A limbo beneath greatness.
Dream Alone, a horror platformer created by Warsaw Games and published by Fat Dog Games, tells the story of a young boy searching for a cure to a mysterious disease afflicting his hometown and family, leaving all of them in a coma. It tries to follow up on the legacy written by masterfully designed games like Inside and Limbo – games that spawned what has become an indie subgenre, most recently entered by the likes of Thomas Brush of Atmos Games with Pinstripe and his upcoming crowdfunded game, Once Upon a Coma.
The platformer genre is an affordable solution for many indie games on a tight budget, and it may seem to be a simple enough structure to work from. But Dream Alone proves that’s not true. Poor execution, sloppy level design, and shockingly dysfunctional gameplay mechanics wrap up a product that contrasts so very much with the aforementioned titles and makes them shine even brighter against it.
Dream Alone tells the story of a little boy seeking Lady Death in order to find a cure for a mysterious illness that struck his town. His brother, sister, parents, and everyone else in his life has been thrust into a deep, unexplained convalescence, except for him.
To its credit, Dream Alone does a good job at creating a dark, horrific environment that reeks of desperation and solitude for a young boy who takes on the responsibility of diving into the unknown to save his loved ones. Still, some of these elements conspire against overall playability, as the old-film-like effect chosen by Warsaw Games to cover the entire screen makes visibility sometimes impossible. Almost every enemy is dark in tone, and the monochromatic palette is more bothersome than appealing.
Dream Alone is a constant dodging exercise against traps and bug-like monsters, sometimes requiring our character to use unique abilities in order to progress through each scenario. There’s no way of choosing which power to use in a specific situation – the game tells you what you have to do by conveniently placing recharge potions before each situation. So there’s no way to improvise, choose your path, or even think about which is the best solution for each puzzle.
Powers include making clones of the little boy, summoning a magical light in order to illuminate some especially dark areas and, finally, stepping into “the other side”. In this alternate dimension, represented by a sepia-coloured screen, some objects change place and some paths open or close.
The alternate dimension adds some additional horror features to Dream Alone’s world: shadows of hanged bodies, tombstones scattered around. This stresses the death and decay this boy is forced to experience, and does add some engaging and very much needed mystery.
But that’s as far as Dream Alone’s successes go. Touching anything that the boy is not supposed to (enemies, thorned walls, water, flying axes, chain balls, etc) will trigger the same exact animation over and over again: the boy is ripped into pieces, blood splashes on the screen, and we hear a cry of pain. The fact that even drowning in a pond or swamp also triggers the same violent animation takes away the horror theme the game has tried so hard to create, and sends it into the realm of the absurd.
Moreover, Dream Alone is completely unprepared for players wanting to explore the limits of its world. I’ve stumbled upon invisible walls and holes leading to the abyss (and getting ripped into pieces by the void), and spots where the game wasn’t even aware I could go. I was forced to see the little boy stuck on the spot, triggering movement animations but not going anywhere. And I recall coming across a jumping-bush – meant to serve as a jumping booster – and asking myself “what if I don’t use it, and just keep walking?” The answer: I suffered a ripped-into-pieces death after falling through an invisible hole placed at the same exact spot the bush was, but overlooked because hey, we’re supposed to jump on that, right?
Bugs, glitches, shoddy design and barely functional mechanics mean it’s difficult to maintain any interest in the story. Not that it really goes anywhere. There are a couple of story sections after some levels, the conclusion of which always remains the same: find Lady Death and save your family.
Dream Alone feels like a failed attempt to follow the legacy of Playdead’s exceptional games. Their masterpieces of the platformer genre rewarded players for their curiosity and desire to step away for a moment from the straight path forward, and gave collectables, fragments of story, or Easter eggs when finding secret rooms or areas. More to the point, those games actually function as intended.
While the platformer genre is at its peak right now in the indie scene, let us not forget how hard it is to create a masterpiece with those tools, and value even more highly the games that meet that standard.
Our boy from Buenos Aires, Juan has been a gamer for as long as he can remember (and possibly even longer than that). He loves a good story, and believes every indie game has a compelling one to tell.