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Dream Alone Review

Intro

It can be easy to take for granted a video game’s role as teacher. Tutorial levels and mid-game pop-ups explaining how to play are often quickly forgotten once you dive into the ‘meat’ of the gameplay. But throughout the course of most games, players are being taught constantly and probably don’t even realize it. The subtle use of color and light guides you in the right direction. AI is programmed in consistent patterns so that you can learn when to dodge danger versus when to dive for the killing blow. Understanding the mechanics of a game not only assures your success but adds to your appreciation for those that crafted the game, leading to many “Ah, I see what you did there” moments.

Sadly, Dream Alone by Warsaw Games is not a very good teacher. Sure, the game will tell you which button you press to jump and enemies march back and forth predictably, but don’t look for much help past that. Dream Alone seems content to leave plenty of rough edges so that players often have to teach themselves or stumble into a solution by luck. In combination with needlessly dark and bland levels, this 2D platformer a mostly frustrating experience.

The Basics

Dream Alone opens with just enough story to give you some sense of purpose as you make the long march towards the right side of the screen. The basic premise is that your whole village has fallen ill and you, being the only able-bodied person left, set out on a quest to find help. Who else do you seek out for aid but the enigmatic and bluntly named Lady Death?

The title consists of a series of levels grouped together as chapters. Each chapter is preceded by a small vignette previewing the area to come and telling a short story. These short cut-scenes often consist of some work of adapted folklore (e.g., the swamp section told a story similar to Hansel and Gretel) or some story about Lady Death and how she’s probably not the nicest person (shocker, I know). Otherwise, the story in Dream Alone is pretty thin. It would have been nice to run into some bosses or NPCs with some dialogue to give the game (and your character) some much needed depth.

Gameplay in Dream Alone is similarly thin. Navigating levels consists mainly of moving left or right, jumping, and trying not to touch anything. Whenever you touch more or less anything but the ground, you will be met with instant death. When you die (which you will, A LOT) your screen will be splattered with blood as your character goes limp. Once the gore has faded from your monitor, you will respawn a short (or sometimes long) distance back from where you died. 

In addition to your standard movements, you will gain a couple special abilities to aid you in your journey. For example, you can create an after-image (i.e., clone) to hold down a lever for you while you run on. Unfortunately, as you gain these abilities you are often left to figure out when and where to use them. This can be especially frustrating as most of your abilities consume some form of resource (i.e., energy) that does not refill on its own. This may lead you to be stranded in the depths of some cave in the pitch dark (like I did because I’d run out of energy for my light ability) with little else to do but wander around wishing for death, so you can respawn somewhere earlier in the level. The game lacks a quick-save feature, but thankfully, the game is pretty forgiving; it places you relatively close to where you died. Sadly, there are also plenty of times you will respawn a long way back from where you died. This can get frustrating quickly when trying to navigate an area cluttered with obstacles and, upon death, you are placed what feels like a mile back.

Outer Limits Fever Dream

The atmosphere of Dream Alone is meant to be creepy and unnerving. Everything from the sound design, to the enemies, to the locations is meant to make the player feel uneasy. However, it never quite manages to hit the mark. A lot of times the mechanics of the game distract from the theme. It’s impossible to feel uneasy because you are more focused on what the heck you are supposed to be doing, or how the heck to do it.

An early example of the mechanics detracting from the theme lies with the first ability you acquire, which allows the you to enter the “other/shadow” world. Upon activation the screen flickers orange and parts of the level appear/disappear helping you to progress. This “upside-down” world is admittedly creepier, as silhouettes of hanged men and ghost appear in the background (although the ghost aren’t that creepy, as upon further inspection they appear to be the same image flipped and shrunk several times). But because the game does a poor job of telling you when and where to use this ability, you spend most of the time flicking it on and off trying to find out where the hole in a wall may be.

Another example of this is in the Cave portion of the game, where you gain the power to create a floating moat of light to illuminate the area around you. This light is crucial, as most of the level is shrouded almost entirely in darkness. However, you will often run out of the energy to power the light (which, like the upside down power, does not regenerate automatically) and will be stranded in the dark wondering where to go from there. Staring at a black screen and waiting for something to bump into and kill you is not fun, or scary. It’s just annoying.

But perhaps nowhere is this point better realized than the 1920s-esque rain/grainy-film filter that overlays the entire game. I found this “feature” almost immediately irritating as I strained my eyes to focus on the gameplay through the dim and flickering light. This point was made even more frustrating when I realized I could not adjust or disable the filter. This filter feels like a design choice that was meant to bolster the theme and possibly make the levels seem more nuanced. If this feature could be disabled, it would quickly become apparent just how simple some of the levels really are.

Waking Nightmare

Dream Alone seems to pride itself on punishing you. In fact, many of the game’s achievements are awarded for dying a certain way or a certain number of times.  But these repeated deaths can really bog the game down and add to the frustration. In fact, without limited extra lives, being able to view your various deaths (à la Super Meat Boy), rewind time (à la Braid), or be rewarded for completing a level quickly or without dying, death in Dream Alone loses all meaning rather quickly. Be prepared to roll your eyes trying to figure out the hitbox on your character and various causes of death around you. By about the 5th time trying to run (there is no ducking) by a swinging blade only for it to apparently graze a single hair causing you to erupt in blood, you will be left somewhere between “did that really just happen again?” and “this is getting really old.”

While looking to adjust the game settings mid-level, I found the only option when pausing the game was to return to the main menu. Once back at the main menu, the only options are adjusting blood, language, and subtitles. Just having the simple ability to turn off the grainy filter plastered atop the game or reduce the dimming/flashing light would have made the experience more enjoyable. It’s a bit perplexing that Dream Alone is missing some now-standard quality settings for a 2D platformer.

3

The Verdict: Bad

Dream Alone simply does not accomplish what it intended to. It’s not scary, it’s not very fun, and its difficulty is much more frustrating than rewarding. I do think there is something worth exploring in what Warsaw Games set out to do. The threads of an interesting story and enjoyable game are there. But they are far too few and frayed to produce an enjoyable experience. Hopefully, Warsaw Games uses this as a learning opportunity and decides to take another crack at the 2D platformer genre.

Matthew Watson
Written by
July 03, 2018
Published in Adventure

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Matt finds himself thinking about gaming most of the day. If he's not glued to his PC searching for the next great indie game; he's likely explaining the rules to some complex board game he's talked his friends into. Matt graduated from Marymount University in Arlington,VA with a Bachelor of Arts. Originally from Maryland, Matt currently lives in Austin,TX where he provides customer support for Electronic Arts. As such, Matt will not be reviewing any EA games we happen to get our hands on.

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