In Your Dreams
Dreamscaper is an action roguelite from three-person developer Afterburner Studios. Diverging from many other titles in the subgenre, Dreamscaper manages to turn the formula into a surprisingly emotional experience as players fight against a woman’s trauma in her dreams while her growing relationships in the real world give her the needed strength to overcome it. Though there is one particular stumbling block the overall experience otherwise skews highly positively, making the game on that is well worth checking out.
Dreamscaper tells the story of Cassidy, a woman who has moved from her tiny hometown of Backhill to the larger town of Redhaven. Prior to the time of the game, Cassidy suffered severe trauma that still haunts her dreams. In these dreams, Cassidy fights through dungeons based on locations she knows, where she needs to overcome bosses who represent specific parts of that trauma. Each time she is defeated, she wakes up and the dream starts again from the beginning. There are six dungeons and bosses to defeat for a completed run, but even a successful run is far from the proper end of the game.
Between dreams, Cassidy can visit various locations in Redhaven, where she can do things that may assist her in upcoming runs, such as sketching ideas or meditating. She can also craft gifts for her acquaintances, unlocking new event scenes that expand on the characters and their own personal stories, as well as Cassidy’s relationships with them. The game’s storytelling is very much based on emotions rather than an ongoing plot; the past events that led to Cassidy’s trauma are slowly hinted at, while current events in her life are simply talked about after the fact. It’s an interesting idea, and while there aren’t many story threads to follow, Dreamscaper is great at conveying the emotions of its characters. The narrative touches upon many understandable issues and concerns, and it’s pleasing to see them addressed in a thoughtful manner.
Adding to the emotional approach is Dale North’s stellar and hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. It very much builds upon the premise of Cassidy’s intimate and often lonely fight against her own struggles, both in the quieter tracks that play throughout town and in its more exciting combat themes. The game doesn’t include voice acting but ultimately that doesn’t feel like a bad thing, and the same goes for its graphical direction that elects not to give the characters any facial features. The designs of the cast and the environments are still abundant with character, aid the music and writing in creating what is often a melancholic, but immersive, experience.
Going into runs, which begin whenever Cassidy goes to sleep, players can choose their starting loadout or elect to keep these random. Trying to focus on single weapons is ill-advised as players will want to swap out to the far more powerful weapons that they pick up during each run. However, focusing lets players more quickly attain mastery of that equipment, which grants an extra modifier on top of it. Players can also select a passive bonus granted by one of her acquaintances that increases in power as their relationship improves.
Each run sees Cassidy venturing from room to room, searching for the boss that upon defeat will let her progress to the next area. The vast majority of the rooms include a set of enemies to vanquish as well as some environmental hazards to avoid, with others providing opportunities for new equipment — either freely granted or awarded to players for completing puzzles of challenges. Combat is easy to get the hang of, with players having access to melee, ranged, and special attacks. Timing is the biggest part of mastering the combat, and needed for successfully linking combos for more powerful attacks, striking bosses during openings, or dodging and parrying enemy attacks. Players will benefit from smart use of the Lucid meter below the health bar, which is used for ranged attacks as well as to potentially slow down time for a brief period.
Dreamscaper gives players a robust selection of weapons and abilities that helps keep the combat fresh despite a limited lineup of enemies, although the game is built so players should be able to adapt to the various options on the table. There’s a great responsiveness to the controls and it’s very pleasing when a run comes together and players manage to get a set that synergises with their keepsakes — other items picked up during runs that provide additional passive bonuses to those found on weapons, such as floating companions, elemental attack attributes, and more. Combat and exploration of the dream world remain strong and satisfying throughout, while the bosses make for strong and noteworthy encounters as well, and remain so despite the large number of times they are faced.
During runs, players will pick up different resources. Bombs, Keys, and Sand are used within the run — Bombs and Keys to unlock doors and paths, while Sand is used to purchase items and upgrades — and lost after it’s over. Meanwhile, Inspiration, Resolve, Glass, and Sparks are used in the real world to craft gifts and unlock a multitude of elements or bonuses for the dream world. It’s these that largely drive the permanent progression of Dreamscaper, and provided players don’t screw up early on, they’ll always have something to show from each run.
The game’s biggest stumbling block strangely comes when players manage a successful run. Far from providing players with anything that could be considered an ending, the game simply tells players that they are not done yet and gives a hint at what needs to be done next. However, this particular task feels slower than it needs to be, requiring that players likely have to spend more time than they’d desire and likely turning some off, especially if a successful run comes fairly early in the process of meeting it. A to do list helps players keep track of long-term goals and achievements, providing some extra resources as a bonus, but at a certain point it starts to become busy work.
The game’s settings include an optional Lucid Mode toggle, which gives Cassidy a small boost every time she is defeated in the dream world. The boost is generally small, starting at 20% but only going up 1 or 2% with every defeat, which ensures that the game stays challenging but giving enough of a sense of Cassidy getting stronger. On the other end of things, players quickly unlock options to increase the difficulty of runs in four different ways and thus gain boosted rewards. As with all roguelite titles, there’s always a sense of luck to proceedings, and some items are considerably more powerful that others, but the sense of progression is very much present through the unlockables and as players get more familiar with the enemies, weapons, and unlockables.
While the gameplay provides a strong loop that makes it easy to jump in, it’s the immersive atmosphere that grabs hold and keeps players engaged for multiple runs. The emotional struggles of the characters resonate, and there are important messages about how helpful the support of others can be. Reaching its proper conclusion may require more work than is warranted, but the overall experience of Dreamscaper is such that it remains a strong recommendation for those looking for an atmospheric hack-and-slash title.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Enjoyable gameplay loop
Getting a satisfactory ending may take more time than players are willing to put in
Can be hard to spot certain on-screen elements