Entering people's dreams and subconscious thoughts has always been an intriguing concept in storytelling. It has been used in comedy (as in the "Sleepy Time" episode of Spongebob Squarepants), horror (as in the Nightmare on Elm Street films), and in a whole host of other genres in movies, books, and television. Plenty of RPGs utilize this theme as well, including Alundra, Revelations: Persona, and Whisper of a Rose. And Aldorlea Games has now tossed its hat into the thematic ring with Dreamscape.
Dreamscape was created by the same team who does Aldorlea's episodic Millennium series. There are some characteristic vibes indicative of this team and a few nods to other Aldorlea games, such as Marine's cameo as the tutorial teacher, but the game remains distinct, even among its RPG Maker brethren. Overall, Dreamscape is not as conventional an RPG as it appears to be, and at the end of the day, that unconventionality makes it a breath of fresh air.
The story starts with the protagonist, Erin, answering an excited call from her boyfriend Terry, who wants to show her something amazing. Erin goes to Terry's house, where he proudly shows her a magical set of headphones that supposedly allow the wearer to explore other peoples' dreams and imaginations. Terry tries them out on a reluctant Erin only to have them both wind up in Lostham, a dreamland limbo, where he disappears. Erin soon gets her hands on these headphones, finds Terry's cat Athena (who can now talk), and the two venture off into various dreams in search of Terry and hopefully a straight answer to the simple question, "What the heck is going on here?" As Erin meets playable and non playable characters within the dream worlds, she can use the headphones to explore these characters' dreams and the dreams of other characters within their dreams, getting a sense of who they are and maybe some answers about Terry's whereabouts in the process.
The premise is a bit flimsy, but no more so than your average Japanese-style RPG. Dreamscape is not a bombastic RPG with a labyrinthine plot of mass confusion, but rather the simple story of a girl trying to find her lost boyfriend in the cumulative world of peoples' dreams. In doing so, she satisfies the curiosity of discovering what the strange people and animals she meets along the way are dreaming of. The story is less about events and dialogue and more about atmosphere. It's show rather than tell, in that players get a sense of the playable and non-playable characters by experiencing their dreams rather than by reading tons of exposition-filled text. There were lots of really cool dreams, such as a side-scrolling version of prohibition-era New York City, a genuinely creepy nighttime London with Jack the Ripper on the loose, and all manner of fantasy dreams. These dreams gave me a sense of the attached character more than mere text could. That being said, the text did have plenty of cute chuckles from the funky characters.
And let me tell you, I really liked the playable characters in Dreamscape. They weren't particularly deep or multi-dimensional, but they were fun and surprisingly unique. How could I not like Peeboo – a mouse who ardently believes he is a viking; Clochette – a grandmotherly flower obsessed with tea parties; Athena – a cynical cat who questions the historical accuracy of peoples' dreams; and Erin – the grounded young heroine who keeps her wacky entourage in line. These are not the kinds of playable characters you see every day, and I mean that as a compliment.
The overall adventure is rather open-ended and does not lead players around by the neck. You will definitely find yourself flitting back and forth between different peoples' dreams to find ways around the roadblocks in other dreams; especially those roadblocks that yield Game Overs. For example, the giant trees in Athena's dream will show you the Game Over screen unless you make the right giggle sound, but the giggle bell is hidden deep inside Peeboo's dream. Thus, it is up to players to explore all of the dreams available to them to find ways of bypassing the roadblocks in other dreams. Thankfully, the autosaver saves after each enemy battle or after you use the headphones, making deaths feel less cheap and more like "do-overs" from back when you were a kid. That being said, it is still prudent to manually save often.
Unlike other Aldorlea games such as Millennium or Laxius Force, there is no quest log to keep track of players' objectives, but I think Dreamscape benefits from not having one. A quest log would take away that atmospheric feeling of being thrown into the deep end and being lost in the unknown and uncontrollable world of dreams. In other words, players used to FAQs/walkthroughs and linear hand-holding games will be crying for help within the first hour. If you enjoy being delightfully lost and discombobulated in your RPGs, Dreamscape delivers. If you prefer more direct point A-to-point B RPGing, go play something like Final Fantasy XIII instead.
If you could not tell already, Dreamscape is a game driven more by its gameplay than its narrative; and the gameplay is both familiar yet fresh. There are no traditional towns, and the few in-game vendors carry limited stock (it's possible to completely buy vendors out), but Lostham serves as a central hub where Pinkie the crystal lives. Pinkie can fully heal the party, but doing so will "spoil" the dream experience and lead to repercussions later in the game, such as a less satisfying ending and fewer New Game Plus bonuses. Thus, it is best not to use Pinkie as a crutch. Strewn all over the field areas in the various dreams are immediate-use recovery items and power-ups, like in an action game. Equipment, weapons, and skills can also be found on the field, so exploration is paramount.
The party gains experience through turn-based battles with enemies called Glitches, whose sole purpose is to kick you out of the dreams so they can make mischief. Glitches can be seen on the field as orange, red, or purple flame icons, depicting how strong they are. They do not respawn once they're eliminated, so players can freely hop between dreams without having to worry about fighting needless battles a hundred times over. If enemies respawned, all of the back-and-forth exploration would be a chore, but they don't, so it's fun. In keeping with Aldorlea's tradition of accessibility to a variety of gamers, Dreamscape also has four selectable difficulty levels that boost or handicap enemy and player stats.
As expected, Millennium's composer puts forth a great selection of music in Dreamscape. As with the music in Millennium and Asguaard, there is a lovely blend of atmospheric and hooky pieces. Because of the eclectic nature of the game's settings, the composer was able to flex more creative muscle, and the music in Dreamscape has more presence than it did in Millennium and Asguaard (both of which had fantastic music). A good example is the genuinely creepy music in Jack the Ripper-era London. I sometimes did not want to go into that dream because the music made the creepy atmosphere even creepier. If music can do that in my gaming experience, then I know I'm sitting with a winner. The only issue I have with the music is that dungeon tracks loop back to the beginning whenever a power-up is collected, after an enemy encounter, or every time I fiddle around in the main menu.
In terms of graphics, the game looks like an RPG Maker XP game with custom artwork in the environment tiles, character art, enemy art in battles, and occasional cutscene stills. Field sprites are all right, but games like Whisper of a Rose, Dark Souls 2, and even Aldorlea's freeware game Laxius Party have upped the ante when it comes to field sprites. You can tell that Dreamscape is an RPGM XP game, but it's not a "me too" RPGM XP game. The aspect that gives away its roots the most is the default menu interface. With games such as Lilly and Sasha: Curse of the Immortals making the extra effort in creating customized interfaces, this is something I can't help but notice.
Dreamscape was a somewhat strange, yet fun RPG experience for me. It was a different flavor than what I'm used to from Aldorlea, but this change was good. Traipsing in and out of peoples' dreams was loads of fun, and I felt a good sense of exploration and discovery. Don't let the 2D, retro look fool you: this "old dog" has some new tricks, and this is not a game you can play on autopilot. I liked the game, and I think it's worth a look, but it may not be for everyone. Try the demo for yourself and see if it's right for you.