Dreamwild (opens in new tab) is something special: a retro-styled solo-developed shooter with a unique aesthetic. One half of the game looks like Ray Harryhausen vaporwave stop-motion, while the other half is a lively Quake-esque shooter set in surreal neon dreamscapes, the atmosphere of which is enhanced by a fantastic soundtrack.
In terms of structure, Dreamwild is a fairly lightweight roguelike – much of the juice lies in figuring out the rules and specific combination of items and secrets to unlock the final encounter. Dreamwild lets you bunny hop (a movement trick borrowed from Quake) diagonally around its arenas.
Your main weapon is a glowing golden sword surrounded by these runic circles floating in the sky. It hurls sword beams at your enemies if you’ve passed a certain health threshold, but like The Legend of Zelda, you lose this ability after taking too much damage. There are also secondary weapons hidden in Dreamwild’s procedurally generated environments, not as desirable as his Titanfall/Cruelty Squad-style grappling hook.
I’m a bit torn by the rarity of the grappling hook: it’s so good it feels essential, especially in the game’s mega-hard, platform-intensive final area. But that same scarcity makes a grappling hook look so welcome, so game-changing, that I appreciate the delayed gratification.
In addition to the battle arena worlds, which have a classic PC shooter look, you can equip and grow in power on a home base with pre-rendered backgrounds and sprites from Donkey Kong Country or Killer Instinct.
That’s the thing that immediately grabs my attention from the game first trailer (opens in new tab). Dreamwild’s non-combat exploration segments are absolutely fantastic. The backgrounds remind me of the most elegiac, nostalgic Renders from the 90s (opens in new tab), and these environments are filled with a surprising number of NPCs that you can talk to. They all look like the guys from hylicen (opens in new tab)and have this claymation quality that is unnerving and charming at the same time.
They don’t have much dialogue, but what’s here is fun and characterful. For example, the floating heart with eyes and tentacles at the healing fountain is an incorrigible flirt, while your merchant is an exuberant, limp flesh monster with a kawaii face. One of the dreamprites has a small character arc and backstory tied to your main adventure, lore expanded in some delightfully opaque, FromSoft-esque unlockable tomes.
The shooter bits are just as striking, but borrow from a different vein of ’90s nostalgia than the rendercore exploration bits: early 3D first person shooters. Dreamwild has two rendering modes, “crunchy” and “creamy”, which resemble the two dueling pianos of late 1990s 3D graphics: crunchy software rendering with striped textures and lots of pixels, or the smooth textures and higher resolutions of old 3D graphics. accelerator cards like the 3DFX Voodoo.
In terms of true retro games, it’s usually Voodoo all the way for me, but I highly recommend sticking to the crunchy mode. It’s more of an “as you remember” style of treatment, and the pixelation honestly does Dreamwild’s art style a lot of favors, similar to how classic sprite work just looks better on a CRT.
You’re dropped into these huge, procedurally generated lunar landscapes for the action sections, and the levels most remind me of the unknown worlds of Mass Effect (one of the best parts of Mass Effect, sorry haters). Each of the four battle dream wilds has a unique appearance and mechanically different enemies, and I think it’s an impressive feat to have so much variety in an $8 solo-developed game.
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My favorite area is the “Sunken Grounds (Cambrian Technology Bed).” The green hills are dotted with inexplicable ruins and terrifying stone faces. In the Cambrian Tech Bed, you’ll battle flying lightning whales and hostile CRT television goblins, while the fledgling Scourge Plains are inhabited by bruiser ogres and float-eyes who perform dive-bombing raids.
Surviving the horde is frustrating at times and I’m still working on getting to the end. I had a run cut off excruciatingly close, with only a sliver of the final boss’s health left. Despite my frustrations and many tragically ended runs, Dreamwild’s painfully nostalgic vibe will keep me coming back for a while.
I think it’s an almost unfair value for $8. For the price of a sandwich you can play a shooter that genuinely moved me. I got chills down my spine when I first saw all the areas of Dreamwild from the alien purple tundra under an evil red eyed moon to the claymation palace where all my weird little friends hang out all these places stirred something in me. I just can’t recommend it enough, and if you want a sandwich that will bring you to the brink of tears my friend, you’re going to have to eat more than eight clams, I can tell you that.