Dream Alone is one of the darkest games I have played. It’s not because of its chilling storyline, creepy atmosphere or horrifying imagery. Rather, the game display is literally so dark that it’s sometimes hard to see the screen. When factoring in obscured death traps and poor level design, the issues turn this dream into a nightmare.
Inspired by games like Limbo and Inside, Dream Alone is a puzzle platformer starring a young boy whose town has been afflicted by a mysterious sickness putting one person after another into a coma. He embarks on a treacherous journey to locate a sorceress named Lady Death and hopefully find a cure. The story sets up the tone well, as does the game's artstyle, reminiscent of Tim Burton and Grimm’s fairy tales. The grotesque designs and imagery evoke fear, a strong-voiced narrator details the plight well, and the somber music effectively creates an eerie foreboding. That last part is important because much of the game isn’t about the horror of what you see but dread of what’s coming next.
While the dark tone sets up an intriguing story, it seeps into the gameplay in all the wrong ways. Between the heavily dimmed monochrome display and distracting grainy filter, it was very difficult to see what was happening, even with the TV's or Nintendo Switch’s brightness turned all the way up. Worse, at times, the screen flashes and dims entirely to replicate old film clips. As you might imagine, this hinders platforming. The early levels are already hard enough to navigate, but later areas have the nerve to make the entire screen pitch-black. You’re supposed to counter this with a light power-up, which out of all things, is a limited resource. If you run out of light energy, you may have to stumble around in near-total darkness, avoiding obstacles you can barely see. Often, the only way I could tell something happened was when blood splashed on the screen to signify death. As a side note, you can turn off the blood, but then the character’s death scenes aren’t impressive to watch.
I could deal with the darkness if that was the only problem, but the poorly executed level design hurts the game just as much, if not more. Dream Alone tends to obscure upcoming threats, all of which kill you in one hit. For instance, trees in the foreground may block your vision, hiding any enemies or traps. Or perhaps enemies will suddenly drop from the sky unannounced with no time to react. Expect to make leaps of faith, too. Worst case scenario, you’ll land onto cruelly placed spikes that you couldn’t have expected. Not to mention the occasional glitch where you may randomly fall through the floor due to some weird collision detection. There’s an unsettling amount of cheap deaths and trial and error that reminds me too much of some bad user-created levels in Super Mario Maker. Thankfully, there's no life system, and you return to a checkpoint following a loss. However, deaths still feel unfair and demoralizing.
The platforming is otherwise an average gauntlet of trials strung together, made frustrating by the character’s clunky controls. He has a set walking speed and makes floaty jumps. This is usually acceptable in the puzzle platformer genre, but Dream Alone features the kind of situations found in hard NES games: precisely dodging swinging axes, timing movement against conveyer belts and deadly sawblades, and jumping across wide chasms from one edge to another. It’s an obstacle course designed for a more agile hero, but we’re stuck with the main character’s stiff movements.
Puzzles don’t fare any better. Many of them revolve around the main character’s special powers, which include warping to an alternative version of the stage and making a clone of your character. These are neat concepts, particularly entering an alternate reality that reveals hidden platforms and colors the level with a reddish tint. However, your powers are limited by potions you collect; you can only remain in the other world for as long as your small, quickly depleting energy meter lasts. Luckily, the game gives you potions right before you need them to proceed. Herein lies the issue too: the potions usually make it obvious when you need to use this power. Likewise, if you see a lever that just won’t stay pushed, you most likely have to create a clone. In a game where surprises are around every corner, it’s ironic that the puzzle elements are the most predictable. Then again, there are some areas where you’ll press a lever and have no idea what was activated or changed.
Dream Alone makes a valiant effort to live up to its inspirations, Limbo and Inside. However, it falls short of creating an immersive world that would cleverly combine fun platforming and crafty puzzles. What’s left are awkward, frustrating platforming and forced puzzles. Combined with an overly dark display and cheap level design, this is a tough recommendation for even the biggest dreamers.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!