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Dream Tactics Hides A Challenging Strategy RPG Behind Its Cuddly Aesthetics

Don’t sleep on this adorable RPG.

Originally Published: 
key art from Dream Tactics
Freedom Games
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The best tactics RPGs tend to be remembered for their gripping political stories as much as their strategic combat. A hero is caught between warring kingdoms in Final Fantasy Tactics. Classmates become bitter enemies fighting to rule in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. A trio of anime girls fight sentient pillows in Dream Tactics. Okay, that last one might sound out of place, but Dream Tactics’ excellent turn-based combat and sense of humor make it a must for tactics fans anyway.

Dream Tactics is set in a world of dreams, which is why its enemies are all cute, animated pillows wielding equipment like bows, swords, and wizard hats to denote their class. Just roll with it. The game’s hero, Neru, is a human girl sent to save the dream world, who’s spent so much time slacking off instead that the world is now on the brink of collapse.

Dream Tactics is packed with brilliant ideas and a charming sense of humor.

It’s not exactly a tale for the ages, but her quest to find the lost Dream Shards (which will let her save the world without too much practice) is full of enough quirky humor to make its threadbare story work. Dream Tactics’ jokey tone feels more in line with a random project I stumbled on than a blockbuster game — which is a good thing, since the former tend to actually be funny. So it seems both surprising and fitting that two of the three founders of its developer, Spectra Entertainment, are former AAA devs from Relic Entertainment and EA who left to start their own indie studio.

The more I play Dream Tactics, the more that background makes sense. It’s clearly a game made by people with plenty of design experience who want to make something a little less predictable and marketable than the typical blockbuster project. That comes across in its gorgeous pixel art (which Spectra calls “Game Boy Advance-styled”) and in its music, which is often far more epic than I’d expect from a game about fighting pillows.

Seriously, the soundtrack for a game about fighting pillows didn’t need to go this hard.

But the most impressive part of Dream Tactics is what matters most — its tactical combat. Dream Tactics uses a card-based combat system, with some interesting tweaks to cut down on the chance that you’ll be screwed over by a bad hand, which its developer explained in a 2022 blog post. Each character’s deck only has 15 cards, and five are drawn each turn, meaning you won’t have to wait multiple turns for the one card you need. Your hand of cards is also shuffled immediately back into the deck each round, so each one can come up more frequently.

Early on, the party consists of three characters, with room for one more once you start recruiting allies a few hours in. Each character has its own specialized mechanics that require different strategies. One starting character, the bunny-eared Luna, can collect carrots by using certain cards, which increase her critical hit chance and have additional effects like extending the range of attacks. As a mage, Neru can inflict a status effect that makes its target easier to hit, while other cards do more damage to afflicted enemies or even heal allies with debuffs of their own.

Dream Tactics’ cute exterior hides a tough, satisfying tactical challenge.

Freedom Games

Combos like Neru’s make combat about more than just dealing damage, and their real power appears when you start rebuilding your deck. Throughout the adventure, you can collect additional cards for each character’s hand, but they’re not limited to just one party member. Any character can add a limited number of cards from an ally’s deck into their own, which allows unlimited flexibility in how you customize your party, whether it’s turning your tank into a nigh-invincible self-healer or building the whole team around enabling specific combos.

And you’ll want to make your party as powerful as you can, since even though you’re fighting pillows, combat is no joke in Dream Tactics. It’s possible to wipe the floor with your enemies if you plan correctly, but make one wrong move and your whole party can get whomped in a single turn. Dream Tactics has no qualms about sending a dozen strong enemies after your party of four, so it’s always a battle of wits to survive.

Dream Tactics isn’t your typical strategy RPG, and that’s a point in its favor. Behind its cutesy graphics and light-hearted tone hides a deviously difficult combat system that rewards smart character-building and clever tactical plays. Whether you vibe with its whimsical aesthetics or not, its thoughtful twists on tactical RPG tradition make it a gem even in a crowded genre.

Dream Tactics is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.

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