Dreaming Sarah Review
The past few games I’ve reviewed have been absolutely massive time sinks that have required huge, wordy writeups. Dreaming Sarah is a welcome reprieve from that kind of thing, being a game that only took me a single day—a matter of hours, really—to complete. Despite what some believe, length and quality don’t go hand-in-hand (leading to stupid arguments like “you’ve played X hours of Y game, so you must have enjoyed it), and a short game can be every bit as entertaining as a 100-hour epic. In many ways, even more so because of the immediacy of the whole experience, allowing you to dive straight into the heart of what that game is all about rather than being strung along for countless hours. This is a double-edged sword, though, because there’s no fluff to fall back on if that game ends up coming across as pretentious, and that’s something that indie games seem uniquely predisposed to. Fortunately, Dreaming Sarah never seemed to wade into the depths of pretentiousness despite relying on a “less is more” approach to exploration and progression that could have easily gone very wrong, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the experience.
It draws just enough from the game that inspired it
The store page claims that it’s inspired by Yume Nikki, a popular freeware game that relies on exploration and weirdness. A lot of games seem to be coming out that have drawn from Yume Nikki in some way, most recently with the weirder elements of Undertale seeming to take cues from it, and I really don’t know what everyone else sees in it. All I see is a weird little game with a cult following that has a bunch of weirdness haphazardly taped together so as to create something approximating progression, and a look at the theories of what it’s actually about is more than sufficient to demonstrate that the game does an astoundingly poor job of justifying its existence.
To be fair, I haven’t played Yume Nikki for myself. Instead, I watched someone else play through it on Youtube after finishing Dreaming Sarah, and then scoured some Wiki pages to try and piece things together. I was left with an overwhelming feeling that my time had been wasted. That said, the game has a unique reliance on player exploration that Dreaming Sarah has picked up on and expanded on, with the goal of Dreaming Sarah being to wake up (obviously). This means finding a number of items that are necessary to get past obstacles and explore deeper, and in the pursuit of those items you can come across some truly bizarre—and vaguely grotesque—things in addition to discovering why you’re asleep in the first place.
All of this happens through exploration and seeing things for yourself rather than relying on text, of which there’s very little. Sarah doesn’t speak a single word in the entire game, while those she encounters rarely have more than a couple lines of dialogue. Even then, most of the time talking to characters isn’t even necessary to push deeper into the game, though it does lead to some of the darker moments. Speaking of which, the many worlds Sarah travels through are bizarre and occasionally unsuitable for children, with little touches like creepy statues and a lobotomized cat serving to remind you that the dream could just as easily become a nightmare. Despite this, there’s no outright horror or scares, with the game instead relying on its atmosphere and the necessity of backtracking to create an uncomfortable familiarity that feels like something’s constantly looming just out of sight. All of this sounds incredibly smug and pretentious, I know, and yet it never came across that way. Even the fact that I knew nothing about Yume Nikki didn’t detract from my experience, and I can only surmise that this is because Dreaming Sarah takes the best parts of it while having the good sense to avoid its too-artsy-too-vague pitfalls.
It’s kind of like a platformer, but kind of not
You start the game able to run and jump, but soon find an umbrella that allows you to float once you equip it using the space bar or by pressing B on an Xbox 360 controller, both of which bring up a radial menu of items that you can select from. Speaking of which, I found the game most comfortable with a controller, but not once did the main menu react to my controller presses, instead forcing me to use the keyboard to mess around with graphic options (including setting the game to be full-screen; it always seems to open in a window) and get back into the game. There’s also a radial menu quirk that only plagues controller users, but I’ll get into bugs and stuff later.
So running and jumping and floating are your early options, but you’re not going to find traditional platform challenges here. There are some gaps you have to float across using the umbrella, but there’s no penalty for failing aside from falling into water and having to swim back to try again. Even later when you have to outrun rising lava, dodge spikes, or swim through a passage before a rising column crushes you (all of which are rare one-offs), there’s no death, nor are there any lives to worry about, and touching such hazards does little more than send you back to the beginning of the screen—which is never far back—to try again.
Emphasizing the game’s focus on exploration rather than platforming, falling off the bottom of a screen doesn’t send Sarah back to the entrance like touching a hazard does. Instead, there’s a vertical wraparound (think Pac-Man coming out the left side of the screen after moving off the right side), so falling off the bottom of a stage can be used to access the higher parts of it. Most of the time, however, I found myself taking leaps of faith and moving left or right in order to find hidden paths to new areas or new items. I have to say, it’s strange to jump into what’s effectively an endlessly repeating pit and fall for 10-20 seconds while looking for something hidden. That’s not something I can recall doing in any other game.
The items you find littered around the world do a lot to help the game give you a feeling of progression. From a magnifying glass that shrinks you to a paint bucket that allows you to change the color of your clothes (and this is reflected in the color scheme of your fish when you obtain the item that lets you transform into one), they manage to capture the same kind of dreamy weirdness as the locations do while giving you something to play around with. Some, like the aforementioned paint bucket, appear to be purely aesthetic, though Dreaming Sarah has two slightly different endings, and whether you get the “normal” ending or the “good” ending seems to depend on which items you’ve collected. I collected all of them and obtained the good ending, so I’m not sure which items give you the normal ending when missed, but the game is short enough that finding everything isn’t much of a hassle, and the two endings are almost identical anyway. Some items also unlock new areas and cause people to spawn in the initially-lonely main area where you first start the game, some of whom then help you unlock even more areas, propelling you forward in subtle ways.
Bugs, flaws, and miscellaneous weirdness
Since the game is fairly short and automatically saves when you obtain a new item (and there’s also a manual save you can use), the occasional bugs I ran into didn’t end up bothering me quite as much as they do in most games. That’s not to say that the game’s not very buggy, though, because I stumbled on quite a number of bugs while playing, many of which I even got video of. The first video below covers the controller quirk I mentioned earlier; basically, if you’re still holding down while exiting the radial menu to use the compass, you’ll cancel using it to crouch. This was incredibly confusing until I figured out that I had to let go of the stick before exiting the menu, and it seems like an oversight since there are no similar problems when playing through the game using the keyboard.
The second video covers the weirder stuff that I found, though not all of it is necessarily bad. The first part is where Sarah’s sprite flipped 90 degrees somehow, causing her to run with either her face or back on the ground. The second clip is of me trying to un-stick myself after getting stuck in the ground. I didn’t succeed, and ended up having to reload the game. The third part is something I hope doesn’t get changed; if you use the pill item that causes you to return to the beginning screen (the description of which, it should be mentioned, has a typo) and hold a direction at just the right time, you can cause Sarah to levitate across the screen for as long as you hold that direction. Lastly, there’s one point where I noticed that the background suddenly changes. I suspect the reason for this is that there’s a left-right wraparound (again, like Pac-Man).
I really loved the graphics and music
Obviously this game uses sprites, and I found them to be of an extremely high quality, giving plenty of personality to the moon bunny, underground miner, and all the other weird characters you encounter. The backgrounds are of a similarly high quality, allowing each area to seem completely different from the others. That said, there’s some strange blurring on the text at times (and sometimes the text is even cut off by the screen for some reason) as well as some occasional hazy lighting/strange effects that can cause some banding, but for the most part I found the graphics incredibly appealing. The music is even better, too, with the downtempo/downbeat soundtrack contributing a great deal to each area’s atmosphere and being one of the most compelling reasons to continue playing. There are few things that can draw you in like a quality soundtrack, and the fact that Dreaming Sarah’s is so consistently good and unique in its genre (the only other game I can think of that uses a similar kind of downtempo in its soundtrack would be Transistor, which is good company to be in) makes it all the more recommendable.