Into A Dream review
Into A Dream is a side-scrolling adventure game that attempts to tackle mental health by exploring its protagonist’s subconscious, which is an interesting premise rife with possibilities. However, before long my own mind was wandering as I spent most of my time simply walking and talking my way through a slow-paced sequence of scattered memories. In fact, I found myself more entertained by the fact that if you try to move your character quickly left or right, his legs do a funny little dance that reminded me of Riverdance, and if you press jump he looks like he’s doing Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Ni sketch. I learned all this, unfortunately, because I was so unengaged by the story that I decided to create my own fun. The experience is not all bad by any means, with an impressive visual presentation and evocative soundtrack, but important narrative and gameplay issues cause this side-scrolling adventure’s potentially compelling concept to fall flat.
You are a featureless silhouette named John, and via some Inception-like method, you’ve entered the subconscious thoughts of a man named Luke to help him with his deep-rooted depression. Luke is also a silhouette, as is every other character in the game, which really helps sell the dream idea (after all, faces in dreams are usually the hardest things to define and the first things to be forgotten upon waking). The backgrounds are wonderfully painted in a wide-ranging palette of colours that further add to the abstract, surreal atmosphere. It’s a beautiful art style that depicts side-scrolling scenes of churches, a log cabin in the woods, and a hospital, to name just a few.
As John, you’re tasked with finding Luke in his incongruent dreams – jumping backwards and forwards in memories and time – and trying to help cure his depression, which in a practical sense amounts to nothing more than continually trying to assure him that everything is all right. The whole game is centred around Luke’s family and their history, which you discover more about as you progress. Doing so involves navigating levels and talking to different characters you meet, whether Luke and his family, or other individuals who present at whatever event you’re currently exploring – a wedding or seaside vacation, for example. This reveals more information about each particular place and time, and once you’ve learned or fixed what is necessary – say, turning on the lights in a certain area to complete a memory – then you’re treated to a nifty screen wipe that loads the next memory/level.
There are some light puzzle and platforming elements too: find the button that turns on a generator, swing across a river on a rope, push or pull boxes to use as platforms, jump over obstacles. This can be performed either with the keyboard or controller, but the platforming elements have rigid animations and physics, and I couldn’t help but compare Into A Dream to the ’80s platformer Pitfall! This is a problem, as the game restarts nearby if you touch the water, and the controls aren’t sufficiently fluid enough to account for its demands.
Otherwise the experience is heavy on talking, so when you’re not awkwardly swinging and jumping, a lot of your time will be spent listening to the voice-overs, and the acting is a mixed bag at best. John’s own emotions are convincing, such as when he’s pleading with Luke to not blame himself for past events, but Luke is boring and drab, like his actor was told to be depressed and overdid it. Michael, Luke’s work colleague, sounds like he’s trying too hard to be an evil Die Hard villain at points, and most of the cast are from completely different areas of the world and have different English-speaking abilities. From lively to stilted; from bored to over-the-top, it really is the wild west of voice acting. This is the area where the game’s independent nature is most evident. In one dramatic scene, one of them does a demon voice, and its B-movie delivery made me laugh when it was trying to be deadly serious.
The same sort of unpolished jank applies to the English text. There are missing or rogue commas and punctuation throughout, and sometimes the grammar just doesn’t make sense, like when a girl says, “My parents gave him for Christmas.” Not to mention the way it flits between British and American-style spelling, with one sentence displaying “favour” and the next “neighbor.” It’s jarring, and the kind of thing that should be ironed out in a title with a focus on narrative, especially as the subtitles can’t be turned off, appearing as speech bubbles over the characters’ heads.
Pacing is another major problem for Into A Dream, as it’s not until moments before the finale that you understand how any of Luke’s experiences really relate to depression. For most of its 3-4 hours, the story is simply too vague and convoluted to be engaging. You’re tasked with helping Luke but never told how, and jumping around a jumbled timeline of events deprives you of some much-needed context for what you’re seeing and hearing. We know Luke is experiencing “bad” events in his life, but experiencing them with him amounts largely to being a voyeur with very little tangible effect. In one scene, you’ll solve a puzzle involving a clock to adjust time while waiting for Luke, but when he appears, he simply explains what he was up to before you’re whisked off to another scene in another time and place.
Even with limited player agency, a good story can keep you riveted to see what happens next. The problem is, for all this game’s emphasis on narrative and conversation, there aren’t many important revelations to keep you interested, and when they do happen, you’re past the point of caring who did what to whom. And once it’s all over, you won’t be left feeling any better, as it wraps up in a way that makes one wonder what they were really supposed to be doing the whole time. I’m also still pondering another question as well: who or what the hell is John in all this?
There are good aspects here too, though. Gorgeous and Limbo-like, the environments are rendered with a soft, almost watercolour style in places. And the silhouetted character models allow you to project your own characteristics onto their featureless forms. There is also an original professional-grade soundtrack composed by the game’s solo developer Filipe F. Thomaz, which consists of some fantastic classical piano tracks that manage to convey the emotion taking place on-screen better than the actual dialogue. This is one of Into A Dream’s strongest areas, and serious kudos are to be given in this respect.
For all its issues, Into A Dream is more a case of disappointment over missed potential rather than frustration or being outright bad. It’s a game whose concept is interesting and had so much promise, but falls short in execution. “Blandness” is the best description here, as it takes a topic that should be discussed more – mental health – but then doesn’t actually explore it satisfactorily.
For a first game, especially one tackling such an underexplored issue such as depression, it’s a valiant effort from Thomaz. It’s clear that a lot of effort, attention and care were put into the title, and its failings certainly aren’t a matter of neglect, but rather of poor pacing and storytelling, with not nearly enough for players to do in between the dull character interactions. Its soundtrack and visual presentation are very well done, but it just gets its fundamentals so wrong that they fail to engage on a basic level. A dialogue-heavy adventure depends on having a compelling narrative, which Into A Dream lacks, leaving its pitfalls too prevalent to be overlooked.