The Dark Night
We’ve all had nightmares, and while we can normally wake up and brush them off, at least we know we can always wake up unharmed and safe. But what if that weren’t true? Thus begins the horror point-and-click adventure Bad Dream: Coma. In the world of Coma, for some unknown reason, a town’s worth of people are stuck in a shared, collective nightmare. If it weren’t bad enough to have to deal with the dark side of your own mind while you sleep, as people’s mind’s create more horrors, they all populate this unified world of dread. Just as the popular theory goes, characters in this un-sundered dream know that they’ll wake up whenever they die in a dream. Unfortunately, for initially unknown reasons, nobody is capable of dying, meaning that everyone is stuck in an unending spiral of surreal horror. Possibly more unfortunately, this shared dream is also unique in that everyone can feel pain and suffer, which just adds insult to injury. It’s a compelling setting and allows the game to bend logic and physics for narratively-pardoned reasons.
To match its unique, creepy setting, the art of Bad Dream: Coma is simply lovely. The hand-sketched look is unique and the designs of the environments and characters do just as much to sell the tone of the game as anything else. The sketches ride the line nicely between organic and crisp and the tri-color palette of tan and black with red accentuation adds to the desolate tone of horror and desperation. I’m also thankful to report that Coma doesn’t rely on any jump scares and it isn’t just torture porn. The sketched art style actually takes away from the the “gore shock” that so many games rely on, but instead bolsters the player’s unease by virtue of the the dissonance between cartoon and pain. It’s effective horror - the type that I like - that feels earned instead of exploitative.
While most of Bad Dream: Coma’s puzzles are enjoyable, I do have a bit of a qualm with the first section of the game, simply titled “Bridge.” It’s here that the puzzles are the least logical, frequently making little sense in any traditional way. For example, one of the earliest things you’ll have to do is grab a battery, put it in a remote control car and crash it. So far so good. After crashing it you can see the car sitting there and I was stuck for quite some time. Little did I know that I needed to expand the car, grab something from the dead driver that clearly isn’t there on the zoomed out view, open the trunk and grab a crowbar that magically scales up to be normal size to remove a board and move on. These types of puzzles would be better later in the game once the rules of dream-logic have been introduced, but at the very beginning this, and others like it, are frustrating. Later some of these more unique puzzles are really cool, like computer that interacts with its surroundings and mirror room where everything is reversed. Sometimes the game also engaged a bit too much in severe backtracking with little or no hint of how or why something new is present, which made me feel at times that progress was a bit too dependent on trial, error and random clicking. I get that it’s often just part of the genre, but it doesn’t make it any less cumbersome or annoying. Some, like the aforementioned bridge, are worse offenders, but thankfully most of the eight sections of the game are more straightforward and logical.
Cause and Effect
Coma prides itself in its action-reaction gameplay that makes the world feel more dynamic and replayable. As I first played through the game I was ready to comment on my disappointment with this system. With the exception of a menu that lets you know if you’re still eligible for the good, neutral or bad endings, there were never any noticeable forks in the road. There aren’t any times when you’re asked a question or given a “Do A or B” dialogue box. Occasionally, after I’d do things I’d earn a badge such as “blood on your hands” or “spiders love you” that would seem to be narrative anchors, but they never reared their heads in obvious ways. It wasn’t until after I was done with my playthrough that I looked into others’ and noticed that there are not just small interactions, but entire characters and situations that may or may not be present depending on how you play. It’s a testament to the amount of content in the game, especially at such a low price point, that there’s so much that you’ll need to play through multiple times to see.
By the end, this branching narrative proves to be both a blessing and a curse. It’s very cool that, depending on which of the four (that I’m aware of) endings you get you won’t just have a slightly different outcome, but instead the very core of what the game’s about can change. I personally found my initial “neutral” ending to be the most satisfying, but each one was worth the perfectly-paced 3-4 hours to reach. Unfortunately, by virtue of the game not knowing exactly how it’s going to play out until it does, it’s understandably difficult for many plot threads and themes to run through the game for too long. While I am overall very satisfied with the story that developer Desert Fox has presented, I also couldn’t shake the feeling that with a more solid narrative direction the game would have been able to do more than gouge the surface of some interesting ideas. Without spoiling anything, there was a moment when I was pretty sure that I knew where the game was going. It was heartbreaking. It was well crafted and tied in elements of the plot, story structure and even art-style in a logical way that was really quite affecting. Then it kind of just petered off. It still worked for what it was, but I definitely felt that it had to be cut short since it might not mesh with someone else's playthrough.
I’m not the biggest fan of point-and-click games, but I really dug Bad Dream: Coma and its brand of tonal, moody horror not reliant on cheap scares and jumps. While it has some issue with some of its puzzles and doesn’t quite commit to some of its plot points as much as I’d like it to, its relatively short run-time makes it the perfect title to sit down with and run through on a dark, rainy weekend evening right before drifting off to sleep...
Lovely art style, quality horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares, lots of decision-dependent content, interesting temporary unique mechanics, largely satisfying narrative, perfect length.
Some puzzles seem too reliant on pure trial and error/clicking, narrative seems to scratch some really interesting surfaces without quite delving into them enough.