Developer & Publisher // Afterburner Studios, Freedom Games
Platforms // Switch, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
MSRP & Release Date // $24.99, August 5th 2021
Reviewed On // PC
Dreamscaper is an isometric action-adventure roguelike dungeon crawler that is the debut title for Afterburner Studios. This new roguelike puts you through various challenging levels with intense boss battles that you can hack and slash your way through. With an armory of wonderfully unique weapons and crazy magic powers, conquer the challenges within and experience an emotional story that kept me invested for over thirty hours.
From Hill to Haven
In Dreamscaper you are Cassidy, an introverted woman who has moved to the city of Redhaven from her hometown Backhill. After mourning the loss of her sister and feeling outgrown in her hometown, she seeks a new pace in life in the big city. However, as she arrives she begins to realize the staggering differences now between the life she used to live. Feeling burdened by her past trauma and overwhelmed in the city, she seeks support through strangers who slowly become friends.
Between working her job, and finding comfort in her newly found support network, at night she falls to lucid dreaming. It’s in these dreams that she begins to work through her inner trauma. Seeing surreal dreamscapes of her memories old and new that begin to take nightmarish forms as she dives deeper into her dreams. As well as facing manifestations of deep-rooted emotions as bosses at the end of each dreamscape. Explore the city and interact with deep and well-written characters by day, and unravel the secret of her nightmares by night. Dream, die, wake, repeat.
Hacking and Slashing through Dreams
In Dreamscaper, you will be treated to smooth and intricate combat as you explore the dreamscapes. Each melee weapon you use will always have a set amount of attacks in its combos. However, between each attack, there is a small window to perform perfect attacks that deal more damage. Cassidy will light up for a brief moment and attacking during that moment will increase the damage of that attack. Each melee weapon will have multiple perfect attack windows so pay attention to the visual cues in combat. While the combat always felt great to me, it never comes together fully until you use all of the tools at your disposal. It all clicks perfectly when I was able to parry projectiles back at enemies then execute the rest with a fluent mix of heavy and light attacks.
For example, my favorite combination of items consists of throwing air punches. As well as throwing a big rock, being able to dash away and leave a trail of fire. Followed by a specific shield that nearly triples the time needed to block and parry or deflect attacks with a lucid attack that hits every enemy in a room with lightning. The variety and cool combinations you can find throughout your runs will always keep your interest.
Exploring the Lucid Dreams in Dreamscaper
A key component in the combat of Dreamscaper is the lucid meter which can be seen under your health bar. This meter is used for ranged attacks in combat that also incorporates a slow-down time mechanic. Each ranged attack will eat up a small amount of the lucid meter and activating the time mechanic will slowly drain the meter as well. However, it does refill fast out of combat so emptying it during an encounter that is triggered in each room of the map doesn’t feel wasteful. The slow-down mechanic does require clearing three rooms before you can use it again. So be careful not to use it right before the boss in each dreamscape.
I never felt in trouble if I exhausted the meter with ranged weaponry in encounters leaving it to feel tacked in that regard. But if you’re fighting a boss for example you can empty the meter and then immediately refill it by using the slow-down time mechanic. This created a unique combo that I would never use in regular encounters but felt necessary for the bosses in the game.
Each room throughout the dreamscapes can be home to many unique outcomes. Some can be random rewards, one will always be a shop, some can be secrets or even puzzles. You will always see in your mini-map where the next rooms will be and you can fast travel between them.
The catch with these rooms is that you will be relying on random drops all of the time. To add, some of the drops are locked and you’ll have to use a bomb or a key to unlock them. You are at the mercy of random drops for keys and bombs also, so you might end up losing crucial pieces of gear due to a lack of these items. Plus the gear you might find won’t fit your play style. But while it does seem stressful, it does work in delivering unique runs every time, even if there are detriments.
Facing Fears in Dreamscaper
There are a total of six unique dreamscapes, therefore six unique bosses that will match the theme in each one. Each boss will have completely unique attack patterns with a descending order of difficulty.
The first one is a fairly easy boss that requires using bombs on the map to knock it out so you can damage it. After it wakes back up it can do various moves like bursting from below the map or shooting projectiles. With the penultimate boss having a bullet hell encounter with a lot of health to chip away.
Again, each boss is unique with its own move sets. No two bosses are alike, which keeps boss fights interesting and engaging. However, as the boss encounters are refreshing and present harder challenges as you descend further.
Adjusting Intensity and Challenge of Levels and Bosses
Before starting a run, you have the option to increase the challenge and intensity of the game and its bosses. The intensity menu can leverage making bosses do double the damage and have all new attack patterns. This turns bosses you will think are pushovers into an absolute nightmare to fight. The intensity menu can also make maps longer, double the damage you take, and feature all-new enemies. Increasing the difficulty will net you increased currency gains that you can use in the city.
To balance this out you can turn on a “lucid mode”. This mode will slightly reduce the damage you take in your runs. Starting at a flat rate and increasing with each failed run until you succeed. It is definitely welcomed to allow players to choose if they want things to be more difficult. This will ensure they will never get bored as the next challenge is just a click away.
It can be scary to see new enemies you’re not accustomed to or enemies you’d see in the later levels appear in the early levels. So this adds to the learning curve of the game, even finishing your first run will be difficult and require many trials and errors. This will definitely be more reasons to play even if the rewards for my risks aren’t significant.
Snapping back to the Real World
When you eventually do fail a run in Dreamscaper, Cassidy will wake up in her apartment. During these segments, you can explore the city of Redhaven. There are numerous locations where you can chat with the various characters in the city. You can also craft gifts to strengthen the bond with that character. This will unlock various items and passive perks for runs in the dreamscapes.
For example, the bar in town is where Eve works at and you can chat with her and move onto the next location in town to find another of her friends. However, as Eve will always be at work, other characters such as Tamal, Carl, or Bruce will be in random locations throughout town making each day feel unique.
In some of these locations, you will also be able to use the currency you gain in the dreamscapes. These different currencies are used for crafting, daydreaming, meditating, and sketching. Crafting is for gifts, Daydreaming will unlock rooms. While meditating will give buffs to health, the lucid meter or damage to bosses. Lastly, sketching unlocks items you find blueprints for throughout the dreamscapes. These blueprints can be found mostly by killing enemies.
It all sounds overwhelming, but it was easy to understand as you’re slowly introduced to where each currency is used. With a full page of buffs where some sound obviously beneficial, but others that didn’t end up becoming better buys.
Bonding in the City
As you strengthen your bond with each character, you will unlock certain dialogue sequences. These reveal the relationship being forged between the two as time goes on. Eve is adventurous and helps Cassidy come out of her shell. Tamal is stern and one of Cassidy’s co-workers. Carl is an up-and-coming writer and empathizes with Cassidy’s creative side. Bruce is a wise old man that always shares deep and emotional stories with Cassidy. There are many other characters too that will have elements of their personalities that you can feel empathy for.
The dialogue sequences you unlock over time can feel a little over-written as there are plenty of characters to keep up with. However, this made each sequence feel so special to me, as you watch each character open up about troubles with their own friends and family. Making what felt like long conversations, into moments to cherish. It keeps your interest while you watch and when it’s time for the follow-up on a story, it becomes exciting. Especially noticing changes in dialogue to reflect characters becoming more comfortable with Cassidy and vice versa. Even certain characters that you can feel off-put about become likable leading you to want to prioritize bonding with them more. These were definitely sequences I looked forward to continuing and will keep you engaged for hours.
A Strong Story of Self-Help
The conversations between characters get dark, and emotional at times. Coupled with an air of sorrow that you can feel as you read the dialogue in each interaction. Each gift you can craft with one of the currencies in the dreamscapes can be favored by characters that offer a little bit more detail to their backstories. Dreamscaper relies on the dialogue in each character interaction to build a narrative of self-help for Cassidy. She’s lost after leaving Backhill and she becomes thankful for having various friends to help her work through the stress and anxiety. As you descend in the dreamscapes you will notice a lot of background storytelling.
The environments have realistic houses, diners, streets, and even luminescent shades that fade away when you get near them. You can also recall memories when you find something to interact with and item descriptions. This add details of Cassidy’s backstory herself. Even the bosses are designed around the emotions they’re named after. Taking nightmare-ish shapes to reinforce the challenge of overcoming these strong emotions internally. What Cassidy is going through is real and makes the story work incredibly well. It could even help people who are going through similar issues in life.
An Excellent Presentation
Dreamscaper is an absolutely gorgeous game to look at with silky smooth performance. I played this game on PC with a Radeon RX 570, Ryzen 5 2400G, with 16 GB of RAM, and an Intel M.2 NVME SSD. The game stuck at a solid high framerate while maintaining high settings at 1080p. Loading was instantaneous between rooms in the dreamscapes and locations in Redhaven. There were no bugs, stutters, freezes, or crashes worth mentioning. Dreamscaper also features an incredibly unique art style that captures the surrealism of the dreamscapes.
Most of the levels and rooms boast jaw-dropping scenes. While the bosses and enemies having a lot of detail to soak in. All of this is complemented excellently by an incredible soundtrack by Dale North. Each track is wonderfully orchestrated and when in a dreamscape the game will play the levels respective track and shift between the regular version and a more intense version the moment you enter combat.
Final Thoughts on Dreamscaper
Dreamscaper is an excellent roguelike that can give over 30 hours of gameplay easily. As a debut title for a new indie studio, it went above and beyond to leave a lasting impression. Roguelike fans will come for the fluent combat and intense bosses but stay for the beautiful art style, characters and story. While players who aren’t fans of roguelikes will enjoy an easy to pick up, hard to master introduction to the genre. The game will definitely leave a lasting impression.
Dreamscaper is available now on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC for $24.99.