Depending on your point of view, this is either one of the worst games ever made or a stone-cold classic. Don’t get me wrong, in terms of aesthetics, controls, mechanics, level design, and the attempt to tell a story, Dream Alone is an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, if it’s trying to satirise the generic indie platformer, it absolutely nails it.
I was chuckling from the very beginning. A voiceover (which is regularly mismatched with the subtitles), reads a storybook opening while a cutscene plays out with soulless characters that seem to have been pulled from the uncanny valley of the worst PS2-era pre-rendered boxart.
It’s a story about a little boy, but there’s lots of death and everything’s super dark. It has a creepy visual style and lots of blood. Isn’t that edgy and interesting? That’s the sort of juxtaposition and bravery that wins GOTY awards and no mistake.
Soon enough, we’re into the gameplay. While still laughably bad, actually playing Dream Alone is just as liable to make you cry. Grey and black visuals, splashed occasionally with outrageous bloodstains, are fed through an infuriating filter of rain effects, old-timey film projection and a headache-inducing flicker.
This is a side-scrolling platformer that’s as by-the-books as they come. Fight through controls that feel like walking in treacle, jump in a way which is somehow heavy and floaty at the same time, and solve simple block pushing puzzles. Excellently, I jumped over the first block I needed to push but couldn’t return, so I had to restart the game.
Levels are littered with the usual hazards; pits of spikes, swinging blades and enemies who never seem to come from the same art style as anybody else. Sometimes a gaggle of spiders, any of whom can kill you with one touch, will drop unexpectedly from the ceiling then mill around disappearing behind trees and rocks in the foreground.
The “twist” to the gameplay is a power to swap between two dimensions. Sometimes a block will exist in one and not the other. Sometimes a ramp will exist in one and not the other. Sometimes a hazard will exist in one and not the other. If you’re seeing a pattern, that’s pretty much the game.
Switching into this parallel dimension adds a red hue to the screen and fills the backgrounds and foregrounds with hilariously laboured dark imagery. Bodies on spikes, skulls and gravestones, and cartoonish ghosts that float with no menace of any kind in the middle distance.
Other special abilities are unlocked as the game progresses, each as unimaginative as the last. Coupled with the awkward tonality and the clashing assets from multiple artstyles, this reeks of a game with no sense of its own identity.
At times, level designs are just generically bad. Hazards can be difficult to distinguish from background elements, timings can be awkwardly precise and the checkpointing makes players repeat long, tedious jumping puzzles just to make another attempt at a swinging axe.
At other times, though, the sheer inanity of the levels is genuinely hilarious. After climbing up a ledge, a couple of boulders will fall down and roll towards me. First, I try jumping over them but they’re too big. Second, I try swapping to another realm, but they’re in there too. I think I might be able to run back and hide under the ledge, but the run is just a little too long and the boulders catch up with me and smash me to bits.
Eventually, I perfect the technique. I walk exactly as far forwards as required to trigger the boulders, not a pixel further, then run back and hide under the ledge. There’s no chance in hell anybody could have pulled this off without the trial and error of several deaths, but it works. I hop back up and am instantly killed by a third boulder.
The comic timing of this final boulder barrelling down and finishing me off was absolutely impeccable. I had already been joking that the confused tone, dull visuals and generic gameplay were a parody of this kind of game but that moment cemented Dream Alone as a genuine comic masterpiece. It made me seriously wonder whether the developers were in on the joke.
At the end of the day, I can’t recommend anybody spend the £8.99 asking price for this game in good conscience. The Switch already has access to Limbo, Inside, Celeste and Shovel Knight in the realm of emotional and interesting indie platformers. Also, as I understand it, in most city centres you can pay someone around a tenner to kick you in the genitals. That would probably be more fun as well.
That said, I can see this game making for some very entertaining Twitch streams, or perhaps a fun afternoon sat with friends on a sofa laughing at an absolute joke of a game.
By Luke Summerhayes