"Sweet Lily Dreams is not without problems, but the magical journey I took through its fairy-tale inspired world is one I will not soon forget."
The first time I heard the title, I knew I would be interested in playing Sweet Lily Dreams. There was just something about it that grabbed my attention and drew me in. My experience with indie RPGs has generally been disastrous, however, so I really wasn't sure what to expect with this title. It looked pretty on the outside, but I've learned many a time that quality aesthetics is rarely a reflection of quality gameplay. Luckily, in this case, my positivity paid off. Sweet Lily Dreams is not without problems, but the magical journey I took through its fairy-tale inspired world is one I will not soon forget.
Sent to bed like any other night, Lily falls asleep and begins to dream. Upon opening her eyes, she emerges into a magical dream world and an adventure on the high seas. After the ship is assaulted by the dangerous dream monster, Phobius, Lily is saved by Faith and Curly, a sentient dog and cat, respectively. The two talking animals are dream creatures from Rosaria, home of the Illuminati, a group who not only uphold law and order in dream worlds but protect sleeping humans as well. Without precedence, Lily returns with them to Rosaria and joins them, along with their adorable friend Muggles, on an epic adventure across dozens of dream worlds in an attempt to wipe out Phobius, uncover ancient secrets, and deal with their own internal struggles.
Just as advertised, the story is much like a fairy-tale, revolving around self-discovery, moral choices, and cooperation with others. Sweet Lily Dreams draws from many existing tales and famous stories to craft a number of its dream worlds. These include Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and many other original stories based on folklore such as Baba Yaga of Russia or the Headless Horseman. Aside from these, there are a wide variety of additional locations including ancient Egyptian pyramids, swamps, and many more. The atmosphere of each world sets it apart from the others, and this is largely due to the exquisite design and extensive attention to detail. The eeriness and unsettling mood of Sleepy Hollow stands out as a personal favorite.
These worlds are linked in the heroes' journey to defeat the evil Phobius, but it's really the individual plights of each character that keep the story moving. It may surprise you considering the title of the game, but Faith is the real hero of Sweet Lily Dreams. Her emotional development across the game from aloof and foolhardy to mature and dependable is touching, and there's no doubt you'll grow attached to her by the end. Likewise, the quirkiness of Curly and Muggles is charming, and both characters are deeply fleshed out and developed. The unpredictability and, at times, selfishness of Curly keeps the story interesting and stops the cast from falling into two-dimensional roles. Lily is arguably the least interesting of the quartet, but her presence as the lone human allows you to empathize with her role and this is key to the immersive feel of the game as a whole. The story does have some slow moments, but, on the whole, the plot will keep you playing from beginning to end.
Much like the story, the gameplay has many unique aspects, but still manages to retain the classic RPG feel. Sweet Lily Dreams is a traditional 2D RPG that puts focus on exploration, story-telling, turn-based battles, and leveling up characters. Anyone who has ever played a 2D RPG will feel right at home here. There are dozens of worlds to explore, NPCs to interact with, chests to open, and monsters to battle. Enemies are shown as black or red clouds that move about the field; run into one of them and a battle begins. The battles are simple in their turn based style with the usual array of attacks and spells along with the option to use items, defend, or flee.
There is nothing wrong with the battle mechanics per se, but combat is often a frustrating affair. On normal difficulty (this can be changed to easy or hard at any time) even regular enemies can be quite a challenge to defeat. As you progress through the game, enemies begin to use immensely powerful spells and, therefore, must be defeated quickly. To do this, you need to draw on your own powers, but MP reserves run dry too quickly. Carrying around stacks of healing potions is a must, and running out in the wrong place can be a serious, and incredibly frustrating, problem. This is partially remedied by small spheres spread across each world that restore HP and MP, but these are still not enough. Due to the huge size of most worlds, finding your way back to the exit to restock on potions is an extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, task. Saving yourself into a corner is quite possible and I was nearly forced to restart the whole game on a number of occasions due to this. As someone who loves exploration this may seem an odd comment to make, but many worlds are just too ridiculously big.
Bosses are no better and often rely on cheap tactics such as mass freezing, blinding, or self-protection. These tactics artificially extend many battles until they become fights of attrition. All these issues are compounded by two infuriating problems: the frequency at which foes evade attacks and the erratic nature of turn order. It's rare to fight a battle during which an enemy does not evade you, and evasions often occur not just once or twice, but many times. Spells require high levels of MP and, when they miss, can be hugely detrimental to progress. Combine this with an unruly turn order that never seems to work under a constant, and strategizing in fights becomes a challenge in itself. Lowering the difficulty to easy is one solution, but the drop in challenge is a dramatic one, and battles lose nearly all their challenge.
Luckily, outside of battle there is nothing to complain about. There are some truly enjoyable and unique ideas showcased and, perhaps the best of these, is the coin system. Spread across the worlds are well over 1,000 coins waiting to be picked up. Once collected, they can be spent in the exclusive Points Extravaganza shop that sells outfits and special weapons for Lily, along with furniture to decorate her home. When the game begins, you initially choose one outfit and one element for Lily to wield. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the rest can eventually be bought with points and swapped in and out. If you opt to buy furniture, and there is a massive amount of it, you can place it in Lily's home and arrange it as you wish. Doing so is not just for fun, as certain objects and layouts can grant her bonuses in battle. On top of the 20-30 hours the game takes to beat, collecting all the coins would nearly double that number.
The game includes a number of clever puzzles that provide a refreshing change of pace. These range from a complex room-swapping and maze-like puzzle to hopping over frogs, rearranging jigsaw pieces, and even some basic chemistry. Most of these are expertly designed and incredibly fun. Some may prove quite a challenge if you're less puzzle-oriented, but I found them thoroughly enjoyable and I was always pleased when a new one popped up. The only issue I had with them, which is also reflected in other areas of the game, pertains to the controls. Movement is controlled with the arrow keys and the 'SHIFT', 'C', 'X', and 'Z' keys are used for confirming, cancelling, and opening menus. It's a slightly unconventional system and one I found rather clumsy. Even by the end of the game I was still hitting the wrong key from time to time.
In a somewhat unusual move for the genre, Lily Dreams scraps the weapon and armour system entirely. The only pieces of equipment you ever wear are accessories. There are only a handful of them in the game, but they can be vital in certain boss battles. They range from empowering or disempowering certain elements, increasing strength, defence, and dodge, and so on. Aside from these, most useful items come from the crafting system. By combining store-bought materials with enemy drops, you can create potions and, more importantly, scrolls that can teach spells. Each character has unique skills they learn as they level up, but the most firepower you can get for Lily and Curly is through magic. Spells include elemental damage, debuffs (blind, freeze, paralyse, etc.), and more. Spells can be taught to any character and the only prerequisite for learning them is having the right materials to craft them. Unfortunately, materials are too hard to come by, particularly the more powerful ones. This becomes more of an issue if you accidently, or unknowingly, give a spell to a character that can't make full use of it, meaning those precious materials are wasted.
Perhaps the biggest criticism I can aim at the game, though, is the presence of bugs. For the most part, and especially for an indie game, Sweet Lily Dreams is fairly bug-free. However, my game froze on many occasions during my playthrough, usually when opening menus. If I'd only just saved, this was a fairly forgivable fault, but in times when I'd just beaten a difficult enemy or solved a puzzle, it was irritating. Once or twice I could have dealt with, but the game locked up on me close to twenty times in total. There are a few other occasions, mostly during puzzles, where if you save at the wrong time, you can potentially become permanently stuck. Once this did indeed happen, and I was forced to revert to an earlier save. It's unfortunate that this issue affected my game so severely.
When enjoying the charming graphics, it's somewhat easy to forgive Lily Dreams for its faults. It may be an RPGMaker game, but with almost entirely original graphics, it's very difficult to tell. The visuals are outstanding, and the attention to detail in each location is fantastic. Swamps are filled with dead trees, logs, and reeds; dense forests are filled with varied trees and encompassed with eerie mist; and the city of Rosaria is a sprawling area filled with homes, butterflies, shops, and more. NPC sprites are only very occasionally reused and enemies are rarely palette swapped. Lily and the rest of the main party sport excellent designs, and the visual differences between Lily's elemental outfits are a nice touch. Surprisingly, the animation is equally great. During a number of sequences, including the opening, I was genuinely astounded by how well the 2D sprites moved.
I take my hat off not just to the visual team, but to the sound designers too. The sound effects may be a little underwhelming at times, but the original score is beautiful. The haunting, subdued melody of Sleepy Hollow and the mysterious tune used in the Asurean Ruins are just a couple of the fantastic musical pieces featured in the game. The battle music is dramatic and upbeat and makes each fight feel like a battle for your life. I can hardly recall an instance of such good music in an indie game.
If you're a fan of classic 2D RPGs, then you shouldn't hesitate in picking up Sweet Lily Dreams. It has just the right mix of traditional gameplay and new ideas that make it a joy to play. It's a lengthy adventure with plenty of side-quests, sure to keep you entertained for a few dozen hours. The graphics are beautiful, the soundtrack is stunning, and the characters are ones to remember. The battle system can be frustrating at times, areas are often too large and confusing, and the frequent freezing I experienced is certainly an issue, but it's easy to look past some of these problems for a game as special as this one.