If it takes only two hours to finish a game, it needs to have some exceptional qualities to make up for a short running time. DreamBreak, a collaboration between Russian and Ukrainian developers, doesn’t even try to do anything outside of its face value. A simple 2D action adventure with chunky pixel art rehashing old ideas to hit the ever-popular retro vein. The problem is, so many others have done the same but only better.
Everyman Eugene, a low-ranking cleaner working for a seedy bar, starts his menial work as usual. Only this morning turns out be anything but usual. Tracing identity of a dead courier leads Eugene into a conspiracy against a tyrannical government in a post-cold war dystopia set in alternative Soviet Union. You can always wonder why on earth a municipally-subsidized nobody starts playing a secret agent for no apparent reason. The game doesn’t tell it and doesn’t bother telling anything else of substance in its skin-deep and sparse narrative soaked in age-old clichés.
DreamBreak looks and moves like Flashback, an action-platformer classic dating back to 1993. In fact, Eugene’s movement is ripped straight out of the game’s rotoscoped animations. I wonder if this level of shameless reproduction is even legal? Whenever the developers have filled in their own animations to Eugene’s actions, it looks clumsy and ill-fitting in comparison. As a game, DreamBreak resembles more Flashback’s predecessor Another World (some may know it as Out of This World), where the gameplay served a straightforward narrative. DreamBreak proceeds similarly a screen at a time, each presenting a hazard which needs to be overcome. All interactive elements are colored with orange so it’s pretty obvious to make out what needs to be done.
While Another World was classy (and still is, with 20th anniversary edition released a few years ago), DreamBreak suffers from a bad execution with gameplay and plot elements shoddily implemented into the context. There are some glimpses of good ideas but they all are suffocated by the developers' lack of effort to make more out of them. For its two hours running time, the game is poorly motivated and lackluster experience. In the end, it felt like nothing served any purpose, not the gameplay, not the story and not the outcome. The game is so simple and linear it can easily be completed in a one sitting. It kind of kills all the re-playability that all three endings can be seen by continuing from the last checkpoint and choosing a different approach to the final confrontation.
The only thing harrowing against the inevitable end are clunky controls, making some of the platforming needlessly painful. Eugene has an obsession to spin around to face the player whenever a direction or function is inputted or the character is stopped. It’s so damn frustrating, negating any flow of the action. And don’t even start with me about the shooting parts. They are stiff duels with characters facing off each other, flicking on and off their portable shields and popping shots in between. What's worse, every now and then the game shifts into minigames, like little shmups. They play and look so poor it feels like they are deliberate bad jokes at old games’ expense.
Or maybe I have got the game all wrong. Imagine Soviet Union in the dark 1980’s, home computers being a scarce luxury. Maybe, just maybe, DreamBreak is a pastiche of those old Commodore 64 games that were pirated to behind the iron curtain. Due to a language barrier and lack of manuals, such classic games as Impossible Mission and Project Firestart - another obvious inspirations behind DreamBreak - must have felt exotic but strange and clumsy. DreamBreak mimics those nostalgic sentiments with its awkward gameplay married to a thin narrative. Nah, that would be just a bad excuse. The transient Russo-retro experience isn’t enough to carry the game and the final verdict is that DreamBreak just isn’t very good.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.