Last year Supergiant’s Hades set a huge precedent for the ever-expanding roguelite genre. But with Dreamscaper taking its inspiration from the 3-man team of Afterburner Studios’ favourite gaming titles, pieces of art and literature, and their own experiences in the game’s industry and the anxiety of life at large, this new indie-kid on the block might just have something truly special on their hands to rival even the godly hell-fighter.
Releasing in August 2021 on Switch and PC, Dreamscaper has been one of my revelations from E3, and I was delighted to be able to sit with Ian Cofino of Afterburner Studios to talk more about the game and its close personal connection to both his and his co-founders Robert Taylor and Paul Svoboda’s experiences.
Beginning development in 2018, Dreamscaper was borne out of the trio’s exhaustion with their experiences in traditional game development. They wanted to build something that was pulled closely from them; something to call their own that could help detail and explicate some of the anxieties and hardships of both their experiences and ones they figure might be common to many of us. Through Dreamscaper their hope was to be able to readily confront the commonalities of depression and mental health that many struggle with. And the result is nothing short of being stylistically beautiful and fundamentally brilliant.
Plundering the Dreamscape
Dreamscaper brings you into the life of Cassidy, a young artist who has only recently moved away from her small-town home to pursue her career ambitions in the big city. This transitional period, as we might all recognise, is not without its anxieties however as Cassidy struggles through the emotional turmoil of leaving home and finding herself now more alone than ever.
As a budding dreamer these anxieties then play out in the worst ways through Cassidy’s own nightly dreams – or, more accurately, nightmares. In the most Campbellian and Freudian mythos theories possible, Cassidy’s own fears come back to haunt her in the nightmare realm as monsters and enemies all hell-bent on overwhelming her. Dreamscaper plays out through 6 dream realms/levels, each reflecting a new stage to Cassidy’s spiralling mental health and personal anxieties surrounding her day-to-day life.
For example, the first level takes Cassidy back to a version of her old hometown that she misses so. Her exit from it to the city at the end of the dream is blocked off by a Leviathan (the first boss of the game) lurking underneath an iced over lake, reflecting that of her feeling of leaving the small pond and having a monstrous, drowning anxiety simmering just beneath the surface of her emotional state, ready to break out and drag her underneath at a moment’s notice.
As Ian explained to me, every one of the bosses and the levels they inhabit is exactly intended to formulate some aspect of Cassidy’s current personality and mental state. Working backwards too from there, the regular enemies of each level stem from whatever that boss/surrogate-feeling is. As with any roguelite too, it is unlikely that you are going to be able to defeat these bosses first time, just as perhaps we might struggle to overcome our own stumbling blocks at the first time of asking in real life also.
This synchronicity between game mechanic and narrative intention was a huge part of the process for the guys at Afterburner Studios. The roguelite genre was a huge draw to them as one of their favourites to play, as well as being viable for the size of their studio capabilities and budget. But along the way they also found that it was a suited genre too for the type of story that they wanted to tell – being that it is founded on an endless cycle of struggle, defeat, and eventual gratification in overcoming.
Day and Night
Dreamscaper, like many roguelites, exists in two halves. You have your combat area, making up the main thrust of the game’s action. For Dreamscaper this is the “Night” – the dreamscape. The other half is the “Day”, wherein you get to relax for a moment and perhaps upgrade Cassidy’s abilities, or work on her relationships to her peers. As a typical roguelite mechanic this split is nothing new, but the stylistics of the Day and Night split works neatly into Dreamscaper’s overall aesthetic in a way I found far more interesting than many others of its genre.
The waking world and all that you can do there ties in nicely to showing us more of the kind of person that Cassidy is, revealing more of her own current thought as you move through it. For example, much like Hadesthere are other characters to interact with and gain little snippets of story from. However, what is entirely unique and brilliant about the way in which Afterburner Studios have chosen to explore these relationships is that every item used to unlock more bonding opportunities is entirely unique and suggestive of Cassidy’s own care for the other character.
Cassidy herself is an artist, and one of the ways she expresses herself best is through personalised pieces of art to her friends. You’ll need to speak first to her peers to learn their likes, then if possible find a way to craft an item that speaks to their own sensibilities. It’s a simple mechanic that evidently leaps from the same path’s that previous roguelites have already tread, but it adds a lovely texturing to the game and world that Afterburner Studios have built. Character bonding also earns you short little animated vignettes complete with a wonderful art style from designer Paul Svoboda.
Continuing the self-help theme, Cassidy will meditate at the park too in order to ease her anxieties. In game speak this allows you to upgrade her own abilities. “Daydreaming” in the hub world also allows Cassidy to add more to her later nightmares to aid her quest – additional helpful areas and items in the dream world are unlocked through this. These are all mechanics that you have no doubt seen from other roguelites, but Afterburner Studios have added their own style and personalised aesthetic to them that really helps to build toward the full picture of what they are attempting to do with this deeply personal game.
Art and Craft
The last thing I have to gush about for Dreamscaper is its design and wonderful art style.
Like many roguelites the level are procedurally generated with a general set of specifically crafted room types and rules that they have to follow. These rooms might range from combat zones to puzzle areas or reward rooms. The puzzles are a nice addition to the game, helping to break up some of the fights with fresh brain teasers. And these puzzles themselves can range from fairly straightforward to pretty tough depending on the type of hand procedural generation has dealt you. The example Ian showed me was a simple puzzle based off of minesweeper, but its solution is always going to be random.
You’re also going to be dealt a different loadout each time you enter the dream world, although there are ways to favour or alter to specific loadouts. The weapons you receive are also a fun mix of fantastical to more grounded items – one might be a flaming sword with magical properties while another may just be Cassidy’s favourite yo-yo which she swings around with deadly swiftness. Together with the large range of items, “Lucid abilities”, and upgrades you can receive too there is plenty to mix up the game every time you play. As a roguelite you’re going to be making runs again and again and again, so keeping a freshness to the combat and feel of the action every time is vital for Afterburner Studios.
There are also means to increase the difficulties and challenge of playthrough as well. Much like Hades “heat” system you can add modifiers for “Dream Intensity” to keep the game ticking over for a while. As Ian explained, even once the story is ostensibly finished there will still be plenty for players to discover with continued play. You may very well be at this one for a while.
Now to the art – an area where I feel this game really wins out. Ian was quick to praise the wonderful mind of his co-worker Paul Svoboda on this front. Paul put his favourite pieces of artistic inspirations to craft a world that feels every bit a haunted dreamscape, complete with nightmarish looking enemies and environments that do well to both detail Cassidy’s own reflective feelings and tell her story too. Environmental storytelling was extremely important to the team as they went into designing their dreamscape.
Like something out of a Neil Gaiman story too, every character is faceless and doll-like, which though is partially as a limitation of the studios budget also adds to the dream-like, anxious aesthetic. Dale North also comes in too from composing a favourite of Afterburner’s, Wizard of Legend, to add a brilliant soundtrack to Dreamscaper that captures the atmosphere of the world excellently.
A Gem of E3
Dreamscaper may well be my winning hidden gem of E3. For those who adored Hades (which was more or less the entire games industry) Dreamscaper is going to be a title for you. It combines the fun roguelite action of a Hades with a wonderful artistic style and a thoughtful story that many will find solace in.
With its release on both Switch and PC too there is no doubt that this can replace the Hades “1-more-run” position in your game’s library. It’s easy to pick up and go, and before you know it you’ll be lost in the spiral of Cassidy’s dreamscape in no time.
Coming from three years in development with one year too in early access, Dreamscaper makes its full release on August 12th for both PC and Nintendo Switch.