Every once and awhile, it’s good to give new apps outside the top 10 or even 20 iOS apps lists a chance. We gave an $1.99 iPad title called dream:scape that chance. Released June 9th, from Speedbump, the Unreal-powered title sits at #48 on the top paid iPad charts, is highlighted by Apple as “New and Noteworthy,” and has received many positive reviews.
Dream:scape leaves users with a great deal of expectation given so much praise, but quite frankly it is a game undeserving of it. While it has an interesting premise and strong presentation, its artistic storytelling is overshadowed by game-breaking usability and control issues. As such, the game quickly devolves into an interesting title that feels far from release-worthy.
Players take on the role of a character called Wilson. The catch is that Wilson is evidently brain dead and sits on the border between life and death. With no known family or loved ones, players are alone in a limbo-like realm called the dreamscape, with no memory of who they once were. In order to unlock Wilson’s past, users must resolve simple puzzle-like challenges to discovery the mysteries of his mind.
A first-person game, dream:scape is highly reminiscent of adventure games like Myst. Unlike other iPad games, however, (namely many titles from developer Big Fish Games), this title is powered by the Unreal Engine and is completely 3D. What is interesting is that the game is very fluid and natural in its progression. Upon starting, users receive a diary full of blank pages. Each page is sequential in Wilson’s memory, with the only clue of where to go next being a local’s name and a crudely drawn map.
It’s not terribly hard to figure out as players merely look at the title of a blank page and find it on the hand-drawn map. Upon arrival, players will be presented by a fully voice-acted series of dialogue (which is actually quite good) and some semblance of task they must perform in order to advance. Typically speaking, this task involves what role-playing players and developers might refer to as a “fetch quest,” which basically means that users must “find Object A to work on Item B.”
As part of the subtlety of the game, dream:scape is often vague in its dialogue, giving very slight clues as to where a needed item (e.g. a key) is located. Sometimes the dialogue directly mentions the general area where an item can be found. In other instances, players can find objects by walking up to something that is just slightly out of place. As an example, the very first “puzzle” involves finding a key for a cabin hidden nearby in a “secret place.” It is found in an oddly-shaped tree with a hollow trunk. The tree isn’t out of place, but its hollow just seems like a logical hiding place.
After every puzzle is completed, the words for that page of the diary reveal a bit more about Wilson and a mysterious childhood friend named Amelia. As a positive bit of praise for the game, it is all actually presented quite well. By reliving Wilson’s life through his own eyes, the game creates a strong sense of empathy and attachment for the character. Unfortunately, any sense of immersion is broken by a constant plague of bugs and control qualms.
Working from an ascending severity point-of-view, the first complaint comes from the controls. Dream:scape uses a virtual dual-stick control method meaning that a left digital analog stick controls movement, and a right digital analog stick controls looking. Unfortunately, the latter is quite sensitive. With no way to adjust it, the user is constantly looking into the ground or the sky as they try to steer. Moreover, the movement controls are limited to just the digital analog stick whilst the steering can also be controlled by touching anywhere on the iPad.
Since there is no tactile feedback for such a controller, players often have to look at the controls to make sure they are placing their thumb in the correct place; thus breaking the forth wall of immersion. Of course, this is an issue that derives itself from controls on the iPad in general (though most dual-stick games have a much larger area to steer with). However, the bugs are not so forgivable.
Artistically speaking, dream:scape has the potential to look phenomenal. As Infinity Blade has proven, an iOS game driven by Unreal can look great, yet dream:scape is littered with poor visuals. Terrain and many organic objects look blocky and unconvincing, and many more textures feel bland and lower resolution than they should be in a first-person game where the user can walk almost anywhere.
The issues grow worse. Players can actually find themselves stuck in the game not due to difficulty but lack of clarity and consistency. Very early in play, players will encounter a feisty dog that they must pass. In order to remove it, they need “table scraps.” In the previous diary entry, the dialogue tells players to climb up to the loft of a barn where sandwiches are prepared. Once the player does so, and leaves, the diary fills itself as normal, but then when they reach the dog, the game merely points, with an arrow, at nothing, leaving the user completely lost on what it’s instructing them to do! We thought it was a bug for doing things out of order, and actually restarted the game several times in order to get the sandwich item to reappear.
Also, every time the game starts, players must sit through the introductory cinematic sequence with no way of skipping it.
In the end, dream:scape is a very interesting concept with a story presented in a quality way that makes the main character both curious and identifiable. Sadly, the game is riddled with bugs and usability issues that make the experience disappointing. Its presence within the top 50 paid iPad apps is testament to the quality of the idea, in theory, but until some major updates are applied, the game is not worth the time.