The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 review
Note: This review contains some general series spoilers for those who haven't yet completed the first three chapters.
It has been a long time coming, but Chapter 4 of The Dream Machine has finally arrived – almost two entire years after the previous instalment. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no. Whilst this latest episode is a pleasing return to the surreal claymation dream space of others in a valiant attempt to stop a menacing landlord, it’s unfortunately a brief and fleeting one that ends before you really manage to quench your long-building thirst.
Chapter 4 follows directly on from the last game, with no ‘previously on’ catch-up of events past, which is a little surprising given the huge time gap since the prior episode. I struggled to recall who the protagonist Victor was, let alone where in the story I had progressed to or which areas of the block of flats in which Victor resides I had previously explored, all of which are available at the start of this adventure.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before my memory was jogged and I recalled the perilous dangers that surrounded Victor’s family, his wife Alicia with unborn child lying unconscious on the floor of their apartment home. For those as hazy on past details as I was, earlier we learned that the estate's sinister landlord had been putting his tenants to sleep and draining them of energy while they dreamed via a mechanical contraption.
Thankfully, you discover his plan before it’s too late to save Alicia, and you must now begin working your way around your various neighbours in an attempt to clear their dreams of the landlord's influence. That's not going to be easy, however, as you'll first need to set each person into a deep sleep before you can enter their subconscious state and overcome a series of puzzles to rid the dream of evil.
Chapter 4 focuses on the dream purging of one of your elderly neighbours. After determining a fairly complex method of knocking out the poor woman – a solution that requires solving a symbol door code, piecing together a fragmented scientific formula and then carrying out your subterfuge – you'll find yourself deep inside her sleep-induced imagination, interacting with her past and cleaning out the proverbial cobwebs. The dream itself is confined, for the most part, to the woman’s apartment. However, instead of being filled with life and warmth and interactive knick knacks, as in the normal world, here the apartment is enveloped by a void, with very little in each barren room other than the odd photograph and the ethereal presence of your neighbour, her husband and mother.
The dream sequence is quite short-lived but revolves around a clever puzzle mechanic of arranging photographs on a wall to rebuild the apartment into a cohesive, traversable whole. Starting in a single room, you’ll need to find new photos to add further rooms to explore. As rooms can only be accessed through adjoining doorways, you'll need to line up photos in a way that’ll grant you passage, rather than result in a door facing a brick wall or simply outer space. There are also portraits of individuals that can be used strategically to influence the woman's memories. As you do, you’ll recreate moments that have impacted her life to a significant degree. These are elegantly subtle, involving very little dialogue, but the emotional impact in each scene is very apparent. It’s a novel puzzle mechanic that works well, although the various steps can often require trial and error.
Outside of the core room-switching mechanic you’ll be solving puzzles via item combination, some of which require a bit of fine timing, though none need any dexterity. All in all, the puzzles are a little on the light side both in terms of number and difficulty this time around, adding up to only two hours or so of gameplay in total, with only a handful of the same environments to explore in multiple iterations. This is without a doubt the biggest "failing" of the episode: there simply isn’t enough of it. After such a lengthy wait it’s disappointing to have such a brief instalment, particularly given that upon completion you’re informed Chapter 5 is “a slew of months” away.
One element that The Dream Machine has always delivered in spades is its fantastic presentation, using clay and cardboard models filmed with stop motion animation. It’s anything but traditionally beautiful, but it's a pleasure to behold, with an obvious hand-crafted charm. It’s a quirky style that’s very rarely used in games, and it’s certainly a nice step away from standard fare. Even more impressive is that it’s all delivered via a Flash applet that's playable in your browser (though you can now download and play the game through Steam as well), its interface limited to single-clicks apart from a few click-and-drag interactions.
My only criticism of the overall production quality is the continued lack of speech, which would have wonderfully complemented the perfectly fitting background music and sound effects that set the tone of each scene brilliantly. This is particularly true of the dream segment, with its faint piano keystrokes playing over eerie gusts of winds and static.
For the brief taste you do get, this fourth instalment is certainly worth the investment, with smart puzzles, a subtly poignant family story told virtually without words, and gorgeous hand-crafted clay and cardboard sets. As enjoyable as each bite-sized snack of The Dream Machine is, however, at this point I’m finding it hard not to suggest just waiting and playing through the entire collection in one go once all development has been completed, particularly after the recent announcement that the series has been expanded to six episodes in total. A new chapter is always welcome when it arrives, but there is no real benefit to digesting a story-driven experience like this in such a sparse and sporadic manner. It’s fun while it lasts, but there's so much time to doze off in between.
The long-awaited fourth instalment of The Dream Machine is a welcome return to the claymation marvel, but its short length is just a teasing bridge to another “slew of months” to wait for more.