Don’t Fall Asleep
HIGH It looks great.
LOW It’s dark, confusing and boring.
WTF Did they just pull a guy off the street and ask him to do voiceovers?
DreamBack VR would only have been worth playing in the earliest days of virtual reality when exploring beautifully-rendered environments in this format was a novelty. While I’m certainly not expecting a tiny indie studio to produce something on par with Half-Life: Alyx, the medium has simply moved beyond the sort of glorified tech demo that this is.
We play as an electrician named Michael who’s been called to a seemingly deserted mansion. When no one greets him at the gates, instead of just leaving, he decides to trespass and is immediately confronted by apparitions that may be visions of something terrible that happened here.
DreamBack is a horror game, and the excellent sound design initially instills an effective sense of dread. However, there’s no combat and no health meter, meaning that the player character is never in any danger. Once that becomes clear, developer Come Over Gaming has no choice but to resort to frequent jump scares like loud jolts in the soundtrack as ghosts suddenly appear or when doors slam shut. I like jump scares when they’re used sparingly, but they’re DreamBack’s only trick.
Lacking any direct threat, DreamBack feels like little more than an elegant maze as we navigate the intricate layout of the mansion, looking for scarce clues on the building’s history. Although there are a couple of awfully obtuse puzzles later in the game, we’re mostly in search of the right key to open the right door. The majority of the other items we pick up along the way are batteries that we can use to keep our flashlight on.
Credit where it’s due – on a purely technical level, the game looks outstanding. It was developed by only a handful of people, and they seem to have recognized their limits by keeping the scale of the project small and only animating things when absolutely necessary. While the environments are largely static, it’s one of the most convincingly lifelike settings I’ve ever seen in VR.
On the other hand, readability is an issue since DreamBack is so dark and drab that one room is difficult to distinguish from the next. We find maps, and I admire the developers’ audacity in not telling us where on the map we are — it forces us to keep our bearings by studying the layout of each area. However, everything’s so murky and colorless that finding distinctive visual landmarks amidst a hodgepodge of locked doors is a constant hassle.
While DreamBack is probably a short game if the player knows where to go, it’s prolonged by inevitable, aimless wandering while nothing actually happens in the meantime. It’s unspeakably dull. As cheap as I found the jump scares, I came to welcome them after a while, since triggering one at least indicated that I was headed in the right direction.
There isn’t even a great deal in the way of a plot, and what we get is communicated mostly through old letters and newspaper clippings. Also, the protagonist’s voice actor is hilariously bad — while that shouldn’t be a major issue since there’s so little dialogue to begin with, his style of delivery is so unique that it’s immediately obvious that another character in the story is voiced by the same guy. I’m not saying that this prematurely gives away DreamBack’s ending, but I’m not not saying it, either.
I want to be charitable towards DreamBack since it’s clear that a lot of work went into building these detailed environments, but Come Over Gaming didn’t populate them with anything of substance, and the resulting product feels like an old-school Resident Evil game with everything removed except the key-hunting. A flat version of this title would be the dullest thing imaginable, and the VR format only slightly elevates it.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Come Over Gaming. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC using Vive. Approximately four hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. There’s very little (if any) overt violence, but it’s implied throughout the game that grotesque things happened in this mansion at some point, and we occasionally glimpse hints of the aftermath, namely in the form of dried bloodstains. The atmosphere is overall extremely spooky and unsettling. The dialogue also contains one or two F-words.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: None of the dialogue outside of the opening and closing cinematics are subtitled. Anyone unable to hear it will be missing out on both important story beats and crucial tutorials. That alone means this is not accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.