Dreamscaper is a new isometric roguelite from indie devs Afterburner Studios. Originally slated for a release earlier in 2020, it’s just hit Steam Early Access with a Nintendo Switch version planned for some point before the end of the year. It follows Cassidy, a young girl living alone in a new town who, as a way to cope with her deep depression, spends her nights fighting through lucid nightmares to recall her lost memories, and spends her days and evenings trying to make human connections with those around her.
If you dropped DONTNOD’s Life is Strange into a blender with Hades, Dreamscaper is the smoothie you’d end up drinking. It’s a pairing that probably shouldn’t work, but which Afterburner handle deftly. As an isometric roguelite hack and slasher, it’s fast-paced and challenging; but then after each “death” or the defeat of boss, Cassidy will wake up in her bedroom, where she can craft gifts for the townsfolk infused with positive emotions like inspiration and solace, which you collect in the dream world.
As you frequent the various hotspots in the town (a café, bookstore, bar and park) Cassidy will meet and get to know a handful of individuals who she can present with gifts or indulge with in idle chit chat. As they tell stories, share anecdotes, give out advice and seek it from Cassidy, her relationships with them will grow stronger. These emotional bonds work like metaphorical buffs, allowing Cassidy to equip “Influences” that empower her to face her nightmares. As an example, one of the townsfolk is able to imbue Cassidy with greater defence, initially increasing her armour by 2% in the dreamworld.
These exchanges aren’t voiced, but they are well written, and each person has their own personality and background, likes and dislikes, flaws and quirks. From storytelling barmaid, Eve, to small-town journalist Carl, they each have things to offer Cassidy in her battle against depression and grief. Even without knowing exactly what happened in her past, you will take away clues and glimpses of her tragedy. Wisps of golden light in the dreamworld reveal Cassidy’s lost memories, helping you to piece together the events that led her to live alone and friendless in this quaint little town.
At night, when your conversation options are exhausted and Cassiday begins to long for her bed, you’ll return to her room and sleep, which plunges her into the nightmarish world of her dreams where she’ll face monstrous representations of her neuroses and depression. Taking the form of an isometric dungeon crawler, this realm is broken into separate rooms containing enemies, puzzles, gear and weapons, even a shop where you can spend accumulated sand on upgrades.
As with games like Dead Cells, the arsenal in Dreamscaper is vast and varied, arming Cassidy with a huge selection of weapons from swords and daggers to bats, bows and bottle rockets. Equipped with a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and a shield with which to parry and stagger enemies or reflect projectiles, Cassidy’s playstyles are ever changing. Everything you unlock (including special weapons afforded by improving your relationships) can appear as random drops or starting weapons, so a loadout can be a little hit and miss, but the variety of animations and moves is impressive.
Cassidy moves beautifully, slicing through her nightmares with a dancer’s grace, and can bolster her attacks with Lucid abilities that act like devastating spells. These are on cooldown and are often imbued with fire or lightning, and can be the difference between fighting on and having to go right back to the beginning again. Special puzzles don’t do much to tax you but reward completion with new items, and you’ll find bombs and keys to open up alternate routes or destroy obstacles
A line-up of bosses that represent negative elements like Fear and Sorrow stand waiting at the end of each area, which themselves represent important places from Cassidy’s past like a camping ground and her childhood home. Most of the fights are a case of learning an enemies attack patterns, but if you fail you will return to the very beginning of the run and need to fight your way back again. Any boss you’ve already beaten is skippable though, which can hasten things along a little.
Dreamscaper is a challenging game, and not always as nuanced as it could be. For example, if you find yourself locked into an attack animation when a second enemy hits you, you won’t be able to dodge away quick enough, and often facing more than one enemy up close is a very risky move. It’s often better to kite enemies around the small arenas, although that often means avoiding obstacles and traps to do so.
Also, while they’re a nice aside, the majority of puzzles are pretty easy, aping classics like Minesweeper. But they do break up the action, you get some nice rewards, and none of them take very long. My biggest issue is with the permanently zoomed-out camera that can make it hard to spot exactly what’s going on during busy fights.
I love the art style though. It has a beautiful, dreamy quality, even in the waking world, and the faceless characters convey a sense of unease and uncertainty. Magic and weapon effects are bright and stark in contrast with the muted environments, while enemies often display vivid flashes of neon when attacking.
Dreamscaper is gorgeous, deep and haunting, deftly combining elements of real life pain and poignant character development with fast-paced combat in a surreal alternate world. Solid writing, balanced action, pleasant puzzles and procedural dungeons come together to present an engaging, unique experience that’s part-melodrama, part-roguelite RPG that I found stayed with me between sessions.
Dreamscaper is currently in Steam Early Access. While the game is very much a finished product in terms of quality, we will update the review going forward should the need arise.
Fun combat and exploration
Screen can get a little busy
Puzzles are simplistic