At this year's E3 2021, I had a chance to sit down with the latest build of the action roguelite, Dreamscaper. After spending north of an hour with the demo, I couldn't help but want to play more but not for the obvious reasons like the core combat or the satisfying feedback loop. I was playing more to enjoy the moody atmosphere.
My experience with Dreamscaper started out no different from other roguelites. You play as Cassidy, a young woman dealing with fits of depression after leaving her childhood home and moving into the city. But she's also a highly creative and imaginative sort, so every single time she goes to sleep she ends up fighting monsters and demons set in her memories of her old life. Also she's equipped with exotic and fantastic weapons because dream logic.
Overall, it played like a more surreal take on a hack-and-slasher. The melee combat had some satisfying punch to it but some of the bigger or more technical weapons like the yo-yos or the scythe felt a little slow and stodgy. On the other hand, the ranged combat, parry block, and dodge roll all felt responsive and satisfying thanks to quick animation cancels and great audiovisual feedback. It's all very familiar and executed well enough, even if the combat can feel too reliant on juggling combos.
It was nice to see Afterburner Studios really lean into the freedom that comes with their gameplay happening inside a dreamscape. Guns, swords, bombs, and magic spells are practically a given, but weaponizing water balloons, giant saute pans, and erupting waves of rocks brings just enough novelty to each run.
But those who have played Dreamscaper while it's been on Early Access could have mentioned this easily. The E3 demo on the other hand teased me with brand new roguelite elements. There is a persistent upgrade system now that runs on a new currency called Resolve. Using this, Cassidy can either get permanent ongoing buffs while meditating or craft special gifts. This ties into a social connection mechanic where Cassidy can visit different locations in the city between runs and talk with certain characters. Doing this lets you get to know them better, even getting clues to their hobbies and passions such as “likes to skydive” or “studies anthropology.”
This is where the gifts come in. If you can offer a character something that relates to their interests, you get a cutscene of Cassidy and the character having a discussion, handled mostly with text boxes but conveys a lot of character nonetheless, and access to a certain ongoing buff you can apply in your next run. These buffs will improve if you continue to invest in that relationship. I was honestly impressed with the system, mostly because a bit more thought went into the gifts and it isn't immediately obvious what character will like what gift.
It isn't exactly a new idea in roguelites, but it helps add to the low-key energy that Dreamscaper is going for. It's more about selling an emotional state of coping with change and navigating unknown spaces, the central core loop being more allegorical to anxiety or spiritual aimlessness than existential horror or righteous indignation. In this regard, the game has a lot more in common with Life is Strange than any other entries in the genre, which helps it stand out.
If there was an element that I think could use a few tweaks it would be the difficulty slider. Much like Hades' heat system, you can adjust the difficulty of your next run in several distinct ways. You can fight more advanced enemies immediately, make them deal more damage, add more complex room layouts, or even make bosses tougher. The system itself isn't badly implemented at all, it's just that I felt more compelled to enjoy other elements of the demo. Part of this is my limited time with this build, it was difficult to see why I would want to make runs harder without the context of endgame challenges, but also because I wanted to see more character dialogue and get to know the supporting cast more.
Dreamscaper takes a lot of its cues from the rest of its peers, but its biggest appeal comes from its own distinct trappings. A melancholic musical score, a highly expressive and minimalist pastel color palette, and a dedication to mood and feel shouldn't really fit such an action-centric genre, but the developers seem to be threading that needle so far.
TechRaptor previewed Dreamscaper on PC. It will also release on Nintendo Switch.