STAFF REVIEW of DreamBreak (Xbox One)

Thursday, October 12, 2017.
by Chad Goodmurphy

DreamBreak Box art Although triple-A releases tend to steal the spotlight during any given week or month, indie games offer 'outside-of-the-box' thinking that their bigger budget peers sometimes lack. Some push boundaries, while others try to communicate their messages through quirky gameplay or stylistic choices. There are also others that use retro-inspired designs to both pay homage to the games of yesteryear and deliver something nostalgic. DreamBreak, from developer Aist Studios, is one such title.

Set in an alternate universe, DreamBreak’s action is centered in an advanced, post Cold War USSR, where robots offer defense and the government propaganda controls folks’ minds. It’s here where we find a lowly, down on his luck janitor named Eugene, who becomes an unwitting pawn in the anti-establishment resistance. This all begins on a regular, somewhat sunny day, where things feel like they always have and little seems out of place.

After making his way to work, Eugene finds himself busy with dangerous repairs such as fixing toilets with BioShock-esque pipe puzzles and fixing the power while dealing with hazardous conditions. It isn’t long though before things change, as our nondescript protagonist finds a note on some sort of device, which tells the whoever finds it to run. What follows is a surprising murder, and the beginning of an unexpected one to two hour-long espionage quest for the resistance itself.

Although DreamBreak’s general story is intriguing, it’s not an incredibly deep game in terms of its narrative. The developer has tried to create something that makes you feel like you’re a part of something unique and interesting, but almost all of the narrative is told through messages, propaganda, and hidden notes that are completely optional. There is some dialogue, but even it is basic, taking the form of a few written sentences (at most) which appear over different NPCs’ heads as you walk by them.

Short is the word of the day here, because what developer Aist has created is far from lengthy, or even an average length. Then again, indie games tend to be shorter than most big budget releases, so it’s not like this is unexpected. The truth of the matter is, however, that this particular game can be completed in an hour if you know what you’re doing, and it is only about 90 minutes long in terms of its first playthrough length. There are two different endings to be experienced, but you can see both by simply reloading your final save.

As a whole, DreamBreak is best described as a modern homage to games like Another World and Flashback, complete with visuals that ape what was considered bleeding edge twenty-five to thirty years ago. It’s all artistically done however, thanks to shaders and more modern takes on such looks and animation. A lot of it does bring forth an Atari vibe though, especially when it comes to the in-game arcade unit that can be played for two different achievements.

What you won’t realize at first is that said arcade game – which tasks you to duel against approximately forty-two different bandits, while using basic shot and block mechanics – actually teaches you how to battle against the police and robots that you’ll come across later on in the actual game. Of course, it’s completely optional, unlike the enemy encounters themselves, which must be completed in order to progress. All you’re doing during both though is shooting, then pressing the shield button whenever you see a bullet come out of your foe’s gun. It’s very simple stuff, which would’ve been right at home on the Atari 2600 or something else from that time period.

Don’t expect to engage in a lot of gunfights, because they’re relatively few and far between. Most of DreamBreak actually involves making your way through different environments, while avoiding either detection or death at the hands of robotic security devices. This means lots of climbing and jumping (in Olympic fashion, as Eugene is quite the long jumper), as well as hacking, the latter of which helps you manipulate the environment to your advantage.

Everything about this game is retro and that includes the music, which is decent, as well as the gameplay and controls. What this means is that you can expect clunky movement and dated mechanics, which often combine to make the experience more frustrating than fun. This is especially true when it comes to jumping, because it’s easy to make a mistake and end up dying, either by touching a hazard while attempting a jump or by jumping too far.

At certain points, you’ll also find yourself engaged in different mini-games. There’s one where you fly an air bike while attempting to avoid walls and platforms, and another one that is story-based and locks you in a flying cab while it’s under assault from police drones. The latter one is particular frustrating, because it requires a lot of fast and precise movement.

During the cab sequence, the only thing you can control is your attacks. This doesn’t mean doing something simple, like holding the left joystick and pressing a button to fire a machine gun. No, the only way to kill the many flying robots – who must each be downed in a very limited amount of time, or else you’ll find yourself falling towards ground and needing to retry – is to highlight them, press a button and then use the left joystick to trace a unique path that shows up on-screen. One may be left two squares, up four squares then right two more.

If you’re not fast, adept and on your toes here, you’ll surely die and become very frustrated as a result. Although the cursor rotates from left to right, and will stop on any drone it comes into contact with, letting it do so naturally won’t be your key to success. I tried this multiple times, but found that I had to get used to highlighting them myself by holding either left or right on the stick in order to manipulate the rotating cursor to have any kind of chance.

This is just one example of a game that is more obtuse than it should be and it punishes the gamer unnecessarily as a result. In fact, DreamBreak should have been a lot more enjoyable than it was – despite its clunky inputs and mechanics – but the developers designed it in a way that it’s sure to frustrate everyone who gives it a chance.

Still, there is a decent amount of charm hidden behind all of DreamBreak’s rough edges. You just need to be willing to overlook some obtuse, aggravating and often cheap engagements and puzzles in order to see it. This is something that I doubt a lot of folks will be willing to do, and the game’s retro design is also likely to make it a tough sell to most.

Needless to say, this is a dated experience that will only appeal to a certain type of gamer. That is, folks who grew up with this type of game, or those who consider themselves students of the medium. DreamBreak is definitely a tough sell, but it’ll be worth it for people who fall into either of these categories. That’s especially true since there aren’t many games like this these days.

Overall: 5.3 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.3 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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