Dreams hands-on preview: Minecraft, meet your worst nightmare
Media Molecule's upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive is a digital wonder waiting to happen.
Wish-washy. Artsy-fartsy. Weird. Those were my initial, outsider impressions of Dreams, the enigmatic Media Molecule title for PS4 that was announced all the way back in 2013. Though I'm a huge fan of Mm's LittleBigPlanet trilogy and the “origmasmic” spiritual successor that was Tearaway, I went in wondering if Dreams might be an overreach – a nightmare in the making that could sully this developer's otherwise spotless track record. All that being said, after getting a handle on the game in a marathon two-hour demo session, my descriptors for Dreams have changed. I can see here now, by looking at my written notes, that my most underlined words are “breathtaking”, “powerful” and “squashyness”.
The first one pertains to the ethereal aesthetic of the hand-sculpted visuals in this title – much like Sackboy's stitched together knick-knack worlds, Dreams is both eye-catching and immediately endearing. The second word is regarding the almost intimidating amount of freedom and control Mm is empowering players with, above and beyond the already impressive LBP toolset. And squashyness? Well, that was just the name of an in-game slider. Its moniker and effect on physical objects made me chuckle when it got cranked to 100%. (Think: “flubber on acid” and you're not far off.)
Of course, Media Molecule has its own language to describe Dreams, and they are simply: Play, Share and Create. LBP fans will recognize that as the exact same mission statement as last time, but every single pillar has been built upon like a Dubai skyscraper upgrade.
Play begins with your selection of an imp. Not so much a fairy-sprite in league with the devil, but more of an amorphous creature who will serve as a cursor that you control by the motion controls of your DualShock 4 (or Move controllers). I spot an extremely large amount of imp variations in my demo, and we settle on something that looks like a pair of Groucho Marx glasses slapped onto a big ball of neon pubic hair. Needless to say, it's not as adorable an avatar as Sackboy.
What imps lack in charm, or marketability to overly-religious types, they more than make up for in usefulness and the ability to possess things (which also won't help to sway the earlier demographic). In a quaint introductory sequence, we point and click our way to adventure, mostly by moving to hotspots on the screen and pressing an interact button when our avatar's little antenna lights up. The title screen, for example, feels like a Get Smart homage, thanks to a series of locks, latches, buttons and other mechanisms that have to be physically manipulated. We also steal the form of objects in the level, at which point they sprout little stick figure legs and we get to platform about in the world, leveraging their functions to solve mini environmental puzzles. It's simple and intuitive stuff.
In short order, we're introduced to the Home Space, a much larger version of the personal, cubby-like Pod area each player had in LBP. You'll have a lot more abilities to customise this time, plus you can add doors that whisk you to your online friends or to your own content. It's the entry level to the aforementioned creative tools, which can be overwhelming complex if you dive headfirst into them. In Home Space, you can have fun messing around and collage-smearing about the crazy bits of content you've unlocked in the course of the solo campaign. If I know gamers, we'll have Spaces populated with more dicks than a private investigator convention in no time.
The offered solo campaign is known as Art's Dreams, a deliberately disjointed affair that constantly shifts gears in terms of characters, narrative tone, art style and gameplay mechanics. The lanky, Blues Brothers-esque Art is the central protagonist, and his point-and-click adventure world feels like Grim Fandango redux. One minute you're waking up from a coffin nap in a double bass case, the next you're scooping up objects to swap with NPCs in order to solve puzzles and transition into the next scene that's oozing with Noir style and moody music. Throughout the game, we're shown proof that every element in this campaign, art, mechanics, physics, camera work and music, was sculpted using Dream's creative tools. The only exception is the voice-over audio, which was imported through an app that can be set up via the PS4's second screen function.
At intermittent points we drop in and out of Art's titular dreams when a conspicuous bubble-like transition effect washes over the screen. A lot of time, I spend my time in a platformer in the vein of Ratchet & Clank, though the overly-jumpy heroes in this adventure are Frances and Foxy. The former hero is what you'd get if you crossbred Hello Kitty with a teddy bear and armed it with a big mallet. I'll let you figure out what sort of animal the eye-patched Foxy is.
Through them both (hot-swapping is available) you'll need to use their unique-but-par-for-the-genre skills to track down their kidnapped dragon, Lancewing. And that's if Art hasn't dreamed you into a secondary scenario involving D-bug, a puzzle-solving robo-insect who shows off a hint of Dream's first-person perspective capabilities.
To be perfectly honest, there's not much here that I haven't played before. No genre boundaries are being pushed. The companion AI seems a touch ropey at this stage, and my eye kept getting drawn to a bit of object “pop-out” occurring on the extreme periphery of Frances's view (minor things, like shrubbery fade out before the screen border has passed them fully). Even still, this is preview code. It's the earliest of days, so my concern factor is low.
Those minor peccadilloes are far outweighed by the potential for creation in Dreams. The bulk of my demo session was spent crafting a 3D level from scratch in about 20 minutes. In that period, we constructed a large park area complete with rocky vegetation, a lake, hand-animated moving platform puzzles, enemies to bash and a cascading waterfall (that I absolutely won't be hiding collectibles behind... honest). In a jiffy, we also recorded cutscenes and scored everything with a motion-controlled multi-track music-maker tool. Like magic, it effortlessly converted our awkward flailing into a soundtrack better than most indie games I've ever played.
Though it won't win any BAFTAs, what we made turned out pretty damned well and I can only imagine what Dreams may come to Media Molecule's servers in a few weeks after launch. Probably not the phallus monsters my mates will gravitate towards – I've been told the online moderating will be on the ball (so to speak). Sorry, folks, there's very little chance of this becoming Wet Dreams for you.
Though the pre-made offerings here aren't blowing my hair back just yet, there's no doubt in my mind that Dreams is a digital wonder waiting to happen. Creative types are going to be tickled pink by the comprehensive world-building doodads placed at their fingertips. As far as generous replay-factor and sheer possibilities go, Media Molecule's Dreams is Inception-levels of deep.
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