Adventure Gamers Awards
Fifteen years ago, indie Japanese developer Kikiyama released the cult freeware game Yume Nikki (translated as “Dream Diary”). Built with RPG Maker and thus sporting 16-bit graphics, this horror-adventure followed a very simple design philosophy: give players as little direction as possible throughout a variety of large and often confusing maps hiding items fundamental to seeing the adventure through to completion. Traveling back and forth between dreams and reality, players were encouraged to tackle the game’s various worlds in whichever order they wanted. Figuring out how everything worked and what was expected of you was undeniably part of the charm.
This obtuseness has carried over, to some degree, to Kadokawa Corporation’s remake (reimagining?) with the fresh title Yume Nikki – Dream Diary. Along with receiving a 3D makeover, this new version is more deliberately constructed, with puzzles now a prevalent feature. Like its predecessor, players will often explore open spaces from an overhead perspective, yet this time some side-scrolling is also employed. Evidently Kikiyama supervised the production, as well as provided at least one previously unused character design. While this reboot does take cues from the old Yume Nikki, longtime fans of the original may feel restricted by its comparative linearity, while newcomers will find an atmospheric adventure game with a dubious sense of progression.
Once the game opens, you are immediately given control of a young woman named Madotsuki as she heads home from a convenience store. For now there is only one direction laid before you, so onward you go, past homes and apartment buildings as the last light of day casts long shadows. Soon thereafter a cutscene steals control while Madotsuki cautiously approaches a large spatter of blood on the pavement. Leaning down to investigate, she notices a body falling from the sky just in time to shield herself, only to awaken in bed.
Dream Diary isn’t interested in building an easily followed narrative, offering only implications so that players might devise their own theories. Without divulging my own interpretation, it’s safe to say that Madotsuki is what is known in Japan as a hikkikomori – a recluse or shut-in. Whenever you leave her room, you do so only within dreams, whereas in reality you are confined to her apartment and adjoining balcony. Here you can play an 8-bit arcade-style game on her TV or access the titular diary, which fills in with images after making progress and finding collectibles in the dream world. The game doesn’t truly begin until you lay Madotsuki in bed so she will drift into the network of worlds in her dreams.
A circular path awaits you there, presenting a nexus of eight doors to exit through. One of these leads back to reality and another is only accessible once you have conquered what lies beyond the other doors, leaving six to be selected in any order, coming and going as you please. The locations themselves encompass such ordinary places as a school, city streets, a mall, and sewer tunnels, but also branch into the fantastical like a dusty town of seemingly friendly humanoids, a chasm of free-floating platforms, and a pink-soaked beach with a castle composed of candy-colored cones. These worlds have their own vague goals, and each ends with a glimmer of story in the form of an abrupt cinematic. All of them lead to Madotsuki awakening again in her bed, only for you to force her back to sleep to continue the cycle of puzzle solving.
Along the way you’ll encounter a number of obstacles – locked door, blocked passage, or the equivalent – while hoping to stumble upon items that will allow you to proceed. Sometimes this means finding a literal key, other times it could be something as indirect as dropping scattered coins into a vending machine that sells a blood bag you need (you read that correctly). But then it could also be something more involved, like an umbrella that unlocks a double jump and activates rainfall at the press of a button.
The umbrella is among a classification of items labelled “Effects,” which remain permanent options at your disposal once acquired. Other examples include a knife intended for certain tasks other than self-defense; a lantern that, naturally, lights up the darkness (rarely needed); the Hamsa, an amulet that reveals hidden items and paths; a flute that is played by holding down one button and stringing combinations together from four other buttons; and a hat and scarf that can freeze water. Many if not all of these items will unlock secrets if you experiment, but overall they aren’t as game-changing as you’d probably hope. It isn’t even required to collect all the Effects in order to reach the conclusion, and it’s likely you won’t find them all in your first playthrough, though you are free to jump back into your saved game and look for missed areas and collectibles after completion.
Except for the headaches induced by the 3D platforming required in one stage, in which it becomes clear that precision-based gameplay was not a priority for the developers, there isn’t much to complain about regarding the controls. They may be rigid, but they are at least responsive. There is no way to reassign buttons or key bindings, but I found the preset controller configuration to be comfortable. On the other hand, the keyboard-only scheme assigns movement to the arrow keys instead of the standard WASD, which feels unintuitive for a modern game. Prompts and button tutorials display only controller buttons too, so if you’re playing on a keyboard you’ll have to do the extra work of figuring out how it works – not even the settings menu will help you.
Walking and running are automatically determined based on the circumstances, and similarly, an inventory display appears when you are able to use an item, allowing you to select the correct one for the situation. Other than using Effects, there are only three buttons of note: one for interaction whenever a prompt appears, another for jumping, and a third that, when held down for a few seconds, awakens Madotsuki from her dream (a quick way to return to her bedroom to then access another world).
Puzzles are generally intuitive; paying attention to your surroundings will yield visual clues for solutions, such as a code written on a wall, or perhaps a box trap that you’ll have to lure a giant angry ball of teeth into. A handful of challenges are essentially NPCs or monsters propped up as roadblocks which you are tasked with “moving.” The solution could involve something environmental or an Effect you’re carrying (or not yet carrying). Perhaps the most demanding puzzle has you chasing a character in possession of a required key, who evades you via a series of escalators. To corner him you will need to throw switches that change the direction of the escalators until he has nowhere else to run. On the less interesting side, one area is just a string of box puzzles requiring pushing cubes around and stacking them to reach new heights, or dropping them off ledges to bridge a gap. Taken as a whole, the gameplay is standard fare, but requires enough effort that you still get the simple satisfaction of overcoming obstacles.
One area where Dream Diary excels is the variety of its locales, and yet they lose their impact when you end up revisiting the same ones numerous times because you don’t know what item you’re missing or even through which door you might find it. I spent an unnecessary amount of time in a certain world before finally realizing I could only continue with an Effect I wasn’t aware existed. In my defense, none of the worlds I’d visited prior to this necessitated items from outside their own confines.
And here is where the tedium settles in: to even get back to the aforementioned nexus of doors, you have to either complete the world you’re in or manually wake up Madotsuki, then immediately make her go back to sleep, waiting through an increasingly tiresome animation each time. There’s at least one superfluous step in there somewhere. Especially because returning to Madotsuki’s room is almost completely unnecessary since, unlike the original Yume Nikki, you don’t need to access her diary there to save your progress but instead rely solely on autosaves this time. I think almost half of my four-hour playtime was spent backtracking. The game is desolate enough as it is, but after puzzles have been completed you’re essentially running between blank loading screens when passing through again.
Although a rarity, you will encounter some opposition in your travels. Enemies mostly appear in designed encounters, such as chase sequences where once you reach the end of a determined section you are safe again. There are a couple areas that enemies will patrol in a pattern and you must simply avoid them, which is nothing particularly challenging. In fact, I’d say they’re much too easy considering there are no game-overs and failing at any point merely sets you back to the beginning of the section. Both of these scenarios feel like exceptions when compared to the long stretches of quiet. I’m not necessarily saying there should be more enemies, but it’d at least be more engaging than retracing your steps through empty locations without anything to challenge you, which makes the experience drag without any shortcuts.
Then there is the one realm specifically designed around 3D platforming, in which the goal is to find six characters dotted around the space, jumping and climbing to reach their positions. Conceptually this works, but the fixed isometric camera is not conducive to playing hide and seek. There are blocks all around you and many above, with no way to look up. You can swap the direction of the camera 180 degrees by entering and coming out the other side of a porta potty (I don’t get it either), although I didn’t find this the least bit helpful. I could have dealt with this annoyance, however, if Madotsuki would reliably grab ledges and not fall through moving platforms. Oft-times she will land just right only to sink through the platform like a ghost. You don’t die when you fall into the abyss below, just get set back a platform or so, but you’re stuck waiting through a black screen for the game to reset your position.
The atmosphere is quite strong, on the other hand, and despite my complaints about traversing such empty worlds repeatedly, the lifelessness itself feels vital to maintaining the lonely, haunting tone. Apart from the growls of monsters and the chime you hear when picking up items, audio consists of droning synth and piano compositions of an ethereal nature. Since there is no dialogue, spoken or otherwise, meeting weird inhuman characters creates the sensation that you’re in a place where you don’t belong. That said, I do wish the visuals were more psychedelic, like in the original game. The aesthetic is otherwise a solid translation of its predecessor, updating the more simplistic 2D look of Kikiyama’s characters and visual concepts.
What we have in Dream Diary is more of an homage than a proper remake of Yume Nikki, which can leave the game feeling both familiar and at odds with itself. Gone is the more open-ended design of the original, its most identifiably distinct element replaced here with common tropes of adventure platformers, unable to find a middle ground between non-linear freedom and resolute structure. That isn’t to say it doesn’t possess its own share of entertainment and surprises. Searching its many surreal corners is like looking for meaning in an especially peculiar dream, even if you never come to a certain conclusion. And like a dream, the details don’t always seem to stick, but the peculiar sensations and bizarre images will be indelibly impressed upon you while they last.