Dreamscaper’s Hauntingly Beautiful Journey

Dreamscaper’s Hauntingly Beautiful Journey

Dreamscaper’s Hauntingly Beautiful Journey

Posted by Lawrence Rennie

5 Aug, 2021


So often the function of art is to capture a feeling or moment of life that we all recognize and share of our own experiences. In a year of collective anxiety, global grief, and prolonged isolation, the three-man team behind Afterburner Studios have wonderfully crafted an important reminder that what we all need most to carry on through the murk of life is each other. 

Dreamscaper is a roguelite for PC and Nintendo Switch that tells the tale of Cassidy (Cass), a small-town artist who’s struggling to adjust to life in the big city while shouldering the grief of a recent family death. The recent death of her sister and her growing sense of isolation exacerbated by the move to Redhaven has seen her mental health take a rapid downturn, and now each night she struggles through lucid nightmares that are increasingly reflective of her troubled mental state. To overcome the machinations of her personal grief Cass must therefore confront her (quite literal) demons each night in dreams that will take her across a nightmarish field of life memories, both idyllic and painful. Her journey becomes more challenging the closer she goes to confronting her immediate and deepest pain, and as her mental health becomes increasingly damaged she’ll have to learn to let in the support of those closest to pick her up again.

What follows is a game imbued with such presence and understanding of the anxieties of life that we all experience and (often) hide. Dreamscaper is a quietly beautiful albeit haunted journey that proves its exceptionality in nearly every aspect. 

Day and Night

As come to be expected of the roguelite genre Dreamscaper is split into two components, but in the first instance of proving just how locked in Afterburner are to their themes these two halves function neatly as a day and night split. 

The night-time phase of the game is the main roguelite proponent whereby Cassidy enters the dreamscape and has to battle her way through layer upon layer of “dungeons” of increasing difficulty. Every new instance of the dreamscape equips you with an initial new and random set of weapons and abilities, and also always starts you with zero resources or items. If you played the much-lauded Hades last year (a game which Afterburner has lovingly taken plenty of inspiration from) then you’ll be well versed in this mechanic. 

Your arsenal can be upgraded throughout each run or swapped out for the new abilities as you find or purchase them. This therefore means that every run should be entirely different. If you die at any point in the dreamscape then that death is permanent and your run ends completely as Cassidy once again wakes up from the nightmare. Should you go to sleep again you’ll find yourself back to the first level with base items and zero resources. 

Thankfully there are a couple of “Waking World” resources that Cassidy can accrue throughout the nightmare that can then be used when she is awake to aid her next time. 

This is where the second component of the game comes in—daytime. Cassidy is new to the city of Redhaven and still finding her feet. She’ll be spending her time exploring the city then and trying to meet new people in various bars, cafes, shops and parks. In each of these locations she also has various activities and hobbies that she likes to do; for example Cass enjoys meditating in the park allowing her to hone some of her skills, or at the café she’ll sketch out new ideas for weapons and abilities, or at the bar she’ll find herself lost in a daydream where she might be able to conjure up new additions to her nightmares for support. These activities are how you use Waking World resources in order to better help Cass in her dreams. 



These hotspots are excellent opportunities for Cass to talk to peers and make friends to stave off the doom of solitude. With her artistic nous she prefers to express herself through crafted gifts personalised for each friend. This is how Cassidy shows her appreciation to her new friends and deepens their connection, even if sometimes she struggles to chat and open up more personally. Deepening your connection with each person in Redhaven allows you to invoke their particular “influences” in the dreamscape which grants Cass a couple of stat boosts in each dream. 

While most of these mechanics resemble the likes of Hades what I love most is just how thematically integral each of them manages to be. The gift system correlates to Cass (and therefore you) trying to better understand each person she comes across and gift something that would be personally special to them. This not only shows Cassidy to be a deeply caring character, it also puts you in a position of thinking about each character more deeply as well. 

The reward too of each friendship level is a short story vignette where Cass interacts with her new friend. These cutscenes are wonderfully written and help get to the heart of the game and more thoroughly open up Cass’s story and mental state too. When last I spoke to Afterburner at E3 in our early preview the team were keen to reinforce that the game was to be a product of its own experiences and struggles in life. These short cut scenes from Paul Svoboda are clear evidence of this as each character presents their own life difficulties and how they have best overcome (or continue to overcome, at the very least) them. The writing is so brilliantly present to the thoughts and feelings many of us will have felt at some point in our lives; the anxieties many tend to hide and struggle with each day, the dreams and goals that life sometimes sweeps away in its rushing whirlwind, the headiness of city life and how one can so easily be swept up and lost in it. It is beautifully elegant writing that one will be able to find at least some part of themselves in somewhere. 

Impressive Scale Even In a Limited Budget

As much as these conversations are supposed to keep Cass pushing on so too will it incentivise you to keep pushing on through the challenge of the dreamscape where the difficulty of the game might otherwise lose you. Thankfully too the ability to add new items and rooms to the dreamscape is plenty incentive to hop back in as well. Dreamscaper boasts an impressive queue of weapons and abilities that keep the game highly expansive. Were it only to be the initial set of weapons and abilities available that might well be enough but with every sketch Cassidy brings even more variety to the game. Weapons range from as simple as unarmed fists to twirling yo-yo’s imbued with magical energy, or radiant daggers with element powers. Cass also has the ability to dodge, block with a shield, make ranged attacks, and use special “Lucid” abilities. Each of these components has a myriad of equipable varieties to try, meaning that you can thoroughly dig down into a bunch of ability sets that work exactly for you. Add on top of that stat affecting and powerful effect “keepsakes’ ‘ and you can build out an arsenal of weaponry that will be entirely unique every single time. 

Dreamscaper very clearly has limitations from its team size and budget in some respects (such as enemy placements, types, and the repetitiveness of much of the game’s procedural level design), but no complaints could ever be levied at its unique variety of weaponry and the length that its gameplay can extend to. With 20+ hours of play I have had fun with pretty much every run I had, trying out new equipment varieties while even now still feeling like I have barely scratched the surface of the possibilities available. 

Because of the arsenal available the gameplay remains impressive throughout. Every roguelite is going to live or die on an ability to sustain itself over multiple, repetitive runs and thankfully Dreamscaper more than manages that. Combat is very satisfying even if the variety of enemies is not quite there. The animations of Cass’s attacks are fluid enough to feel good while the challenge too can oscillate between having you feeling god-like to scraping through by the skin of your teeth. As you plunge further through the dream layers the difficulty ramps up hugely meaning the later levels will often have a level of tension (at least initially) that is genuinely thrilling. Importantly, Dreamscaper is difficult while never feeling unfair. Negligence in your combat can be immensely punishing, so make sure to keep focused always. 

The dreamscape is also nicely split up by some reward, puzzle, and challenge rooms too to grant a reprieve from the combat. With the puzzles either being a Minesweeper or a pipe logic game I was excited every time to find myself in one, and the reward is usually worth it too. They are procedurally generated while holding a strict rule base so the challenge is always unique. These quick quirks might mostly be helpful time savers to the Afterburner team brought on by limited resources, but thankfully they also work so incredibly well and overall make for a hugely enjoyable time even after 20+ hours of play. 

Cassidy’s Journey and the Strength of Dreamscaper’s Themes

What sticks most with Dreamscaper, and why it shall go down as such a special title, is the strength of its themes and how each of us might connect to Cassidy’s journey. Sometimes without words we can gather just how Cassidy’s feeling as her health deteriorates further with every layer of the dreamscape. Short 3-4 image still scenes between each level completion show Cassidy’s struggle, and as she comes ever closer to confronting the real pain of her sister’s death the mental toll of day-to-day life only becomes more difficult. This progress in your night runs will likely coincide quite neatly with how far your friendships are progressing too, meaning that a perfect eclipse occurs whereby Cassidy’s increased detachment from her friends starts to occur simultaneously to the later stages of the dreamscape. It is evident that the mental toll gets only harder on Cassidy the closer she comes to her sister’s death, and rather than lean into the support of her friends she at first begins to turn away, becoming more detached the closer she lets them in. By this point however they know her well enough to understand the issue and will endeavour to get back in close to Cassidy as she needs them to—after all what Afterburner wants to ultimately tell us but that we all need each other at the end of the day. Once again this is just exceptional writing that works to the perfect conjunction of the game’s design ,too.


The levels and bosses of each dream layer too also fits to the game’s theme of grief-stricken reclamation. Much like the enduring cycle of the roguelite formula Cassidy is undergoing her own cycle of grief that she fails at again and again. But every time she tries to face up to her personal demons once again, getting just that little bit better and taking them on each time. Each boss is a symbol of one of Cassidy’s anxieties and negative ailments to overcome—fear, isolation, regret, resentment, negativity, and finally loss. The levels themselves are also reflections of her own environments either at present or from the past, and the further she goes down the dream layers these environments return in increasingly twisted presentations. She dreams of these settings precisely because they are so integral to the memories that trouble her, or the anxieties she faces each day. By facing them each night she hoped to overcome what negative thoughts she still has of them. Only by accepting the support of her friends will she ultimately be able to manage so, however. 

This symbiosis of game design to theme is what makes Dreamscaper such a brilliant and novel experience overall. Ian Cofino, Robert Taylor, and Paul Svoboda—the three-man team of Afterburner Studios—have so clearly and wonderfully imbued the game with their own experiences, keeping the game’s theme feeling genuine and thoughtful throughout. This is a title that has plenty to say for each of us, and does so with a care and precision that doesn’t come around too often. While Dreamscaper may loom under the shadow of Hades that it owes so much to, one might hope that the unique specialness and loving message of this game will see it through. 

Final Score: 9/10


About Author

Lawrence Rennie

Lawrence is a Scottish-born writer with a love of games and films that he fortunately turned into a career grumbling about online. When not firing away the hours buried in a game or film he also co-writes 'Mechastopheles', an original comic series published by the UK’s leading comic magazine 2000AD as a naturally born-grumpy Scot; however, he asks that you don’t ask him too much about it though! Lawrence’s other musings include podcasts, fitness, his cat, and one day developing his own screenplay.

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