Dreamscaper puts a psychological twist on 2020's biggest video game genre
The dungeon crawler grows up.
With a broadsword in one hand and a Super Soaker in the other, you’ll conquer your nightmares in Dreamscaper. This upcoming dungeon-crawler combines gameplay elements of Hades with direct riffs on mechanics from Dead Cells. Rather than trying to escape hell, you explore your subconscious while dreaming to confront your trauma.
It’s a holistic approach to self-empowerment rooted in psychology and the power of positive thinking. “DREAM. DIE. WAKE. REPEAT.” may be a logline that evokes the sci-fi violence from Edge of Tomorrow, but Dreamscaper focuses on protagonist Cassidy’s sense of personal fulfillment in equal measure. How do her most negative emotions manifest in her nightmares? What lessons and connections made in her waking life can help to conquer them?
At a media preview event, we found Dreamscaper’s core gameplay loop to be a methodical dungeon crawl, buoyed by a staggering variety of weapons and magic that synergize in dreamy ways. An emphasis on personal wellness in your waking life provides a meaningful form of gamified progression that feels revelatory. In some ways, playing and beating Dreamscaper is going to feel like going to therapy.
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Cassidy moves from her small hometown to the city of Redhaven looking to escape her inner demons, but they manifest quite literally in her dreams. Every time she goes to sleep, she’s plunged into surreal supernatural nightmares: procedurally generated dungeons full of monsters, traps, and puzzles. Along the way, she discovers “Ideas” similar to Blueprints in Dead Cells that unlock new abilities or items when she sketches them in her notepad.
But establishing friendships at the library, park, or local bar during the day also unlocks new items for Cassidy’s nighttime arsenal. It’ll also unlock memories that expand the dreamscape. The execution also bears a striking resemblance to the Persona franchise.
“It’s a platonic dating sim where you become kindred spirits over time,” developer Ian Cofino jokes to Inverse.
Progressing all the way through your dreams is the ultimate goal, but you’ll have to put down roots in Redhaven to do so. Bettering oneself oftentimes means joining a community — a lesson that Dreamscaper slyly hides behind its visceral combat filled with a staggering amount of variety.
“A lot of it goes back to the normalization of mental health issues, or even just having a down day,” Cofino says. “How do you deal with that? How do you develop the tools to better your life?”
Personal betterment translates to meaningful progression in every area of Dreamscaper. Sometimes that’ll be a straightforward fireball spell you’d find in any game with magic. Here, it might mean goofy boxing gloves or a giant frying pan that bops enemies on the head. Developer Robert Taylor is a huge Earthbound fan, and it’s easy to see that influence when Cassidy can wield a yo-yo and baseball bat in battle alongside magic called “Lucid Powers.”
There are more than 200 unlockable and equippable items that dip into elemental modifiers that interact. Douse an enemy with an oil effect before hitting them with a fireball for an explosive result. Hit them with water instead before following that up with ice for an extra frigid effect.
“Sometimes storytelling can be at odds with the action role-playing nature of a game,” Cofino says. “For us personally, following the story of this young woman dealing with trauma in her past resonated with us.”
Dreamscaper’s faceless character models have a disarming beauty in their surreal simplicity. And there’s something very personal, and therefore relatable, at play in Dreamscaper. It’s a story that’s uniquely matched to the Roguelike genre of procedurally generated dungeons and permadeath. Everything is random. The stakes are super-high. That inherently gamifies a struggle to establish order amidst unpredictable chaos and allows every choice to have a meaningful consequence.
Yet if we pay attention closely to how Cassidy’s journey reflects our own subconscious, maybe we’ll emerge even more powerful in our own lives as well?
Dreamscaper will be released on Nintendo Switch and PC on August 12, 2021.