It is without a shred of irony that I boldly proclaim: Dreamscaper is the most stunning and conceptually unique rogue-lite I have ever played in my life. Usually, I trial a few different lines to kick off these pieces, but this game is its own damn hook. After years trapped in that vicious loop of trying, dying, and crying, never have I felt such satisfaction clearing a stage. Dreamscaper spotlights something that many rogue-lites, and most roguelikes, treat poorly — a meaningful story. And not just one that serves the game’s aesthetics, one that contextualizes the emergent gameplay and storytelling that all of Rogue’s offspring excel at.
If there’s one thing we could all use a whole lot more of, it’s time. Modern-day living seems to be defined by how busy we all are. I want to get the most out of my spare time, and in these past few years, roguelikes haven’t been doing it for me. I want to feel a greater sense of progress beyond just satisfying my implicit need to improve. That’s why I’ve found myself turning to games like Hades, and now, Dreamscaper. Your personal in-game underdog stories fuel a larger narrative machine that not only tells a relatable story, but leaves room for your experiences to color the canvas.
The perfect dreamscape
Meet Cassidy, an artistic spirit battling depression who moves to the city in her latest attempt to center her life. It’s this new stage on which she does battle with herself, hopefully alongside a few new friends she makes along the way. She spends her waking hours building friendships, and at night, she takes that energy into her dreams to duke it out with her demons. Through these different avenues, you learn more about how Cassidy came to be at this crossroads in her life.
The power of the word “relatable” in the critique of character and story has waned over the years. With Dreamscaper, it’s more than just drawing parallels; it’s your story just as much as it is Cassidy’s. So, it’s profoundly relatable. Is that better? In the realm of roguelikes and rogue-lites, relatability is even less of a factor. Games of the subgenre lean into the fantasy aspect, but Dreamscaper grounds itself in reality, despite its surreal aesthetics.
Beautiful colors and purposeful lighting paint serene yet melancholic pictures in Cassidy’s dream world. An equally dreamy and intrepid soundtrack imbues each stage with its own distinct flavor. The world outside her bedroom is warm, cozy, and inviting — encouraging me to pursue new interactions with its inhabitants. Dreamscaper is a gorgeous game; every area is screenshot material. In motion, it’s even better with its impressive range of animations and effects. The promise of more sights to see gives me greater motivation to continue my journey as Cassidy continues hers.
Her battle against depression sets you up against some nasty foes. But with her vivid imagination, you have a wealth of weapons and powers at your disposal. Suit up with one melee weapon, one ranged weapon, one dodge, two lucid arts, one lucid awakening, and all the items you can carry. Dreamscaper puts heavy emphasis on timing; perfect parries and attacks are rewarded with bonus damage. It’s almost crucial that you learn it as enemies get tanky fast. Lucid arts are special abilities with relatively quick cooldowns, which do a lot to spice up your options during combat. And when things get too overwhelming, your lucid awakening can slow down time.
In traditional rogue-lite fashion, you move from room to room, slaying enemies and gathering weapons and items, called keepsakes, to improve your survivability. Interspersed between combat rooms are shops and reward rooms that help you do just that, and provide some respite from your foes. Cassidy’s dream world also includes a number of puzzle rooms, offering some easy-going brain games to shake up the monotony. I personally found dream minesweeper to be quite enjoyable.
After downing the boss of a stage, Cassidy has an opportunity to head into the city to mingle, or head back to sleep and take on the next stage. Each stage introduces new enemies, hazards, and environments that continue to push your skills to the limit, and test the robustness of your build. Failure is inevitable, but where one game ends, another one begins. Running through the dream snags you three key resources: insight, bliss, and solace. In Cassidy’s room, you can spend your resources to craft gifts for your future friends. Alternatively, you can spend resources to craft the perfect starting loadout, good for a single run.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link
Cassidy has a maximum of three hours after work to go out on the town before she retires for the night. You have access to a small list of spots she frequents, and there, you can chat it up with NPCs. Traveling from place to place takes time, and talking eats up another 30 minutes. But, giving gifts doesn’t eat up any time at all. The catch: you’ll never learn what each character likes until you spend some time with them. When your relationship rank increases, you’ll earn character-specific boons that provide passive bonuses in the dream. As your friendships blossom, you’ll also unlock new gear, keepsakes, and lucid arts that have a chance to be obtained in the dream.
When the clock strikes nine, it’s back to bed with Cassidy. The bonds she’s made with all her new friends carry over into the dream in the form of passive buffs and gear. The memories they’ve made together give meaning to your fight. With the help of your friends and the gear they’ve given you, clearing stages becomes progressively easier. I only wish that characters could be more involved in the dreams beyond a few boons. Cassidy’s slow gains in the battle against her depression translate over to your triumphs on the battlegrounds of her dreams.
Staying in bed
It makes for an incredible experience, this melding of gameplay and character growth. Though Dreamscaper is without a concrete overarching storyline, every small win and friendship made resonated with me. The writing was sharp and convincing, and every change in character was met with a similar development in the gameplay. Even in the dream, environmental storytelling and scattered bits of lore shed light on Cassidy’s character and encouraged me to power on, if only to see where this internal struggle would lead.
At this current point in time, Dreamscaper trails ever so slightly behind its most successful contemporaries in replayability. Elemental synergies and a diverse pool of lucid arts and weapons make a strong case for alternate playstyles. However, rarely did I find myself actually doing so, save for a few corner cases. I was more concerned with my damage output, and how many strikes I could land before having to dodge out of the way. But for narrative-minded players such as myself, the story of Cassidy is more than enough to spur me on. Dreamscaper is the perfect game for players looking for a little more out of their rogue-lites.