What is it about the Japanese culture that makes its horror and psychological thrillers so unsettling? Is it the oppressive atmosphere that builds suspense over agonizingly long periods of time? Is it the culture’s inherent spirituality, of stories about various spirits and oni affecting people? I can’t say without any air of authority, I just know that the horror films I’ve seen and the manga I’ve read are forever burned into my brain (some I wish would go away!). Which brings us to Yume Nikki Dream Diary from Kadokawa Corporatio, a remake of the cult classic Yume Nikki, which was programmed in RPG Maker by Kikiyama in 2004. This new edition promises a bold revision of a game that, according to my research, developed a huge cult following because of its twisted and utterly mystifying tone. Having not played the original, I came into Dream Diary pretty cold and unaware of its significance. Still, you don’t have to be an aficionado to see that Yume Nikki is an unsettling, and sometimes uneven, adventure game.
Little is known about the game’s main character. Named Madotsuki, this lanky young woman is a recluse (in Japanese, the term is hikikomori), stuck in her room with an unknown fear of the outside world. Her small living space is comprised of a quaint TV and video game system, a desk, a kotatsu, a bed, and access to an outdoor balcony. There’s very little to do in this space while Madotsuki is awake. She can play old-school video games on a console that strongly resembles a Super Famicom, or flip through a diary on her desk that displays concept art from the game. If you try to have the young woman leave the room, she stops cold and shakes her head ruefully. The only way out is by leading her to bed so that she may enter a strange dream world, a hub space comprised of six doors leading to six very different dreamscapes.
Yume Nikki Dream Diary is largely about exploring these six dreams, to find joy and interest by walking around and seeing what these unique places have to offer. With no spoken dialog or on-screen text, there’s nothing and no one to tell you where you can or can’t go - you’ll have to wander around and figure things out for yourself. This lends the game a Metroidvania feel because no dream is expressly linear. Some are large open worlds while others resemble side-scrolling platformers. At some point, you’ll run into some sort of roadblock that prevents you from completing a dream, forcing you to warp into another dream or wake Madotsuki up and take her back to the main dream hub. Access to deeper parts of a dream is accomplished by collecting various items needed to bypass path blocking monsters and “effects,” which are common objects (such as a knife, flute, or umbrella) that has special interactive properties. All this is in service of helping Madotsuki collect strange looking eggs that will help her dive deeper into the dream and uncover its meaning.
The dreamscapes Madotsuki visits are crafted to be strange and unusual. Most locations resemble real-world places, like a forest, an indoor mall, and an unsuspecting fishing wharf. Other dreams are not so familiar but I found those that resembled real-world locations far scarier. The mall, for example, is home to rolling eyeballs of different sizes that give chase, hurting our heroine by launching themselves at her. Deeper into the dream, you’ll encounter a humanoid beast who uses its extremely large hands to reach out and grab Madotsuki should she get too close.
Most dreams are not as harried and action-oriented. One of the later sections at the Docks involves avoiding the light coming from a lighthouse in a sequence that’s far too reminiscent of Playdead’s Inside. The Pink Sea dream eschews combat for a dramatic, island hopping journey towards a central structure. With its different gameplay styles, Yume Nikki Dream Diary has a tendency to feel a little uneven at times as you bounce from one dream style to another. The platforming levels, boss chases, and enemy encounters were my least favorite to play because simply put, they just weren’t fun. I’d rather have the chance to explore the strange place the game has to offer without having to get through a shoehorned enemy encounter.
Yume Nikki Dream Diary trades on Japanese flavored horror to tell a story about a young girl’s experiences with dreams that seem far too real. This is a game you’ll want to keep a notepad handy to make notes to keep track of warp locations and puzzle elements. It sports some genuinely creepy moments that are mostly delivered by the game’s bestiary of terrifying monsters and twisted landscapes. The jury is still out on whether or not Dream Diary exists as a faithful remake/adaptation of the original Yume Nikki, although research has led me to believe that it wasn’t well received by the community. So if you’re a fan of the original game, you might want to temper your expectations. For the rest of us, Kadokawa’s remake is a spooky adventure game that doesn’t break new ground but will take you to some strange and exotic places.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.