent little game – but I’m probably not going to stay up all night thinking about it.

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