As an insomniac, I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be to fall asleep the second my head hit the pillow. I’ve spent endless hours in my life laying in bed with my eyes closed, unmoving, while my mind raced endlessly with my thoughts, fears, and anxieties.
In Dreamscaper from Afterburner Studios, I learned to be careful what I wish for…
In this Action RPG roguelike, you are Cassidy, an artistic young woman who has escaped her stifling small town full of painful memories to the big city of Redhaven. Every night when Cassidy’s head hits the pillow, she instantly falls into a beautiful and horrible dream world populated by nightmare figments of her past traumas. Every day, Cassidy heads out into the waking world and strives to form personal connections with her friends and coworkers. Her struggles in both worlds impact each other, giving her the tools she needs to better fight her nightmares and reach out to the people in her life.
When you’re an indie studio that can’t afford AAA-level graphics, you need to develop a unique art style that captures the imagination, and that’s precisely what Afterburner has done here. Dreamscaper simply looks stunning.
In the dream world, each level consists of jumbled memories of places from Cassidy’s past, with buildings and surroundings dissolving into nothingness on the horizon. As you progress deeper into her dreams, they become more and more fragmented, as if you are delving deeper into her trauma. The layout of each dream layer is randomized, with doors locked by bombs and keys (shades of The Legend of Zelda).
In the real world, you might expect a more grounded aesthetic, but in Dreamscaper, Afterburner has instead created a city that feels both familiar and otherworldly. Rather than spending time carefully animating the expressions of every character, the developers instead left their faces completely blank (think “The Question” from DC Comics or “The Blank” from Dick Tracy). That includes Cassidy herself. For me, the lack of distinctive facial features underscored Cassidy’s journey to discover both herself and the people around her. It might have been interesting to have more distinctive features slowly appear as she builds her personal connections and conquers her traumas, but keeping them blank throughout is a choice that works extremely well within the game world. I wish voice acting were included but understand why that wasn’t an option on a limited budget.
While the graphical ambiance effectively makes you feel you’re in a dream, it’s the music that sells the emotional core of Dreamscaper. The composer, Dale North, created some stunning compositions for both the dream world and the waking world. RPGFan music reviewer Adam Luhrs took a look at the soundtrack last year and walked away loving it. I absolutely agree with him. The tone of songs in the dream world oscillates between calming and frantic, depending on whether you are in combat or not. The waking world is full of melancholy themes that communicate a sense of loneliness and isolation. It all combines into a beautiful soundscape that underscores all of Cassidy’s struggles. It’s an incredible soundtrack and well worth a purchase on your music platform of choice (I’ve been using it for podcast prep, but you do you)!
My two favourite moments in Dreamscaper happened at the beginning and end of every run: when you fall asleep and when you wake up. Falling asleep is exactly that. Cass leans back in bed, and the waking world instantly melts away as she falls slowly into her dreams. It’s exactly the feeling I have of slowly falling into a deep sleep. At the other end of the spectrum is dying. It starts like a standard video game death. The screen goes to black, surrounding Cassidy. She starts to shake in pain as if she will explode like Mega Man. And then… she wakes up in her apartment. It’s precisely the feeling I have when waking up from a nightmare.
For a game about sleeping, Dreamscaper ironically kept me up late into the night with its “one-more-run” approach to gameplay. This is an essential ingredient for a successful roguelike, and this game nails it. Moreover, the central conceit of every run being a single night’s sleep provides a real-world justification for the roguelike mechanic of losing all of your equipment and level progress with every death. Every night is a new dream.
Thankfully, you can unlock some permanent upgrades through your experiences in the real world. There are five types of currency in dreams: Resolves, Inspiration, Glass, Sparks, and Sand. The first four are used when you’re awake to purchase upgrades that give you more control in your dreams, while the last is used as a currency in the dream world to buy upgrades or unlock new weapons.
I found inspiration is the most interesting in terms of getting permanent upgrades. As Cassidy is an artist, she can create gifts for her friends. As you get to know the people in your community and their preferences, you can pick what you think will be the perfect gift for them, leveling up their friendship (and thus their passive bonuses). The closer you get to them, the better the permanent upgrades.
I adore how customizable Cassidy’s combat style is in her dreams. In the dream world, you’re equipped with three different methods of attack and one dodge. You have a standard melee attack that uses a wide selection of weapons and deadly versions of real-world items (I love the yo-yo as a weapon because it makes me feel like I’m playing a next-gen version of StarTropics)! You have long-range weapons that use a tiny bit of lucid — essentially MP — with every shot. And you have your most powerful abilities that use a ton of lucid, but can result in considerable damage. Dodging can be as simple as a roll or as complicated as a dash that leaves a damaging trail of fire behind you. The key to success involves learning the critical hit timing for each of these abilities and determining which form of attack is best for each monstrously beautiful enemy (especially the bosses).
At the beginning of each run in Dreamscaper, you can choose a randomized loadout of equipment or pick your favorites (with randomized modifiers). There are a massive number of melee and ranged weapons to unlock with varying speeds and ranges. If you use an attack enough, you master it, unlocking permanent upgrades when equipped. So, even if you aren’t a fan of a particular weapon, you might want to practice with it enough to unlock the upgrade. You never know, you might develop an affinity for it!
Collecting loot is a key mechanic of any Action RPG, and there’s plenty in Dreamscaper. Keepsakes are dream representations of real-world items that give you various special abilities, including adding elemental damage to your attacks and improving your speed and health. I found that there are a few synergistic combinations of items and equipment that can completely break the game in entertaining ways. Firing off seven homing projectiles that ricochet off enemies to hit other enemies is an effective way of cleaning entire screens of opponents in about five seconds. Mind you, even with these game-breaking strategies, there are still good reasons why you don’t just want to focus your energies on a single type of weapon in a run. If you want to be truly successful in your runs, you need to build a well-rounded character, especially to tackle the bosses.
Dreamscaper tackles some serious mental health issues in a way that feels both realistic and relatable. Cassidy’s journey to a better place isn’t linear. Rather than seeing steady improvement in her life as you process her trauma through her dreams, things often get worse. Her relationships and career deteriorate, and her apartment slowly falls into neglect. Piles of unwashed laundry and half-finished projects decorate the floor as her depression takes over. Personally, I’ve found that recovering from depression is rarely a “point-A-to-point-B” journey. There will be countless setbacks and times when you feel like you’re sliding backward. A day of incredible productivity and energy can immediately be followed by one where you can’t get out of bed. But as long as the overall trend is positive and you keep fighting your demons (whether metaphorically or literally in your dreams), you will eventually see improvement.
There is so much that I love about Dreamscaper, from its beautiful graphic style to its impactful message about mental health to the fact that I always just wanted to do one more run before going to bed myself. I’m curious how this game would have landed for me before the pandemic. While I’ve always struggled with social anxiety in crowds, forming personal connections one-on-one has never been a fear of mine. The pandemic changed that (hopefully temporarily). Today, the idea of striking out and meeting new people is almost as intimidating as the virus itself. Because of this, slowly helping Cassidy push past her fears to develop strong relationships with the other characters felt satisfying to me in a way that rivaled the actual combat.
Dreamscaper has been in early access for about a year, and based on my time with it, I can say that time was well spent by Afterburner. They’ve created a well-balanced and engaging roguelike Action RPG that perfectly pairs with its social simulator mechanics. I continued to play long after I conquered Cassidy’s dreams and enjoyed every run, whether it was all the way to the end of the game or stupidly dying in the first level. This is a super impressive debut for the studio, and I hope that Afterburner is already working on its follow-up title! If Dreamscaper is any indication, we will be in for some sweet dreams ahead!