The first time Cassidy entered the dreamscape, I was mesmerized. The way she stretches and falls backwards to her bed with a subtle chime melting her into the darkness of her nightmares left me breathless in awe and intrigue. Everything about the moment captured the essence of what Afterburner Studios’ Dreamscaper was going to be as a roguelite dungeon crawler and gave me a glimpse of the types of beautiful moments that were yet to come.
Dreamscaper’s art direction is captivating, filled with little details that set the dream-like tone of the world. In Cassidy’s dreamscape, the dungeon environments offer insights into her past through silhouetted figures posed on small-town porches and camping ground chairs. Every burger joint, swing set, and trash can makes a connection through its familiarity.
Even the way she reaches out towards the dungeons’ portals evokes a feeling of loss and longing in a quick animation, a simple detail that goes a long way to tell you more about Cassidy’s character. When I would reach the next stage of the dreamscape, I was genuinely left breathless, soaking in the new area and everything it had to offer.
The waking world had a similar effect. There are five unique environments, including Cassidy’s apartment, that can be explored in Dreamscaper. Each setting provides a quaint backdrop for the discussions that are had with the inhabitants of Cassidy’s new home town, Red Haven. I particularly enjoyed watching the headlights of cars drift past while chatting away at the bar. Exploring the world and observing the details is one of the best aspects of the game. Hopefully as the game moves through early access, we will continue to receive more settings and levels that showcase and expand upon the masterful world-building currently on offer.
To improve her odds of surviving the dreamscape, Cassidy can build her relationships with the locals of Red Haven through conversation or giving them gifts. Doing so unlocks powerful new weapons, buffs, and abilities that can be found and used in the dreamscape, in addition to leveling up global inspiration bonuses that can be equipped prior to entering the dreamscape.
Cassidy’s gear and skills are endearing because they are all based on her memories and the hopes and dreams of the people in her life. From yo-yos and Frisbees as weapons to keepsakes like lighters that grant passive bonuses, the dreamworld is a natural extension of reality, and unlockables are as worthwhile as they are relatable.
The combat is a challenging, slow grind that leans directly into its roguelite elements. I was disappointed when I worked so hard to ascend to the next stage of the dreamscape, only to make a silly mistake and die, forcing me to repeat the process from the beginning. As much as I was frustrated at losing my hard work, I always felt like I was learning more about the way the different skills worked and what kind of play style I needed to defeat tough enemies.
Whenever I exited the dreamscape, I found myself longing to get back in so that I could experience the engaging combat. There was a wonderful mix of enemies to encounter, each designed as a manifestation of Cassidy’s fears that attacks with a unique rhythm, forcing you to learn the flow of combat. Weapons and evasion skills also have a particular feel, and given the randomization of gear in a dungeon run, understanding how these patterns overlap is crucial to success.
Even so, the weapons, shields, and skills all feel nice to use, offering instant feedback that make them distinct. Shield parries are particularly satisfying, providing a subtle slowdown of time to savor the achievement of the moment. The hit-and-evade style of combat agrees nicely with the context of the game, as much of the dreamscape is inspired by Cassidy’s love of RPGs, and what sells that idea better than the attack-and-roll strategy?
This gameplay loop also felt cohesive as it encouraged me to improve my relationships in the waking world and increase my chances at success. Despite the sheer amount of times I died, I couldn’t help but dive straight back in to discover more of the mysterious and beautiful world that Dreamscaper offers.
At times, I felt like the pacing was a little slow. Developer Afterburner Studios has already shown that it is committed to refining the game and has previously increased the general speed of the gameplay, so hopefully with more community feedback, Dreamscaper will become an even tighter experience. Considering there is also more content planned to expand the waking and dream worlds, there is a lot to be excited about for the future of the game.
No matter how many times I died and had to replay certain stages, I could still feel the same hint of magic that I felt when I first watched Cassidy enter the dreamscape. There is some refinement needed to create a really strong core gameplay loop, but for now, the wonder of the world is enough to enchant you and leave you wanting more.