PAX Online Preview: Dreamscaper
Indie games are a special kind of gem because instead of relying on a big budget and huge resources to deliver a groundbreaking experience, they are forced to get creative with ingenious new features and twists to the established mechanics of a genre. We have seen a number of cases of innovative blending over the years, but Afterburner Studios’ Dreamscaper takes the roguelite formula in a direction I would never have considered before; a heartfelt tale of loneliness and building a new life in a new city.
On paper, Dreamscaper is a cut and dry experience: do the social stuff when you are awake and the fighty fighty stabby stabby when you sleep. We have seen that idea before, however to boil it down to such a simple experience would be criminal. You’ll play as Cassidy, a creative and imaginative adult nerd and gamer who has just moved into a new town. She is a little awkward in an endearing, relatable sort of way as she attempts to open up to strangers in the town of Redhaven, but the nuanced interplay of her waking and sleeping life is what draws you in.
The Beautiful Dreams of a Lonely Heart
As the game opens you are met with a tutorial of how to fight and navigate the dungeons by playing her favorite video game. At the end of a long day she goes to sleep and, like an obsessive gamer, her lucid dreams let her bravely fight the baddies in the recesses of her memories. You’ll gather resources, discover new loot to upgrade your skills, and unlock awesome spells to use (my personal favorite lets you summon a dragon to swoop in and firebomb the stage!) All the while exploring procedurally generated levels set in Cassidy’s memories. The opening stage is the hometown in which she grew up, followed by the town she just moved to. After that, the summer camp her and her sister used to attend. In classic roguelite fashion, dying will set you back to the first stage but it has an even more detrimental effect – you didn’t get enough sleep.
The currency is Sand, and the more you gather the better rested you are. Gathering sand and completing a level lets you wake up naturally and refreshed whereas dying in a stage has you wake abruptly and barely get any sleep. You can choose to go back to sleep and try again, but time in the real world will pass and you might miss your chance to talk to a friend. You’ll use this sand to go between locations in Redhaven and talk to the locals to make some friends. Traveling and chit-chatting with them will use up time, so you need to use this currency wisely. Everyone is willing to have a conversation with you at the expense of time, but the fastest way to build your relationship is using the resources from your dreams to craft gifts. Give the right person the right gift and they are instantly your pal! Why do you want them to be your friend? As you develop your friendship and get to know them you can use their personality traits to unlock and equip bonuses, abilities, and new gear. The bartender gives you a perk to be more perceptive. The activist reporter unlocks a better shield.
Aesthetically this is a downright gorgeous game with immaculate level design. Seeing the snow-covered house you grew up in or the rain-drenched streets of Redhaven, its all rather exhilarating. Even the stores you go to in Cassidy’s real life look fantastic. In contrast, the characters that populate the world have no face. Their attire gives away their personality (as does their impressive dialogue) but each character is poetically created without distinct facial features. Combat is particularly fluid and solid with fantastic blocking, dodging, and parrying, as well as offering melee and ranged weapons. It feels like the right level of challenging to remember that this is Cassidy being a hero in her own mind. Cassidy is incredibly relatable in this game and it takes no time at all to become invested in her relationships with the townspeople (I personally will make it my girl to make sure Alison is her bestie)
Dreamscaper had a vision of taking roguelites in a new direction and cementing it with a heartwarming story about being that awkward stranger trying to start a new life and I had such an incredibly great time seeing the unique and soulful details that make Cassidy a well-rounded character. The flavor texts on weapons and abilities almost always make some kind of pop culture or geeky reference and it makes her that much more endearing. This is absolutely a game for people who love a mellow narrative with a relatable protagonist who might not be all about the hardcore roguelite style. It’s accessible and compelling, I can’t wait to see Cassidy make long-lasting friendships which is not something I expected to say about a roguelite. Then again, that is the joy of what an indie developer can do.
Dreamscaper is out in Early Acess on PC and on Nintendo Switch soon. For more information check out the game’s official website, and for all things PAX Online, keep it locked on COGconnected.