The role of the amnesiac protagonist is not an uncommon one in the medium of games, though it’s rare to play as a man on the brink of death.
In dream:scape, the lead character Wilson begins the game in a coma, but before he completely passes away his mind drifts off to the titular realm, where he attempts to piece together the mystery behind a life-shaping event of his youth.
This is accomplished by exploring a small village from a first-person perspective, picking up clues and locating items to pass the obstacles blocking your access to certain areas. You move around with a pair of virtual thumbsticks, though you can also move the camera by swiping across the touchscreen.
Pieces of sleep
You make progress by collecting a series of memories, which are accompanied by spoken dialogue and diary entries, as Wilson gradually builds up this fragmented picture of his past. Though the story itself is reasonably familiar, it’s quite skilfully told, and it’s helped by the atmosphere of the dreamscape itself.
Playing dream:scape without a set of headphones does it a huge disservice, as sound is easily the game’s strongest element. Insects chirrup, birds twitter, wind whistles and - later - howls whenever the sky goes dark to signify a grim plot development.
Even the sound of your own footsteps is evocative, and the occasional aural flourish is all the more effective for its sparseness.
Graphically it’s no slouch either – making good use of the Unreal Engine 3 to provide a reasonably attractive slice of dilapidated Americana, with special mention to the gorgeous skyboxes. Some poor texture work undoes a little of the good work, however, and the frame-rate slows to a crawl on occasion, particularly towards the end of the game.
This perhaps wouldn’t be such a problem if dream:scape could compensate in other areas, but the truth is that it can be an absolute chore to play. You get visual hints to most of the items you need to progress, but one proved almost impossible to locate without consulting the walkthrough on the developer’s website.
Movement can be very sluggish in places, and with the left thumbstick apparently determined to reposition itself when you’re simply trying to explore, taking the precise steps that are occasionally asked of you can be a real test of patience. Two torturous sections ask you to navigate narrow beams to reach new items, with a single wrong step forcing you to climb all the way back up again.
Other inconsistencies grate – sometimes you’ll be able to collect an item before it’s needed and others it’ll remain out of reach until you’ve fulfilled another objective. Each fetch quest has seemingly been designed to send you on the long, slow trek from one side of the map to the other.
Meanwhile, the infrequent action sequences - which require rapid swipes across the screen - are flat-out awful, with unresponsive controls and zero feedback to show you where you’re going wrong.
One encounter near the end is so exacting I had to resort to a glitch reported online which allows you to bypass it.
Couple those annoyances with the flat voice acting and dream:scape’s potential has all but evaporated by the time the story has meandered to its conclusion.
Speedbump will hopefully learn from its mistakes, because there’s clear promise to this interactive story.