Dreamscaper – In The Shadow of Hades
It’s admittedly kind of a tough time to be a roguelike. We’re quite spoiled for choice in the year 2021. Last year’s 1.0 release of Hades really set the bar high for any action-focused take on the genre. While I spent a decent amount of time feeling like Dreamscaper struggled to reach out past the long shadow cast by Supergiant’s seminal work, by the time I put it down, it won me over with its setting, characters and just-one-more-go pull.
Hades is, fortunately, and unfortunately, the best reference point for describing the structure of Dreamscaper. You will progress through floors built on random rooms, fight enemies with melee and ranged attacks, and will make use of special abilities and the ever-important dodge mechanic. Dreamscaper remixes the template with six floors instead of four, a much wider variety of weapons and dodge types, and a blocking/parrying mechanic (of which I could never successfully pull off, but that’s likely more of a “me” issue than an issue with the game).
Dungeon runs are framed as delves into the psyche of main character Cassidy during her sleeping hours. It’s a clever framing, allowing for some pretty varied approaches to combat styles. Choosing between a snowball and a finger gun makes perfect sense in the middle of a dreamscape.
When you inevitably hit your limit and are overwhelmed by the nightmare forces of your subconscious, you have a chance to wander the waking world for a time. This functions similar to Zagrius’ home in Hades – a space to spend currencies earned in your runs on upgrades and unlock new items, as well as chat with a handful of characters that exist in Cassidy’s regular life.
The loop of gathering materials and spending them on upgrades is solid if a little overwhelming in the early goings. Tooltips come hard and fast in the first few runs, explaining everything from what glass is used for to reminding you that hey, you should be using those shoulder buttons you haven’t even touched. It’s easy to miss or forget something, before rediscovering later that hey, those abilities are pretty useful, actually.
Particularly in the early goings of Dreamscaper, there is an element of frustration with progressing through and making it deeper into Cassidy’s mind palace. Until you’ve gone through and unlocked a good variety of gear and upgrades, it’s tough to build out much of a loadout – you kind of just have to scrape by with what you find. This is good for testing out play styles that work for you, but on the flip side, it also means you’ll just end up with some mismatched move sets sometimes.
Part of the cleverness of Hades builds is the way in which it subtly funnels you toward different God combinations, quietly soft locking certain ones off during a run so that there was a sense of building toward a devastating ability set. Dreamscaper’s variety is great, but it means you might get a bunch of bonuses for freeze damage for example when the weapon you are using is poison based. There is an interplay between some – using fire and water attacks together creates steam damage, for example – but poison and fire don’t interact at all.
There’s also an element of your weapons just not being good enough to get you through encounters. As you go deeper, enemies just have a bunch more HP, and if your melee weapon doesn’t have enough DPS and you didn’t find a newer, better one somewhere, well sorry bud. Life’s tough.
Part of the unlocks available to you involve gaining access to a smithing area, allowing you to upgrade your gear. These rooms are crucial for helping you deal enough damage to not be overwhelmed in the later floors. Unfortunately, even when you’ve unlocked them, they still only appear at random. I continuously failed when these rooms just didn’t appear – yet my first time clearing the game, I had these rooms appear on floors one, three, four and five.
Again, there are other upgrades that can help mitigate this – a higher percentage of finding rarer gear, earn more currency to buy better gear at the marketplace. But it still feels like there’s just slightly too much randomness in its generation at times. This just leads to feeling like you kind of got screwed over by the game rather than any lack of skill, which can be a bit of a downer.
There is an extra accessibility option in the menu that helps smooth this out somewhat – Lucid Mode, which gives you a bonus damage buff that increases the more times you die (another similarity with Hades). Having this turned on made the progression through to the end a less frustrating affair.
In Cassidy’s waking hours, the conversations she has with fellow human beings help dole out bits and pieces of background information about her life, the world and the people around her. Along with tidbits you find amongst the dreamscape, The tale woven is a fairly grounded and relatable story of a young person who moved to the big city and is struggling with her inner demons.
It all thematically ties in with the moment to moment of your time in the game, providing clever and meaningful explanations for everything you do and see in Dreamscaper. Much like the early friction of the gameplay, however, it is a little overwhelming and just slightly too vague early on – just the tiniest bit more set up connecting Cassidy to this place and these people would’ve mitigated the handful of “oh, right!” moments after the fact.
Again though, much like the main thrust of the action, narrative threads blossom into deep and meaningful connections the further down the paths you go. The writing is great and the characters believable. Building up those relationships also gives gameplay bonuses, so you’re incentivised to explore every facet of the experience.
At the end of the day, the sign of a good roguelike is how much you want to pick the game back up and keep playing when you’re “finished”. As I write this, my Switch is sitting just a couple of meters away, this gnawing feeling in my mind pushing me to go pick it up and give it another run-through before I finalise this piece. If you have a similar itch for a new and solid roguelike, Dreamscaper is more than happy to help you scratch it.
Dreamscaper was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly provided by the Publisher.