by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
Inside the mind
Welcome to the inner workings of Howard Phillips, a young man who seems to have ingested just a little more than his daily allowance of cheese. At least that would seem to be the case if Howard’s dreams are anything to go by. This kid has got a seriously twisted subconscious.
Dream is a first-person exploration game at its core with some puzzle solving elements thrown in for good measure. But it’s really that sense of exploration that drives you to continue drifting forward through the various regions of Howard’s mind. There is a continuous and pervasive feeling all the way through that you are on some kind of surreal path towards self-discovery. A path towards Howard’s self-discovery that is. Before actually settling down to sleep at the very beginning of the game, you pick up on a few little hints and clues about his upbringing and family life. These little snippets of information immediately put me into detective mode, giving me the sense that this would be a game where I’d probably have to pay attention to my surroundings. This usually results in me not being able to leave a room until I’ve picked up and/or examined every single thing I can interact with. Often this is a chore, but fortunately the developers have done a good job of promoting discovery in Dream. Once young Howard’s head hits the pillow you drift into a surreal world of interconnected lands that are full of secrets and areas just begging to be explored. Whether it be a large room with seemingly only one exit, or an open desert landscape with multiple paths to follow, there is always a sense of the unknown. Every corner you turn or path you take could lead you to somewhere radically and completely different to where you just were, or to the exact same place. That is where, in a sense, HyperSloth has done a pretty good job of recreating what it’s like to be in a dream. That feeling of completely random elements thrown together for no logical reason is always there. But at the same time you are always acutely aware that there must be some kind of underlying thread that connects everything in some way.
So how does Dream actually play? It’s all well and good creating a dream like world, but if it doesn't work well as a game then what’s the point? That’s where the puzzle element of the game comes into play. Dream is full of them. There are many games out there that market themselves more as ‘experiences’ than actual games, something like Dear Esther comes to mind, and they can be great in their own right. Dream could very easily have been one of these experiences. In fact I’m sure it would have been much easier for the developer to make a game in which you simply wander about as the story is told to you. So the fact that what we instead have is almost a Portal style puzzle game in which each new area has a series of different puzzles to solve, gives the game another much appreciated layer of depth. It’s not completely comparable to the aforementioned puzzle game though. You aren't always trapped until you complete a certain puzzle, and each puzzle tends to use different elements rather than throwing you the same thing every time just in a slightly different configuration. For example, I found myself moving from one area in which I had to find the correct pattern in which to order a collection of stones, to another where I was being chased through a maze by a fog monster. Some of these puzzles were far more challenging than others, and the non-linear style of the games narrative meant the difficulty level often depended on where you decided to go first, rather than building naturally. This did lead to some moments of frustration, coming from a puzzle solved easily to one that would have me scratching my head for ages. Regarding Howard’s own skill set, he doesn't exactly turn into Superman the moment he starts dreaming. You mainly walk everywhere, only being able to run for a short amount of time and occasionally jump, and you can interact with various elements in the world, but that’s practically it. So don’t expect to be stepping into a Matrix-like dream any time soon.
Changes in atmosphere
When it comes to atmosphere, quite expectedly, Dream can feel very different between various worlds. It veers sharply between calm exploration, psychedelic labyrinthine environments and psychological horror. In this way, Dream quite effectively recreates the usual structure of particularly vivid dreams, that being there is no real structure. There is no real logical explanation for why you’ll transition from a seemingly uneventful rocky desert landscape, to a hair-raising escape from an unseen creature. It’s that element of the unexpected that keeps you moving through Dream’s many environments. Those environments, to be fair, are generally masterfully created and wonderful to look at and explore. The story is unfortunately a little hard to follow or effectively uncover thanks to the vague nature of the information you find and its unordered structure. So the driving force becomes the simple exploration. The wondering what you will find beyond the next portal and whether you will be in for a pleasant or a nasty surprise. That is why I would find it hard to recommend Dream to anyone looking to uncover a well structured and satisfying story. But I would recommend it to fans of interesting puzzle games and those who simply love to explore different intriguing environments.
The Dream experience is certainly a positive one, and definitely succeeds in recreating the surreal and intriguing nature of actual dreams. The puzzles and environments are very well put together, and combine to create an experience that feels familiar yet completely alien at the same time. If experiential gameplay and puzzle solving floats your particular boat, you can hardly go wrong with Dream.
Fantastic environments and exploration, solid puzzles
Disjointed in places