DreamBreak presents itself as a game that’s targeting a very specific niche. For fans of travelling down memory lane to a time when platforming was obtuse and controls were wholly unresponsive, the Flashback-esque venture from developers Aist is going to be a dream.
For everyone else, however, DreamBreak is a pretty hard sell.
Set during a gorgeously stylised alternative Cold War, DreamBreak’s USP is the way it looks; its Cyrillic pixel art style absolutely drips with throwback charm. Its animations are also steadfastly old school, reminding me instantly of the frustrations felt with the original Prince of Persia. It belongs in a time capsule, but the classics that acted as inspirations ultimately have something that it doesn’t. They’re fun, even when they make you force your head through a window.
It’s the slavish devotion to repeating the games of yesteryear that are DreamBreak’s downfall. Walking is a constant nuisance as Eugene, the game’s blank canvas protagonist, tends to pirouette on the spot at the end of every movement. This means that if you’re already moving one way, the game tends to yank you around the other, making the simplest things -such as going through a door- feel just off.
The platforming, which you’ll be doing so much of without ever really feeling comfortable with it, is unresponsive and janky, and that is putting it kindly; the controls (on PS4 at least) are remarkably clunky, sometimes not even registering inputs at all. In addition, The hit detection between Eugene and mines and other obstacles must be miles off as death will come often, even when it seems as if he’s at a safe distance. The less said about projectiles, the better – there were countless times when a bullet went over Eugene’s head by a considerable distance only for him to crumple in a heap.
DreamBreak is startlingly linear, nudging you from one area to the next with admittedly pretty well introduced hints. Everything that you can interact with is highlighted orange, which makes the platforming puzzles quite straightforward. This linearity comes at a price, however, giving off the sense that it’s an empty world devoid of character or anything worth lingering on.
While it’s easy to see how some could praise DreamBreak’s retro audio, it was all too grating for me to bear. The first time you hear its synthy soundtrack will likely delight, but when everything is played on such short loops and with plenty of failures almost inevitable, hearing the same thing over and over again is going to cause headaches. Before my first hour with DreamBreak was up, I had already muted all audio and booted up Spotify.
DreamBreak’s gameplay loop, to its credit, does like to break things up regularly over its short three hours of playtime. Eugene, who is on the run from an authoritarian state in Russia, will go from some rudimentary shooting to using a hovering screen to distract enemies almost without pause. Elsewhere, you will be solving water leaks through pipe puzzles, hacking police cars, and even placing bets on animal races. DreamBreak has remarkable variety, but it never really builds up enough steam to make all of its little pieces stick.
It’s not helped by a sloppy story that I absolutely could not connect with in any way. It’s so rushed and barely explained (apart from scraps of newspapers acting as lore around levels) that I had no idea what had transpired when the credits rolled. There are some translation issues too (one of the trophies on PS4 is called ‘I Am TV Star’) which adds to the vibe that Aist could have spent a little more time developing its beautiful cyberpunk world into something slightly meaningful.
I’m really struggling to say much else about DreamBreak. I played it, fell in love with the style and then grew to begrudge everything about the game within its first hour. It attempts to do so many different little things while never really doing one thing all that well. Perhaps with a more attentive eye it could have utilised its interesting setting better, refined its (intentionally?) awful controls or just established any sort of semblance of personality among its paperweight characters. As it stands, DreamBreak is simply a game that you blindly stagger through in the hopes of getting to the good stuff that never arrives.