Every month, countless retro-inspired indie games are released to the public, many deliberately looking like they came out of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Their goal is to appeal to the nostalgia of gamers everywhere while still being able to create an amazing experience that’s just as good by today’s standards. And with so many different types of games from those eras to work with, the smart option is to craft an ode to an underappreciated niche from back then, in order to eventually build upon it and make something that feels unique. This is where Dreambreak comes in, as an ode to 2D graphic adventure games that utilized occasional platforming, with a Soviet twist. Does it actually succeed in its throwback, though, or bring out the worst of past gaming instead?
Dreambreak is the story of Eugene, a bartender in a post-Cold War, alt-universe USSR. When tragedy occurs where he works, he finds himself being drawn into a plot to take down the authoritarian state causing misery throughout the land, eventually ending up delving into espionage and gunfights in a battle to uncover the truth and hopefully make things better for everyone.
Although taking the form of a graphic adventure game, Dreambreak seems to aspire to feel more like games such as Another World or Flashback, with its 2D side-scolling twist, action sequences, and artistic flair. the graphics are indeed a highlight, with detailed backgrounds and a wide variety of color coating every area of a futuristic Russia. The soundtrack is also amazing as well, with several fine electronic tunes gracing each area, helping to set the mood. It’s a good sign when one of the game’s rewards is a set of songs that you can discover in certain areas and collect. Indeed, this is a game that definitely captures the look of the classic 16-bit adventures it means to honor quite well. This, of course, makes it a shame that Dreambreak fails in pretty much every other area.
To begin with, Dreambreak may be a point-and-click adventure game, but it oddly eschews the ability to actually click on any part of the actual scenery in favor of having a grid-like setup laid out over each screen. Scroll over an area, and a white rectangular square highlights that particular section of the screen. But you can’t just click on any area and then just have Eugene move there, as that would make sense. So instead you have to select an area on the same level as him and click in order to move. You can also have him jump by highlighting a section just above and to the right or left of where he is, or climb up a ledge by having him stand in an area adjacent to it, then clicking the space above to grab the ledge, then clicking again to actually climb it.
It all just feels incredibly awkward to manage with point-and-click controls (even scrolling the screen to look ahead feels iffy), and blatantly feels like it should have used a keyboard or controller setup instead. But the awkwardness doesn’t stop there, as we still have combat to get to. When engaging in a gunfight (where you and your opponent just stand in place and take turns shooting each other), you have to click in front of your character to fire, and click behind them to deploy a shield at the right time. When piloting a ship during a shoot-’em-up, it stays in place while you click on an enemy to fire at them and click on the ship to deploy a shield as well (but only if you click it in the exact right area of the ship). It legitimately feels like whenever Dreambreak has the opportunity to use traditional controls, it opts for a more convoluted solution. This is even highlighted in the game itself, where an arcade game simulating gunfights has a more sensible method of using left-click to fire and right-click to raise a shield.
You may have noticed the shoot-’em-up part mentioned there. Dreambreak also describes itself as “a quirky mix of clashing gameplay genres” but implements them rather poorly. Things suddenly switch between a game of Space Invaders, an endless runner, a hacking mini-game, a shoot-’em-up, and four different instances of Pipe Dream whenever the game feels like it, as if it’s actually ashamed to be an adventure game at times. And honestly, it kind of should be, as the various puzzles you come across are pitiful (not that the previous games were nay better, rarely making sense and ending up as tedious and repetitive).
All of the interactive areas are highlighted in orange, which sounds interesting and easy to navigate at first, but the game’s spectacular linearity means that all challenge is stripped away. Instead, it prefers to escort you from orange object to orange object, such as areas where you stumble along the master key you need for a hotel in the very first room you access afterwards, in a random open locker. The only time difficulty ever comes into play is when dealing with the previously-mentioned controls. heck, it says a lot that the Pipe Dream puzzles begin and end the game, with practically zero change in the challenge level.
Perhaps things could have at least been slightly salvaged if the story were any good, but not only does it run into a cliche storm of an ordinary man getting caught up with a band of plucky rebels to help take down an evil authoritarian government, it only lasts a mere ninety minutes. Not that you can’t tell a good story in a short amount of time, as we’ve seen several examples of that before, but world-building was clearly not high on Dreambreak’s list of priorities. The tyranny of the people behind this Soviet world has a “take our word for it” approach in mind, since we barely ever see what exactly is completely wrong with things other than the city being worn down and drones being built.
Eugene is a complete non-entity as a playable character, with zero personality (and as an aside, all of his dialogue is annoyingly in quotes unlike the other characters, for absolutely no reason). Heck, he doesn’t even have a motivation for getting caught up in all of this. A patron at the bar he works at dies outside, and suddenly Eugene decides to take a keycard from his body and go poke around his hotel room because…because. Everyone else may as well not exist either. See that red-headed woman in the box art? She’s the leader of the resistance (or at least a major player in it), and yet has about three scenes in the game at best, not even showing up for the ending (or the ending I chose, anyway). Heck, I can’t even remember her name.
Dreambreak may look pretty on the outside, but peeling back its pixelated style and impressive music reveals the dull story, flat characters, lack of substance and clunky gameplay within. Whatever promise for a good sci-fi story and game that may have been had with its setup does not exist here, instead leaving behind some shallow Soviet software that sadly stinks. If you’re looking for a good throwback to the likes of Another World or similar games, perhaps you should check out The Way, which also came out this year. At the very least, odds are that it’ll better than this disappointment.