Life, especially as of late, seems like we’re just going through the motions. Several months into a global pandemic and the days feel like they’re beginning to blur together. Depression sits in, and I find myself eating, sleeping, and working over and over again on a loop. Because of this, the protagonist of Dreamscaper, Cassidy, deeply resonated with me. Cassidy battles with depression and a mysterious past that the player has to unravel as they play. During the day, you’ll cultivate new relationships and learn more about the people of Red Haven, and at night you’ll dive deep into your nightmares to overcome your fears and past trauma.
Cassidy is new to the city of Red Haven and has only just begun acquainting herself with the locals. The first thing you’ll notice is that she wakes up generally late during the day, and can then proceed to visit a handful of locations where she can chit-chat with NPCs. You have to be somewhat choosy about who you want to visit each day however because it will eat up your time and Cassidy has to pass out at around 9 pm each night. As you progress through each of your relationships, you’ll unlock permanent buffs that strengthen Cassidy and give her the edge she needs to push further into her nightmares. While it might seem somewhat tedious, building up these relationships is integral to increasing her power, and it’s actually pretty enjoyable. The dialogue between characters doesn’t feel forced and as a result, feels authentic. You’re not hammered over the head with exposition and unnecessary details. Each conversation drops little hints here and there about Cassidy’s past, and slowly reveals her character development to the player.
You can also craft gifts to help with boosting your relationships, but it’s not immediately obvious who likes what item. You’ll have to infer that yourself through the conversations you have if you want to maximize your gift-giving potential. Multiple characters like the same items as well, and once you discover their interests, it’s documented in your dream journal for future reference.
At nighttime, Cassidy falls into a deep sleep, and the rogue-lite gameplay begins. You’ll traverse through places in her memory that hold deep significance, both positive and negative, and begin to learn about why she has moved to Red Haven. However, this trek isn’t without obstacles. Each level has a variety of monsters and one main boss that you’ll need to conquer in order to ascend and move to the next level.
Along the way, you’ll discover items that you can choose from in order to customize your gameplay. And, most of them are references in some way or another to pop culture or a nod to fandoms. I kind of loved how self-aware Dreamscaper is, and enjoyed finding new items so that I could read the flavor text underneath them. These items move with you from floor to floor, as long as you don’t die. Dreamscaper embraces permadeath. If you bite the dust, you’ll lose all of those items, but you’ll still retain the bonuses you gained from your relationships in the waking world. Not only that but once you’ve defeated a boss room, you have the option to skip it and ascend to the next level, easily making the bittersweet end to your journey a little less so.
You definitely don’t want to just speed-run to the end, though. Cassidy needs to re-acquire her arsenal of weapons and powers, building back up her strength if she wants to stand a chance of moving forward. Things get challenging really quickly, and I absolutely love that about this game. Though I was frustrated initially at dying so much, I felt so much more accomplished when I finally figured out how I could beat a boss or particularly difficult room. There are also “challenge rooms” that want you to meet a certain requirement to attain some sweet bonus loot.
One of my favorite parts about Dreamscaper is its combat, which is fortunate because it’s a large portion of the game! An interesting and unique mechanic that I was constantly using was the ability to lucid dream. Cassidy has a lucid bar that fills up every time you attack a monster, and you can activate it at any time to slow down the world around you to help with avoiding attacks or unleashing a devastating combo on your foe.
Aside from the basic melee and ranged combat, Cassidy can actually acquire a handful of new powers during her dreams that give her an edge in a fight. Like the items she acquired on previous levels, these powers do not stay with you if you die, but they can be purchased if you find a merchant and have enough “sand” which is a currency you can obtain by defeating enemies.
Dreamscaper is one of those rare gems that you can put down and pick up whenever you feel like it, and the joy that you felt that first time you played returns as if you had never put it down. The combat is balanced perfectly, making it just difficult enough to allow you a period to adjust and learn from your mistakes and grow so that you can appreciate when you finally defeat your enemies. As you grow more powerful, you’ll feel that confidence builds as those enemies you feared so long ago quickly fall before your blade. I do wish that we had a little more time during the day to spend with other characters, but I understand the need for the game design to force you to prioritize relationships. In a way, it stretches out the playtime because you’re not going to max out your relationships as quickly.
Another pet peeve I had was with the puzzle floors. I’m a huge fan of puzzles in RPGs, but most of those I encountered in Dreamscaper were a little too easy. I found myself wishing that they were not only more challenging but on an equal level as the combat. Maybe the puzzles could have started out easier, and as you climb levels they could have become increasingly difficult.
Regardless, Cassidy is a wonderful protagonist to play. I appreciate the studio’s approach to storytelling as they introduce her thoughts, dreams, and aspirations to the player through the small details and conversations in the game. Depression eats away at you, and before you know it…your day has disappeared right before your eyes. But, Cassidy’s is a story of perseverance in the face of everything that has brought her low. It’s not about the pain, but about how you deal with it and get up to face it every day despite the cards that life has dealt you.