Childhood is a fraught time: a period in which our imaginations soar despite our limited agency. When the overbearing weight of our limitations can’t deaden our awareness of the potential within us that waits to be released. In times of deepest darkness our old childhood fears and insecurities have a way of slithering back up out of the void to which we banished them, reminders of our first brush with feeling powerless. Childhood nightmares and their symbolist, archetype-laden dreamscapes have been fertile soil for puzzle-platformers since at least 2010’s Limbo, and, as you’ll discover in our Daydream: Forgotten Sorrow review, this tradition continues.
Daydream follows a young boy (called Griffin in promotional materials, but never named in the dialogue-free game) and his faithful teddy bear, Birly, fleeing from a dark presence through a surreal, topsy-turvy landscape. Both the title and the game itself make it clear that the pair are in some way exploring Griffin’s subconscious, though the nature of and exact reason for their presence there remains mysterious until the finale.
Daydream is, like Limbo, Little Nightmares, and all its various inspirations, a platformer centered on puzzle-solving. Griffin and Birly—accompanied later by an unnamed girl with a talent for archery—move from stage to stage, their goal to progress forward and outrun the darkness that constantly nips at their heels. Puzzles frequently involve finding ways to manipulate the environment to create a path for yourself; often this requires activating multiple switches or moving objects from the environment into a specific arrangement.
In theory, the gamepad-optimized controls are simple—press one button to jump; hold another to run; use a third to lift and carry objects; and a fourth to direct Birly or the arrow-girl to a specific point in the environment. Many puzzles involve using your teammates to manipulate elements you can’t reach, either by lifting and throwing the cotton-stuffed Birly to a higher vantage point or telling the arrow-girl where to shoot. A lot of the obstacles work in theory, and might provide a nice challenge in a more polished game. Here, though, the implementation is so buggy and imprecise that even the easiest puzzles often required multiple tries to get right.
Griffin has to be standing in exactly the right position to interact with many hotspots, so that a simple lever-throw or button-press was invariably preceded by an awkward, shuffling dance to figure out where exactly I needed to place him. The camera is positioned so oddly on some screens that it’s hard to tell what angle is required to jump from platform to platform. A simple hop across a chasm would sometimes send Griffin plunging into the abyss, either because the platforms were deceptively placed or because the developers had something else in mind. That’s not to mention the times Griffin simply got stuck for no reason, leaving me totally unable to move and forcing me to reload a checkpoint. More than once this meant redoing entire multi-stage puzzles, simply because my character froze as I was trying to reach the exit.
Some sequences require running quickly without much thought for where you’re going while simultaneously avoiding hard-to-see obstacles. One sequence requires you to dodge the stabbing legs of a giant spider while carefully avoiding rows of eggs. If you’re not precise and careful with your movements, a single mistake will send you back to the beginning. What that mistake might be is never entirely clear: sometimes stepping an egg would just cause you to avoid the swarm of hungry spiderlings, other, seemingly identical, eggs got me insta-killed.
That’s just one of many examples I could cite of the game failing to pull off what it’s clearly aiming for. Another stage of that same giant spider level involves frightening off the long-leggedy beasties with a flaming torch. The timing required is so inscrutable that when I finally finished the level, I chalked it up to dumb luck.
Sticking my torch directly in the spider’s face would sometimes cause it to shudder and run away; other times it wouldn’t even notice, and I’d have to restart from the most recent checkpoint. Also, these checkpoints are much less frequent than they should be, with simple mistakes sometimes forcing you to go back through multi-step puzzles you’d already come close to finishing.
At the very least, Daydream has a competent and even above-average presentation. The graphics are nice to look at, with the characters’ rounded edges, broad features and brightly-colored models lending them a Claymation-esque cast. Passing through the game’s many dreaming vistas I was often impressed by the framing and sense of perspective, with the camera moving in and out to emphasize Griffin’s small size in relation to his environment or simply to highlight the vastness of a particular landscape. The soundtrack, too, is impressive, heavy on tinkling piano and rushing, ethereal windscapes, fading down to a dark rumble whenever our heroes are in danger.
Daydream’s story seems content to plays out quietly in the background. There’s no dialogue, but the characters are generally good at communicating what’s on their mind through body language. Collectible secrets are scattered throughout the various levels; locating one unlocks a journal entry giving some context to what, exactly, that part of Griffin’s mind represents to him. The underlying story—what’s unfolding outside the confines of Griffin’s head, in other words—isn’t terribly surprising, but it eventually comes to a rather unexpected finale that casts most of what’s come before in a somewhat different light, and it managed mostly to overcome my cynicism about where I’d believed it was going.
There’s a lot of ambition in Daydream: Forgotten Sorrow, and there are certainly places where it succeeds. Many (though by no means all) of its puzzles would have been pleasantly challenging if its controls weren’t such a buggy, imprecise mess; it’s pleasant to look at and listen to; and it manages to take some of its genre’s most well-worn tropes in a direction I didn’t entirely anticipate. Still, good intentions only go so far. With a great deal of fine tuning Daydream might at least have been one of the better Limbo-likes to come around the pike; as it is, it’s barely even itself.
Our Daydream: Forgotten Sorrow review was made possible with a key provided by the developer. The game is available on Steam.
Daydream: Forgotten Sorrow: Daydream: Forgotten Sorrow certainly tries to bring something worthwhile to the puzzle-platforming table, with pleasant stylized visuals, an effective soundtrack, and a simple story that nonetheless winds up in an unexpected place, but it’s so buggy and poorly-optimized that it’s hard to enjoy any of what it offers. – Will Aickman