It’s a funny thing to comment on repeated game design notions when it comes to reviewing games. Even more so when the same notion can be used to either compliment or criticize any particular game. I always feel like I’m repeating myself when I talk about how trial and error is used as a gameplay notion. Yes, developers have used it as a design cornerstone ever since the beginning. And even then, the same conceit has applied in regards to whether or not a game’s fun or not. I remember talking about that when I wrote about the PlayStation Vita port of Limbo for another website, and how the trial and error in that game worked against my enjoyment of it. To me, it was due to how poorly the gameplay that surrounded it accommodated how someone playing that game could learn to play better and more skillfully instead of simply relying on rote memorization and repetition. It’s something that From Software’s games have dealt with so smoothly over the years, and one of the reasons that I love them, or even the Trials’ series, games I don’t at all mind repeating levels over and over again before getting them just right.
In the years since Limbo, I have come to grips with its developer Playdead and even (really) enjoyed one of their titles, Limbo’s follow-up, Inside. Inside took the core ideas that worked and sat deep within Limbo, stripped away the annoying things that drove me (nearly) insane and made an incredibly atmospheric, dark but utterly enjoyable experience. Granted, that evolution didn’t happen over the course of decades. Given the nature of games as a medium, concepts become old rather quickly, between a release and the next. And if a developer is lucky enough, they get to iterate on their previous idea in their next game, or, as it’s usually the case, a studio borrows another’s concept and improves on it on their own.
And then there’s Dream Alone, a platformer that just tries to hard to emulate that trial and error style of game design and fails miserably. It’s a new game that feels outdated from the get go. Sort of like it’s stuck back in the Xbox Live Arcade days of the late 2000s and early 2010s when indie titles were really in love with Tim Burton’s art and were trying so hard to make use of it. Dream Alone get that part extremely well. To a fault. Well, many faults. Clearly inspired by Burton’s works like his black and white CalArts short Vincent, Dream Alone looks better as a still illustration than when it’s moving and being played as a game. The screen is so cluttered by the overuse of graphical filters like old timey film grain, vignettes and a frustratingly annoying blinking effect that obscures the action so much that at it makes me wonder how anyone thought that this it was a good idea when developing this game.
Another issue is that the main character is miniscule and really hard to tell apart from the background and foreground. When there’s a platformer that requires precise movement and avoiding traps such as this, it would help that you could actually see where you’re going. But that’s not what developers had in mind when designing this game. It doesn’t help that Dream Alone’s controls are incredibly floaty, twitchy and erratic. Jumps are ambiguous in detecting if you either nailed or messed up crossing gaps, and there’s just something off about just how far you can reach when jumping up. The main character’s also painfully slow. He’s sluggish in everything that he does is. He moves at a snail’s pace, and pushing boxes (which you do a lot of in this game) takes what feels like forever. In case you happen to push one in the wrong direction, there’s no way of getting to the other side of it and pushing it back. Items don’t revert back to their positions if you try to leave a screen, forcing you to quit out to the main menu and starting the checkpoint again, making you replay entire sections again.
There are also problems when it comes to how the levels are put together. Since the main gist of Dream Alive is that you’re able to jump in and out of an alternative reality in order to get around obstacles in the “real” world, you have to actively switch to that dimension at the cost of a meter. In case you run out of that, though, there are no pick-ups during the puzzle section itself, only before or after it, forcing you to jump into spikes and starting over, or, you guessed it, quit back to the menu and loading back into the game. Even worse, depending on where you warp into or out the dream world, you might end up getting offed right away by the traps on the other side because there’s no way to tell what’s ahead. And that’s also something that happens when simply platforming, without traversing to the other dimension, merely dropping down vertically — like a section in the game that takes place about thirty minutes in, that involves dropping down platforms onto horizontally moving chainsaws before blindly landing into a patch of ground that just happens to have hidden retractable spikes.
In almost all of the cases, there’s simply no way of knowing traps like these lie about in your way, unless you fall for them and die. The trial and error in Dream Alive is punishingly unfair, even more so than Limbo’s. At least in that game, bear traps were somewhat visible, and you didn’t have to deal with all sorts of crap trying to obscure your view while playing. In this game’s case, you’re not only constantly fighting against its terrible level design, but also its weak controls and convoluted presentation. And don’t even get me started on playing this in handheld mode, which makes it even harder to see anything going on in the game. I played this at home, I can’t even imagine trying to do so out on the go, on the sun, portably.
Iterating on ideas and trying to come up with some new ones is pretty much how videogames have evolved over the years, and it’s a perfectly fine way to keep going as far as I’m concerned. But when a game such as Dream Alive comes along trying to borrow all the wrong elements from another that didn’t quite well sit with me way back when it was released and that has already seen its fair share of improvements in the form of a sequel or sorts, I can’t help but be baffled. Even more so with the fact that it’s coming out on a system with a form factor that simply isn’t made to support it, as is the case with the Switch. There are much better alternatives out on the eShop than Dream Alive — lo and behold, Limbo and Inside. As much as I disliked Limbo back when it was released, it’s easily a much better exercise at trial and error than this game is.