- Developer: Hypnotic Ants
- Publisher: Pineapple Works
- Release Date: 19/11/2020
- Price: £13.49 / $14.99
- Review code provided by Pineapple Works
Introducing: Dreamo Switch Review
The whole “are games art” debate has been done to death. It’s fair to say that the medium has its fair share of masterpieces that will stand as cultural cornerstones in years to come. That said, there’s probably a fairly deep divide between those that appreciate the more arty side of gaming and the spice boys that just want a bit of Call of Duty and FIFA.
I tend to fall into the former category, although I do like a bit of the old shooty-bang, and indeed enjoy firing my balls into a sagging onion sack!
You would be forgiven for mistaking Dreamo for The Witness, the brain-melting puzzle game designed by Jonathon Blow. One look at the screenshots below and it’s quite clear that the devs have taken real inspiration from it, with the art style sharing more than a passing resemblance. I had a wry chuckle when I was searching Reddit for the solution to the final puzzle (it’s a ball buster) and came across Dreamo’s devs trying to poach some sales on the Witness Reddit!
The game shares a lot of the Witness’s DNA, but doesn’t quite reach the same level of invention. Nonetheless, you’ve got yourself a pretty unique puzzler here and one that manages to thread in a pretty compelling, and emotional, story throughout.
Dreamo starts off with a fairly simple premise. You play as Jack Winslow, who has apparently suffered some serious injuries and now lies in a coma. You wander around in Jack’s dreams guided by the disembodied voice of Tara, whom Jack is unfamiliar with. Tara explains to you that you are in a coma following a serious injury, but cooperating with her will allow you to piece together your memories and awaken once again.
This basic premise plays out for a while, with Jack tasked with travelling through a world made up of fragments of his memory whilst unlocking artifacts, which are large cubes covered in gears and buttons. The artifacts unlock further memories and are sold as the way to get things back together and awaken again.
As the game plays out it slowly becomes apparent that things aren’t quite as straightforward as you were first told. You learn more of the tragic backstories of Jack and Tara and discover a heart-breaking loss in Jack’s early life which spurred him on to the study of Pharmacology. The character development is made all the more impactful from the fragments of Jack’s memories which are represented visually as objects within the various areas of the game.
The story takes a while to get going, but this serves to make the twists and turns more surprising and impactful as a result.
Grind my gears
Dreamo is played completely from a first person perspective. You begin on a mysterious and beautiful tropical island, washed up on the shore. As you begin to explore you encounter the voice of Tara, who guides you through the game accompanied by some huge floating text boxes that look not unlike a text message conversation. This might sound distracting, but actually encouraged me to slow down and take in the dialogue. The text boxes hang in the air and can be walked around like any other 3D object. I couldn’t help but feel that this would look amazing in VR, but alas the cardboard monstrosity that is Labo VR doesn’t seem to be an option.
The game is made up of lots of dialogue interspersed with some interesting exploration and lots of puzzling, based around the aforementioned artifacts. These puzzle boxes form the main traditional gameplay element. Upon activating an artifact it floats skyward, hovering in front of you surrounded by gears of various sizes. The cubes each have a gear set in place, which is rotating, and a number of pegs placed around them as well as a static gear set away from the spinning one, which is essentially your goal.
The aim of each puzzle is to use the floating gears and the pegs on the cube to form a chain which then rotates the final gear and opens the box – freeing your memories. You can rotate each cube and attach the gears to the various pegs on each face.
The puzzles start fairly simple, with the main challenge being to figure out which pegs are there as a decoy and which will get you to your goal. Pegs near the edge of a surface can be used to overlap a gear beyond the edge, allowing you to catch a gear on the next face and make your way across the cube.
Wake up with a sore head
As the game progresses you are presented with more complex features on each cube, starting with pegs which can be dragged along tracks to change their position, before moving onto more complex mechanisms such as pegs which can be pushed in, rendering them unusable. These pegs have the effect of making linked pegs pop out of the cube ready for use. These types are complicated by having a range of markings to show which pegs are linked. The markings aren’t exclusive, meaning that you could have a peg with a dot, one with a circle and one with both markings. Any shared markings affect all linked pegs, leading to some real brain teasers (and a fair bit of frustration at times).
The game paces the introduction of new mechanics very nicely, allowing you to get your head around an idea before layering another new concept. As the game continues you get pegs which move around the cube based on gravity, pegs which are only active when oriented in a certain direction and finally pegs which exist in different dimensions. Later cubes include the option to press a button and shift to another dimension where the cube has a new set of pegs, but gears can affect those in another plane, providing the teeth interlink.
By the endgame you are frazzled, trying to remember what way gravity will affect a peg on the opposite face whilst keeping track of the location of gears in a different plane of existence, which is also affected by the way you move the cube. If it sounds confusing, it is! Thankfully it’s done in such a way that you can eventually figure out the correct solution and what was previously frustrating becomes revealed as simple genius!
Like the best puzzle games, Dreamo makes you feel like a genius in some of the latter puzzles and gives some real Eureka moments as you finally put together all the pieces. That said, some of the latter puzzles had me seriously doubting whether I had the smarts to juggle all the components and keep track of everything.
The game looks beautiful, with a striking art style which combines simple polygonal models with almost no textures, instead painting items in block colour. The game’s areas are made up of scenes which feel a bit like what would happen if Dali and Freud got together to design a game world. You really do feel like you are wandering around Jack’s subconscious, with memories gradually falling into place and shifting the landscape around you.
All this is backed by a lovely synth based ambient soundtrack which provides some nice atmosphere and helps add to the dream-like feel of the world.
The game’s art style clearly owes a huge debt to The Witness, but the dream-like feel manages to help differentiate it and provides a real interesting place to spend your time. I was constantly intrigued to see the next area and see what snippets of Jack’s past and his personality I could glean from the various items I would come across.
Performance wise Dreamo holds up pretty well in both handheld and docked modes. It keeps a consistent frame rate and manages to look quite sharp. The art style itself doesn’t seem like it should be especially taxing, but with the amount of graphically disappointing Switch ports these days, it’s nice to see something which pops the way Dreamo does. I do have one minor gripe, in that lighting effects and shadows are sometimes only drawn in at very short range, but this doesn’t detract hugely from the overall aesthetic.
I did find one real frustration with the graphics in the game, but this was due to a visual filter which the devs applied during puzzles. This added a hazy, grainy filter which was presumably intended to add to the mystique of the puzzles, but unfortunately served only to obscure the scene and make me feel woozy. Thankfully the devs include an option to remove this, which improves the experience markedly!
Dreamo is a fun little puzzler with an interesting and emotional story. It manages to remain interesting as it builds to its crescendo, and does a great job of layering mechanics in a way that takes you just to the edge of making your brain pop.
The story can be beaten in around 3 hours and offers little in the way of replay value, but it provides an interesting journey of the way there. Given the game’s low price point, the brevity is much less of an issue.
It offers a challenge mode in addition to the story, which offers a series of puzzles in isolation. These offer an additional challenge and apparently go way beyond the difficulty of the main campaign. I was ready to explode whilst trying to complete the final puzzle, so I don’t think I’m quite cut out for the full brutality of the challenge mode, but it’s a neat addition for the real masochists (or geniuses).
Dreamo manages to offer something a little bit different, showing some real nice artistry without ever disappearing up its own arse. It tells a tale which is emotional, whilst providing some satisfying and head-scratching puzzles.
- Intriguing story
- Satisfying puzzle mechanics
- Interesting environments
- Might test some people’s patience
- Horrific visual effect on puzzles (can be turned off)