Dreamscaper Review (Switch)
Release Date: August 5, 2021
File Size: 4.9GB
Publisher: Freedom Games
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Version Reviewed: 184.108.40.206
I’m traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of run-based gameplay and meta currency but of procedural level design; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – my next stop, the Roguelike Zone!
In this place, there are no games without roguelike elements. Indie developers thrive here, using tricks of the trade to string together unique skirmish and level designs so that I never know what to expect. It is both terrifying and fascinating. It is the realm of nightmares that are boring and bland, and dreams that are adventurous and addictive. And hey, as long as I’m talking about dreams, I might as well mention Dreamscaper, the nightmare-themed roguelite release of 2021. As is usually the case, reviewing these sorts of titles requires a grasp on the combat and progression mechanics, so with a sufficient amount of playtime sunk into it, we can finally ask the question: does Dreamscaper set itself apart from its countless roguelite contemporaries enough to warrant a buy?
Dreamscaper has players traveling through a series of procedurally-generated dungeon rooms meant to portray the landscape of the subconscious. Of course, this is only half of the game, with another narrative and set of gameplay mechanics taking place during the meta currency phase. We’ll start with the action phase first.
Protagonist Cassidy is struggling with a long-distance move to a new town, and must learn to conquer the baggage she left behind while attempting to assimilate into a new environment during two separate phases. When she is asleep, Cassidy plunges into her subconscious by descending into dungeon levels based on memories. Upon entering a room, you’ll be tasked with completing simplistic challenges, fighting enemies, or receiving the help from one of several shops and shrines. Combat is an obvious and essential part of Dreamscaper, and Cassidy has a slew of abilities at her disposal. You’ll always start with either a randomized or self-designed loadout comprised of melee, ranged, and magic attack options. Your melee attacks can be controlled with light and heavy attacks mapped to the y and x buttons respectively, while you can call up your ranged attack reticule with the right control stick.
Positioning your character with this function can be crucial, as the left control stick will also move you while aiming and shielding, accomplished with the ZR and ZL buttons. Blocking will shield you from harm temporarily, but cannot block enemy attacks forever. Your positioning also matters for your magic attacks, which are accessed with the L and R bumpers and operate on cooldowns, and pressing both activates a powerful Lucid Awakening that can only be used every few rooms. Lastly, you have a dodge roll ability mapped to the B button, which can possess a variety of effects offered by different equipment types.
Now, this is all great information to be aware of upon starting a run, but it doesn’t factor in some of the intricacies of Dreamscaper’s structure. First off, an additional mechanic to all of your equipment abilities are precision inputs. For offensive abilities, it means letting loose an input when Cassidy flashes white during an animation. This allows for stronger attacks for both your melee and ranged attack options, the latter flashing once the reticle has been held for a particular time frame. For dodging and blocking, it means executing an input right before an attack hits you, which offers a slowdown effect for dodges and a parry attack for blocking. Executing these inputs and general usage of equipment helps gain Mastery of a weapon, which is a unique gauge for every equipment that unlocks a further ability upon completion. If you want to start with more powerful equipment and get your hands on other, more powerful options throughout your run, you want to try to grind up these masteries as much as possible- though it can be difficult when you are constantly swapping gear during your run.
Throughout your nighttime crawl, you will occasionally find doors and structures that cannot be opened without bombs, a valuable resource, or keys, which are even more rare. Enemies and destructible elements of the landscape will often hold these as rewards, so you want to scour as much of the landscape as possible. You’ll also pick up sand, which can be used at dungeon stores to purchase new abilities, healing options, and can even be converted into Glass, meta currency for the daytime phase. This is not the only form of currency to be acquired, however, as defeating bosses offers up a rarer currency that can be used to turn Cassidy’s sketches- blueprints she designs in the daytime phase- into tangible abilities and keepsakes, or strong passive buffs to performance and abilities.
On the flip side, daytime is the chance for you to put some of these meta currencies to good use. Cassidy can travel around her new home of Redhaven to forge relationships and a myriad of bonus abilities to make her dungeon delving easier. There are a whopping four kinds of meta currency offered here: Resolve, Inspiration, Glass, and Sparks- at least, I think that’s its name, the game isn’t very clear about delineating these titles. It also doesn’t do a fabulous job of telling the player how they can accrue some of these currencies, but as far as I know, Inspiration and Resolve are occasionally dropped by enemies and also can be gathered by completing objectives on your To-Do List, though a great source of Resolve are Cassidy’s memories found in the nighttime phase.
Glass can be converted from Sand at merchants, and Sparks are only acquired from boss battles, however. Each of these currencies can be used to craft certain kinds of bonuses, such as items Cassidy can share with the denizens of Redhaven in order to improve their relationships. While this is a crucial objective for the daytime phase, you will have to speak to NPCs multiple times in order to discern their interests, which will inform you as to which items they can be gifted for a bonus. Higher relationships with NPCs offer stronger passive buffs while in the nighttime phase, so this can be key to progressing further in the story and game.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Dreamscaper is a mash-up of two roguelike/lites I’ve previously covered for SwitchRPG, featuring the relationship-building concept from Boyfriend Dungeon and the themes of depression from Iris and the Giant. The game tackles both concepts differently, and while I won’t say one game is better than the other, they handle their subject material well enough. The problem with Dreamscaper’s narrative progression is that it is spread across a variety of gameplay-focused progression systems, culminating in a disjointed and frustrating experience. Cassidy is clearly suffering from depression as a result of several factors, her move to Redhaven being the inciting factor in her nightmares.
Her depression can only be quelled through the new relationships she builds with denizens and her own lucid dream exploration, meaning the gameplay is intertwined with narrative progression, but hindered by the aforementioned swath of currencies. If you want to get anywhere in Dreamscaper, you’ll need to return to Redhaven multiple times in order to needle your soon-to-be friends for their interests, then grind for currency in hopes of gifting them the right item to boost their level and unlock more vignettes.
With the frustrating progression matter out of the way, it is important to state that Cassidy’s new friend options are a thankfully motley and appreciatively diverse group. Though young herself, Cassidy interacts with people from all walks of life: aspiring journalists, aged and quirky intellectuals, standoffish record store owners, and more. The topics they discuss help give Dreamscaper its personality and give you something to strive towards, though the slow crawl of the text and somewhat lacking character animations don’t make these dialogue vignettes particularly engaging. Cassidy’s history and demeanor feel authentically fragile, as well, making her slow progression towards a better headspace feel real. However, with the amount of character details gifted to the player and the relative pace of their distribution, it may be difficult to take a break from and come back to Dreamscaper, as you’ll likely have more material grinding to complete before getting another glimpse at the writing.
One of Dreamscaper’s most impressive features comes in its painterly aesthetics, which are best noticed during transitions, in which the current landscape is wiped away for another. The 3D modeling of its characters and effects makes for a visually striking experience, even if it negatively impacts the gameplay experience with its visual clutter and occasionally difficult-to-read projectiles and effects. The amount of variety in Lucid attacks, weapon types, and particle effects caused by active debuffs and the like are a feast for the eyes, offering a eerie, glowing sheen during the nighttime phase and a cozier and more vibrant feel in the day. This is coupled with music that manages to accomplish an ethereal, yet foreboding feeling whilst in combat as well as a contemplative and homely effect for the periods in-between. While few of its tracks manage to come across as earworms, the overall atmosphere of the music is a success.
Impressions and Conclusion
Dreamscaper manages to offer an extremely flexible gameplay experience for players, if only in terms of difficulty. Before each run, players can customize the general size of the floors as well as the intensity and arrangement of enemies in order to increase the overall intensity of their experience, which grants greater rewards based on challenge. However, the highest difficulty option of these is locked until you complete an entire run, so you’ll be stuck on a certain level of intensity for a while no matter how comfortable you feel with the game’s systems. The remaining material grind feels tedious no matter what.
The way the game encourages further replayability through its Mastery and ranking systems is novel enough, with a permanent boost to weapon types you’ve used enough and a variety of different buffs and abilities granted through their rank, which changes depending on when you encounter a weapon within a dungeon. Similarly, if you find a particularly strong weapon with a certain type of buff, you are allowed to change your affinity with a specific NPC after completing a dungeon floor, granting you access to the highly specific, but extremely powerful boosts in elemental, critical, and movement ability they offer. If one were locked to the usage of only one per run, their buffs may not feel as impactful due to the random nature of weapon and ability drops.
With all of this said, there is a certain weight to Dreamscaper’s combat that just… doesn’t quite gel. You can’t exactly practice its timing-based critical hits because the difference between just inputting the attacks and the amount of stun that takes place when they actually connect to an enemy creates two completely different timing loops. While you can increase the perfect input window with a buff, it is a strangely punitive system, as enemies can sometimes obscure your character, making it unclear when the perfect input window activates. This happens very frequently with boss encounters, which are some of the more frustrating aspects of the game that can be skipped once defeated, but also grant the precious Spark resource.
If you factor in the amount of currency accrual required in order to max out a majority of the systems and narrative arcs in the game, it feels like Dreamscaper is looking to stretch out its content in order to capitalize on your attention rather than your patience. For some, this grind might be satisfying, however, upon experiencing a palette swap of environments after the first three floors of the dungeon, I found myself getting cold feet. The game isn’t a total slog, however- there are a number of nighttime phase challenges that are refreshing, such as the node connection and minesweeper-like challenges that occasionally spawn, as well as challenge rooms that reward you for sticking to a particular rule of gameplay, that can make the game feel fresh and varied enough.
The downside is that the daytime sections are slow and unrewarding. Save for the usage of a guide, you might find yourself sinking a load of resources into making gifts that will have no particular benefit to you. If you want to benefit from all of the different systems, you’ll also have to traverse the town map and walk up to each interactive element, something that a quick-access menu would vastly improve for those who wish to delve back into the game.
It feels a bit shameful to bemoan some of the questionable choices Dreamscaper makes, especially because the underlying message of the narrative and the pains it takes to communicate it are respectable enough. Where a game like Boyfriend Dungeon hands you the tools to strengthen relationships with ease, there’s a bit more grit and dedication required here. For a video game enthusiast who is looking to drop back into runs and benefit from new rewards constantly, however, this methodical pace may not feel very enjoyable.
There’s no doubt that Dreamscaper is a work of quality, as the game runs smoothly on the Switch save for a few long loading times and has a number of toggles for maintaining the player’s performance preferences. It does not feel as if the variety or the length of experience is tuned well-enough, however. If you’re looking for a roguelite that is more thoughtful than most on the eShop, then Dreamscaper is an easy recommendation, but fans of more brisk experiences might find themselves growing tired, fast.