What happens to a person’s consciousness when his or her brain flatlines? If you buy into the idea behind speedbump studios’ high concept virtual novella, that person enters his or her Dream:scape (Out June 9, $1.99), a surreal environment that doesn’t just let a lifetime flash before one’s eyes — it grants the dreamer a final chance to unravel mysteries left unsolved in waking life. Cast as the disembodied consciousness of a comatose hospital patient named Wilson, the player wanders one such dream:scape in an attempt to identify and solve the mystery behind a turning point in his life.
To reveal much more about Dream:scape‘s plot would ruin the player’s enjoyment, as it’s an ultra-light whodunnit at heart; remove one link from its simple skeleton and the whole experience degrades. That’s not to say Dream:scape lacks immense narrative weight, however. What’s most important here is not how fleshed out the story appears in hindsight but rather how it’s conveyed in realtime, and the development team absolutely excel as minstrels of the digital age! While the player roams Wilson’s dream:scape – strung together from areas that served as backdrops for important events – he or she is bombarded with impressions from the protagonist’s life. At first head-scratchingly disparate, the menagerie of surreal imagery and voice work gradually adds up to a plot that’s believable, compelling, and utterly unsettling all at once. That in itself is a triumph that simply must be witnessed to be believed.
While Dream:scape excels at narrative like few iOS titles before it, one complaint will surely issue forth from anyone who had hoped for an open-ended sandbox-style videogame: the developer thought it best to impose gameplay linearity for purposes of telling a coherent story. This decision feels properly made considering what a fine balancing act the plot is to begin with, although it does run counter to the player’s exploratory instinct. I must have spent a good half hour wandering from one devastatingly beautiful – or oppressively malevolent! – area to the next trying to figure out what to do at first, as the player is left with precious few clues regarding an initial objective. Dream:scape seems to revel in letting the player figure things out with minimal hand-holding, and in fact the player receives just the needed starting clue from a scarecrow that ushers him or her into Wilson’s new world: the diary that lets Wilson expound on his memories in writing also serves as an implied quest list, its pages ordered in a way that tells the player exactly where to begin and where to proceed next.
It’s true that the game takes place from a first-person perspective, sports dual virtual joysticks, and contains exactly one shotgun as revealed in the latest preview, but let’s be clear about one thing — Dream:scape doesn’t tread anywhere near the territory of a first person shooter, or any action-heavy genre for that matter. Gameplay consists chiefly of moving from one impression to the next in the intended order, challenging the player to navigate very carefully over gangplanks or deduce the location of items necessary to progress. The most interesting segments are swipe-controlled contests with guardians that don’t take kindly to those who would tap into the dream:scape’s true potential.
There’s no Game Over in a dream:scape. Whether the player falls from great height or gets mauled by a guard dog he or she can always try again, and failed struggles with dream guardians appear to grow easier with successive attempts. All in all this lends Dream:scape great accessibility to casual adventure and puzzle fans even if it doesn’t serve up much in the gameplay department that will impress action buffs. Provided you’re in the mood for a haunting story regardless of gameplay preference, however, don’t sweat it: the game’s overall disturbing tone works so well at heaping psychological stress on the player that any amount of zombies would be overkill, and campy overkill at that. This is definitely not one to pass off to the little’uns unless they’re able to handle The Exorcist or The Ring without breaking a sweat already. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
That Dream:scape brings below-average heft to the gameplay department left speedbump free to implement an uncluttered user interface: just two virtual joysticks for movement and changing view angle. The movement joystick does something interesting in popping up wherever the player’s left thumb lands on the touchscreen, which effectively eliminates any complaints I might have raised about the adequacy of its radius. On the other hand, having to tap and hold before moving will be something of an acquired instinct for most players if my experience is any indication; impatient movement attempts are mistaken for temporary view angle changes, which swipes at the touchscreen accomplish during normal gameplay. Swipe controls used in the guardian challenges felt a tad insensitive to me, particularly vertical swipes — an issue that’s happily mitigated by how easy these encounters become after several retries.
I write with little hesitation that Dream:scape is unparalleled in its creative use of aesthetic presentation. Every sight and sound seems as if it serves some purpose beyond mere window dressing, whether it be to enrich the story or provide important gameplay cues. As such, Dream:scape greatly rewards attention to detail. Vaguely midcentury-style billboard ads and a Laurel and Hardy marquee give us some idea as to what time period depicted events in Wilson’s life took place; if a church bell begins tolling at the end of the current impression it not only adds a morbid hint to what was just seen and heard, but also suggests to the player where he or she should check next. The voice work struck me as competently delivered but what’s really standout is the audio post-processing, which leaves ghostly whispers lingering in the player’s earbuds to wonderfully disturbing effect. Isaias Garcia’s piano score matches the rest of the package in terms of richness but it’s held in reserve for the most high-impact sequences. On the downside, Dream:scape places enough stress on my 4th-gen iPod Touch to induce frame rate choppiness every once in a while, but this happened rarely enough that my awareness of this issue waned as I became further drawn into its narrative.
Dream:scape’s artistic audacity will surely garner an impressive cult following, but it does limit its potential audience in one completely objective way. This is one of the few story-rich games in which spoken dialogue plays unaccompanied by captions, so the hearing impaired will find it far less accessible than average, especially given how important its sound clips are to the player’s progress. Provided the player doesn’t spend an obscene amount of time finding where its storyline thread begins, Dream:scape can be counted on for two to three hours’ worth of spine-tingling surreal entertainment.
iFanzine Verdict: Interactive digital art at its finest! Dream:scape scores major points for its superbly delivered story and palpable atmosphere, although it doesn’t offer much to those for whom gameplay depth or open-endedness are strong pre-requisites. While its user interface could use a bit more brushing up in future updates, the game already does a fair job of mitigating its weakness in this area as things currently stand.