by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Dream Alone is a game that tries to be two different things, and in the process, fails to succeed at either one. One part horror game and one part insta-death platformer, the story of Dream Alone presents itself like a series of dark fairy-tale vignettes, through which you’ll have to platform without touching, well, anything. The still-frame illustrations and accompanying narration are of high quality, and did a good job of drawing me into what was going on. I will note that there are a fair amount of discrepancies between the voice-over and subtitles, but they’re minor and little more than a slight annoyance.
It’ll be abundantly clear upon starting the game that Dream Alone does a little more than just draw inspiration from the fantastic Limbo. It mirrors it in almost every way visually, with its black and white visuals, 2D side scrolling, deathly traps, and mood of dreamy terror. Though the visuals (while nice) and gameplay (less nice, but more on that later) wear their inspirations on their sleeves, there are a few interesting mechanics that aim to separate Dream Alone. Most interesting is the ability to jump between different realities/dimensions. With the base reality being as dark and foreboding as it is, the alternate dimension is... even more dark, filled with ghosts, tortured people, and shades of orange and red. Switching can only be done for a short time and uses up collectible resources, adding a cool mechanic to puzzle-solving that requires interacting with items only present in one dimension or the other. My only beef with both this and the other abilities are that the resource some of them run on is limited and non-regenerative. This would be fine if there were clear indicators when to use them, but there aren’t, meaning you have to experiment (for example, checking the other dimension to see if there’s a lever or platform you need to use). Yet, at the same time, checking might deplete your resource and leave you empty when you need it, forcing you to kill yourself and respawn.
THINGS FALL APART
Visually, though, most of the designs are cool. Things do look creepy, and the enemy designs range from “fine” to “pretty neat.” I enjoyed the music as well, which does just as much- if not more- than the supremely dour visuals in building the games ever pervasive sense of gloom and unease. The only thing I didn’t much care for with the visuals was the persistent static grunge filtered over the top of everything. It might have been okay with the opacity turned down a bit more, but as is I found it distracting and rather unpleasant. The same can be said for weather effects, which drown out what’s going on a bit too much and turn what could have been a nice contrasting palette of lights and darks into too-muddied shades of gray. Add in a screen doing a quick fade to black every three to four seconds and it becomes clear that there’s just too much going on.
The gameplay, though, is where things really fell flat for me. The first thing I noticed when running through the first level’s mysterious forest was the jumping is incredibly floaty. Movement in a platformer needs to be tight, and it never really felt right to jump and float as far/long as the avatar does in Dream Alone.
The traps are gory and morose, but they aren’t the thing that they most need to be- fair. Tough platforming stems from the player feeling like they’ve got a fair shot if only they can hone their reflexes and skill enough. In Dream Alone this isn’t always the case. The problem is the game doesn’t give you the information you need to succeed until you fail. Enemies randomly drop with no indication as to where. Sometimes things will come at you from off-screen unexpectedly. There are quite a few times where you’ll need to jump off a ledge to get to the other side of an enemy or obstacle, except there’s no way to know you were supposed to do that before jumping, and once you’re down off the ledge there is no way to get back up. Your only choice is to kill yourself and try again. Short of waiting 10 seconds to see if an enemy walks over each of the hundreds of times you’ll be descending a ledge, it’s random and un-fun. Lots of jumps down from platforms are also blind, meaning you’ve just got to jump and die a few times to try and memorize where obstacles are. There’s literally nothing skill-based you can do to get it right the first or second time. I audibly said “are you kidding?” numerous times under my breath after dying through no fault of my own. Random, luck-based deaths aren’t fun, and have no place in a game like this.
After finishing my time with Dream Alone I didn’t really find myself satisfied with anything that it was trying to do or be. It’s got the makings of a nice little horror story, but there isn’t enough actual story to live up to its opening’s promise. A few of the platforming sections are clever, but they’re vastly outnumbered by frustratingly unfair sections that stick you in no-win situations. While the game has some nice design in its visual and aural presentation, they’re mostly marred by an over-use of filters that turns everything into a muddy gray mess. I’d like to like Dream Alone. I wanted to like it. I don’t, though, and most everything that it does you can find done better somewhere else in a more enticing package.
Nice music, some cool visual designs.
Frustrating platforming, over-filtered visuals, unsatisfying implementation of special abilities