Puzzles have been an important part of games since the beginning. They provide a way of propelling the storyline forward in a natural way and provide a connection between the player and the content. DREAMO, from Hypnotic Ants Studio, is absolutely full of puzzles! Between the campaign and the challenge mode, I’ve spent the last two days straight manipulating all the brain-teasers the title has to offer, and I’ve got some thoughts on the matter.
The easy answer is going to be that if you enjoy a challenge, or have an affinity for gear placement, then this is going to be right up your alley. But if you’re looking for something a bit more substantial, then maybe we should talk first.
DREAMO is available now for Nintendo Switch and PC for your regional pricing. There’s even a demo available if you’d like to try before you buy. Plus, there’s even a planned VR version coming to Steam sometime in 2021.
GAMEPLAY – GEAR TACTICS
The actual game mechanics are walking and puzzle-solving. Initially, I was frustrated that all of the puzzles appeared to be iterations of the same thing, but thankfully the quality and progression of complexity assuaged my concerns. As you progress through the world, you encounter Artifacts, cubes with a handful of gears that must be installed in the correct order and placement to activate the next portion of the area.
An early example from the start of the game: you are on a tiny island in the middle of an endless ocean, with only wreckage and an Artifact keeping you company. Upon completion of this first challenge, the world opens up, and you can move to a larger portion of the island, hidden before behind the dreamscape’s edge.
DREAMO might be a relatively short title, but it’s certainly packed with trials. There’s even a separate Challenge Mode for those who don’t want to travel through the story of Jack Winslow and his mysterious coma. As I dove into this secondary mode, I expected a “Boss Rush” style, going through the Artifacts of the game all over again in succession. It was a real treat to discover that they are entirely new puzzles to solve, allowing me to keep spinning gears without getting lost in the weeds of the plot again.
I’m a real sucker for gears. Maybe it’s the teenage years spent in the steampunk-idolizing early 00s, maybe it’s the way that they work together that becomes a metaphor in my head, but I like gears. Puzzles based on figuring out what piece goes where are some of my favorite challenges in games because I know that there’s a solution, and I will eventually figure it out. The Artifacts were the true high-water mark of this game and were the thing that ultimately carried me through to the end.
Each time a new element was introduced, I actually became concerned that I would become overwhelmed and get turned off from the mechanics. Thankfully, for all the additional layers of puzzles beyond fitting cogs into slots, nothing became too much to handle. The pace of each new addition was well balanced. I was slowly introduced to the ability to move shafts, gravity consequences, connected buttons. Things even got escalated to inter-dimensional physics, which was a real treat towards the end.
I’ll get deeper into it in the Story section below, but again, the real star of this show is the puzzles, which is what you want out of this sort of game. It’s just a shame that the detail and effort put into the storyline didn’t pay off the way it could have. Perhaps, in another life, DREAMO would have been better suited (and more well-regarded) if it were stripped down to merely the Challenge Mode. It’s the most satisfying part of this stew, after all.
If you do ever find yourself stuck, or just want to chat with the developers, Hypnotic Ants Studio was also kind enough to set up a Discord server for players who want a bit more community interaction.
STORY – MEMORY LAPSE
One of the great things about video games is the level of interactivity that developers can hang their stories on. Instead of merely presenting the tale they wish to tell, story beats are carefully crafted and revealed to the player as tasks are completed. This helps tie everything together and provide a larger payoff because it feels like we, as the player, did the leg work in getting to the end of the narrative.
Ideally, this would be where I would pivot and discuss how the storyline pulled me from Artifact to Artifact. It would have been great to have my entire focus captivated by the plot and have the challenges be what pushed me toward uncovering the mysteries that were being laid out before me. Unfortunately, the whole package was hampered by some story beats that didn’t land and robotic performances.
You play in the role of Jack Winslow, a man who at the outset of the game appears to have barely survived a plane crash. Now in a coma, Dr. Tara Moreau acts as a disembodied guide, communicating through some scientific means. As you surpass certain challenges, the conversation between Jack and Tara uncovers more about Jack’s real life, his history, and his career. There’s also a third character, Jack’s manager at work, who appears initially to be behind what’s really going on with Jack.
But what really is going on? There’s a characterization switch towards the end of the game in the narrative, and it’s never explained. Formerly helpful guidance is now pushy and angry, and everybody is frustrated with each other. In all honesty, it seems almost like two storyline ideas were taped together partway through the process. To top it off, there isn’t any payoff at the end. Nobody gets any answers; there’s just a build-up (of sorts) to the credits screen.
Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if the game were presented as merely a Challenge Mode. If I were just given stages and problems to accomplish, I wouldn’t need an emotional arc to get to the end. The gameplay is solid enough to stand on its own.
However, the weak plot is further undermined by stiff voice acting. Instead of feeling like a real conversation, it sounds more like sound clips that were edited to be played next to each other. There’s limited use of contractions, so Jack and Tara sound robotic, and it’s almost like they’re reading passages from a book instead of talking to each other.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – LOW-POLY BEAUTY
Despite the flaws in the story arc, the game looks really great. It’s got a low-poly, PS1-era art style that fits well with the whole “I might be in a dream and don’t know what’s next” schtick. The edges of the play area look like the edge of consciousness, and specifically, there’s a really great-looking hot air balloon.
If there were any humanoid character models in the game, I might not be as into the visuals as I am. But there is plenty of wildlife that roam the dreamscape, and the tiny squirrels and birds are adorably represented. The visual style is also a nice way to show the Artifact puzzles since the lower detail gives some straight lines and easy-to-read options for a solution. I didn’t find myself confused about where something was, even when dealing with three different dimensions.
The audio presentation of dialogue is not made for players who want to progress. When a conversation begins, players can walk away and continue, but the speech gets left behind where it started. So for players who want to sort out context amidst the gameplay, there’s a lot of standing around. Considering the size of the walking area and the space between each Artifact, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to walk and talk at the same time.
DREAMO was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A code was provided by Pineapple Works.