The subconscious of Howard Phillips can be a little awkward sometimes. After suffering the loss of a family member, Howard needs to traverse through his whimsical and often dark dreams in an effort to make sense of it all, and you’re invited.
Reviewed on: PC (Steam review code provided)
Whilst there’s a ton of first-person exploration, a fair amount of it involves puzzle solving and building an understanding of who the protagonist is, as well as what his motivations are. The opening of the game, for example, gives you the opportunity to explore his home and soak in a little of what his life is about before you first go to sleep and begin ‘dreaming’. It’s these moments that really help mould the game into something less hollow and the way back-story is incorporated really helps flesh the narrative out. The story isn’t always free-flowing, though. You’ll have to search it out via collectables and secrets, and it might not always be delivered in a sensical order, but it is there and it can be genuinely engaging for the most part. Playing slightly differently might even offer up a different ending, so returning to game to gobble up more narrative you might have missed is encouraged.
Developers HyperSloth have done well to capture the feeling of complete randomness that often comes with the enigma of the dreaming process. Also, the feeling that you’ve got a front row seat to Howard’s journey of self-discovery, a very specific goal in amongst it all, works pretty well in contrast. My only disappointment would be that it perhaps wasn’t taken far enough. Whilst the surroundings can be completely surreal and random, Howard himself only grows as a person internally, whilst on the outside he remains the same; a relatively average guy who can barely jump, query the odd unfathomable object and one who’d resign himself back to walking pace quarter-way into a hundred meter sprint. There’s obviously a certain game archetype here that needed to be fulfilled to be playable, but it would be fair to say the game doesn’t dive into its own concept as wholeheartedly as it could have done.
Regardless of Howard’s foibles, the feeling of stepping into the unknown is excellently achieved. Whether it be a open rocky desert, office buildings or surreal courtyards with staircases protruding from every wall, every location captures your imagination and begs you to explore it. There’s no rhyme or reason when or where you might find that next imaginative area because everything is as disjointed as it is random, again signifying HyperSloth’s good interpretation of the dream state and making the exploration part of Dream a joy to partake in.
Visuals are a mixed bag at times, often veering from wondrous to non-immersive in a split second. Some worlds are lush and vibrant with a ton of visual distractions, yet some can be plain, bland and lack interest. There’s a slight unfinished feel to proceedings, too. Graphical tearing, voices not in sync with subtitles and frequently getting caught on objects is only a few of the technical issues I could talk about. After playing with the most recent patch (v1.12) the game seems to be a far more sturdier ship, but be warned that you may still find some quirky behaviour if you’re planning to purchase it soon. On another note, it should be said that Norman Legies’ soundtrack is gorgeous and takes the atmosphere created by the visuals to another level entirely.
Dream offers exploration and puzzles but doesn’t do it the typical linear fashion you might find in similar games. You’re often able to wander from one puzzle to another in any order, or even without having to complete it before leaving. It’s nice to have a little freedom and there’s certainly plenty of variety to found in the puzzling that can be equally random on the difficulty scale from one to the next. I did find frustration in some puzzles, not because of their toughness but because of their design. For instance, you might have to run through a maze whilst being chased or toggle switches to light up stones with the correct pattern; both of which were fine but they felt more trial and error based than actually testing my intelligence in any particular way. There’s certainly a bunch of variety in the puzzling, though, so you’ll always be interested to see what’s round the next corner.
Dream captures the essence of something wondrous and intriguing, whilst building a solid world and variable puzzles in amongst it. HyperSloth seem to be taking their technical issues seriously, too. But even with the recent patches and hot-fixes, there’s still places that feel a little undercooked at time of writing. Overall, some might be frustrated by the non-linearity of the narrative but for those who love their puzzling and exploring interesting environments, Dream is easy to recommend.