When I first read about Dreamscaper, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical. As a topic and a game mechanic, dreaming has often been hit-and-miss in the history of game design. Only a few games have really done dreams and trips into the subconscious well – pieces like Psychonauts, Among the Sleep, and Catherine. It’s easy to slip into clichés, hollow tropes or, worst of all, Alice in Wonderland references. I’m happy to report that Dreamscaper has avoided all of the classic pitfalls. Despite being an Early Access release, Dreamscaper feels polished, rich, and well-realised.
The star of the game is Cassidy – Cass – a small-town girl who has recently moved to the big city to work in corporate marketing. Reserved and unsure of herself, throughout the game the player guide’s Cassidy through her waking and dreaming lives to fight her demons and integrate herself in her newfound home. Afterburner‘s debut title is, in this writer’s opinion, a resounding success already, despite technically being in early access.
Shanking Demons and Making Pals: Gameplay in Dreamscaper
The gameplay loop in Dreamscaper is simple but compelling. Each night, Cassidy falls asleep in her bed and disappears into the world of her subconscious. Once Cass has entered the world of dreams, you must fight a series of monsters in a randomly generated dungeon, building up your equipment as you go. It is incredibly satisfying to find new combinations of ranged, melee and “Lucid” attacks and defeat enemies. The descriptions on the equipment are always brilliant as well – many give a glimpse into Cass’s past or subconscious. For example, several pieces of equipment are inspired by games of D&D Cass has played, while others draw from her favourite video games, movies or hobbies. These little glimpses into Cassidy’s personality and history are always worth a read.
The combat itself is satisfying, if uncomplicated. Lucid attacks, which are essentially spells, give some flavour and variety, but ultimately it’s a game of hack, slash, shoot and dodge. Later fights and bosses get a little bullet-hell, but that’s about as complex as it gets. Ranged combat doesn’t feel quite as polished as the melee and Lucid attacks. That said, you have to love any game that lets you blow enemies away with finger-guns. Dodging and blocking/parrying are both matters of timing and are super satisfying to pull off successfully.
Throughout the dungeon levels, Cassidy collects 3 crafting materials – Insight, Solace and Bliss. You can use these in one of two ways. Firstly, you can use them to craft equipment to guarantee you start with that gear on your next run. Secondly, you can use them to craft gifts. We’ll get to gifts, and their receivers, in a moment. Cass wakes up either when you finish a stage or die.
The Waking World of Dreamscaper
Once your time in the dream world is finished, Cassidy awakens in her bed. A good night’s sleep the night before – meaning you finished the stage – means Cass is well-rested. A poor night’s sleep – that is, one that ended in dying – means Cass didn’t get a good rest. This affects how much time you have to live your waking life before Cass needs to return home to sleep. This section is much slower-paced and more intimate than the combat-heavy dreamworld. Cass walks quite slowly, her animations are demure, and fixed camera angles give a sense of stillness. In this game mode, Cass has the opportunity to meet the residents of Red Haven. Through conversation and homemade gifts, these characters slowly open up, revealing more of themselves – and Cass does the same.
The dialogue and characterisation of these NPCs are absolutely stellar. Despite having no faces – everyone in Dreamscaper is rendered as a sort of mannequin – the residents of Red Haven are each unique and distinctive. That’s not to say they’re cartoonish – with the possible exception of Bruce, the historian. Dreamscaper‘s NPCs feel like real, living people. People of the kind you’ve met a thousand times before in real life. It may seem counter-intuitive, but they are refreshingly mundane in a medium that frequently bombards players with larger-than-life characters. The cast includes a sketch-artist barista, a bartender with travel stories to tell, and a local news writer. As mentioned above, Cassidy can craft various homemade gifts to present to her new friends, as well as just chit-chat to slowly grow their relationship.
Friendship Isn’t Just Its Own Reward
Beyond their compelling dialogue and refreshing realism, befriending these characters will unlock “Influences”. Influences are equippable aspects that improve Cassidy’s combat skills in some way in her dreams. “Eve’s Perception”, for example (the first you will unlock) improves your ranged combat skills. These bonuses are powerful buffs that allow you to specialise your build. Metaphorically, I love this idea – as Cassidy gets to know these characters, she learns from them and grows as a person. It’s a wonderful mechanical expression of character growth.
Once Cassidy has spent a few hours socialising, she must return home to sleep, and her run either continues (if last night, you completed a stage) or you begin a new run from the beginning. This refreshing take on the rogue-lite genre lends a sense of progression and persistence that is often missing from the genre.
The Sights & Sounds of Dreamscaper
As you can see from the screenshots above, Dreamscaper is breathtaking. The waking world of Red Haven, especially, is gorgeous. The lighting, the use of colour and detail, and the level design are all masterful. It feels real. There this sort of watercolour quality to the textures that gives Dreamscaper a beautiful and unique visual quality. What you can’t see from the screenshots is the soundtrack. Afterburner has composed a simply astounding OST. The music is rich and euphonious with a consistent thematic core. The animations and sound effects are spot-on. I’d particularly like to call out the transition from the waking world to dreams and the reverse – the camera work and animations there are very well done.
The character designs for Cassidy as well as each of the NPCs is distinctive and unique, visually, without being caricaturish. The decision to not include faces for any of the characters may seem strange, but it just works with Dreamscaper‘s unique visual style and highlights other unique design choices for the characters.
Overall, Dreamscaper is a brilliant, well-realised design. It’s clear that it is a labour of love. The level of polish and sheer joy of playing the game is above the level of some AAA games on release. That’s saying something for a brand new indie studio’s debut game – particularly a studio of just 4 people. Dreamscaper is in early access, but as far as I can see, the only reason for that is for Afterburner to engage with the community on continued fine-tuning and additional content. I have spent some time on their Discord server, and the level of responsiveness is exemplary. If you’re interested in engaging with the developers, or just see how people are enjoying Dreamscaper, you’ll find their Discord server here.
I will absolutely continue to play Dreamscaper as development continues, and I am eager to see what Afterburner comes up with next. TL;DR: Dreamscaper is a dream come true.