Review: Dream Quest23 May 2014 0
Dream Quest is the opposite of Warhammer Quest.
Owen wrote of Warhammer Quest, "There’s little in this game that you haven’t seen elsewhere, but you’ve rarely seen that stuff assembled into such an elegant, sophisticated package." Dream Quest takes some of gaming's hottest and most novel elements and joins them together in a tremendously unsophisticated-looking package: it's a deckbuilding rogue-like dungeon-crawler which unlocks content as you progress across playthroughs. As far as the package it all comes in -- let's just say that it emphasizes that packaging isn't the game's focus.
There are so many systems interacting in Dream Quest that it's difficult to give a simple explanation of the gameplay. You'll start by choosing a class, which determines your starting deck of attacks, spells and abilities, and the progression of powers you can earn as you level up. You then wander a randomly-generated maze, fight monsters, buy stuff, drink lemonade, and pray to various gods. It's the sort of completely standard setup that you can't take very seriously, and creator Peter Whalen hasn't; the writing and enemy design is deeply silly.
The basic card-playing gameplay starts simple (almost too simple) but quickly becomes fascinating. Getting new cards (and deleting old ones) constantly forces you to abandon old strategies and rethink your choices. As you wander the dungeon you find opportunities to acquire new cards, level up existing ones, or delete those which are obstacles to your favored strategy. Your character also levels up in some important ways, but you're always making progress on achievements which either make new cards available or increase your starting stats in later plays.
All of that is groovy, and there are smart touches all over the place. For example, each playthrough earns you some points at death, which you can use to continue or unlock new cards and abilities even if you haven't fulfilled their conditions. You don't get so many points that they replace the sometimes quite fascinating goal-setting the achievements provide, but if you find yourself really stuck on something specific, you can get past it. This is especially handy given Dream Quest's significant difficulty. Battles never feel like a grind because death is always a distinct possibility at every level.
Another one: the deckbuilding is largely separate from the card play, but in the rare cases they blend slightly, you're faced with an unusual tension. For example, there's a card which does nothing but get you some money which you can use after the battle is over. Can you afford to put it in your deck, knowing it's basically a blank card for that fight? Can you afford not to, knowing the long-term advantage money can give you? Because monsters and levels are assigned and created randomly, it's never the same decision twice.
Unfortunately, the game also goes too far in eschewing petty superficiality. The amateur art is endearing, because it helps convey the sense of a very small team working on a shoestring budget out of a love for games and a desire to get a delightful concept into people's hands. It's the salesmanship of disdain for sales, and it's awfully hard not to appreciate the break. But it also feels just a little like an excuse to be sloppy with some of the things which actually matter about an interface.
Owen asked Whalen about Dream Quest's art and was told that the developer's chief aim were images which are functional and easy to differentiate, if not pretty. This sounds great, but Dream Quest's design isn't as functional (or consistent) as all that. For example, an attack card with two swords on it does two damage -- unless it has a green border, then it's a totally different class of card. Poison is usually green but sometimes red.
The game pops up a warning if you still have cards to play and are trying to end your turn, so it's willing to help you avoid mis-plays, but it'll happily let you select only one card to upgrade when you're given two upgrades to use, wasting one for no good reason. Though it's an iOS Universal app, it displays the black bars on both sides on an iPhone 5-size screen (despite claiming to be optimized for iPhone 5), and I found it unpleasantly difficult to control on the phone due to some tiny touch targets that seem to have been designed with iPads in mind.
Dream Quest advances the state of game design in ways which help address some serious problems with both rogue-likes and deckbuilders, making each play more satisfying and keeping battles more focused on battling. It's exactly what the game industry needs from independent developers: a solution which makes you aware that there was a problem. For a game developed by one person, there's a tremendous amount of content, and uneven balance is easily excused as a desirable feature of the famously unfair rogue-like genre. It just could have used more polish, even for those willing to embrace the art. That said, these are the sorts of problems we've seen addressed in updates in some other games, and none of them prevent me from wanting to go back and unlock more heroes, see more monsters, play new cards, and hope Peter Whalen makes more games.
Dream Quest was played on an iPad Air and, very briefly, an iPhone 5S for this review.