Broadly speaking, Lucy Dreaming works. It’s bursting with charm, thanks to an excellent voice cast and an irrepressible main character. It’s got clever puzzles, a catchy soundtrack, and a script that’s often laugh-out-loud funny. Its setting is unique and imbued with its own personality, on the whole, it’s a solid adventure title that could stand firmly on its own two feet. If it was a meal it might be a pizza from a family-owned restaurant, prepared with love and fresh ingredients.
It’s hard to fully appreciate a slice of margherita—no matter how warm and delicious—when the chef keeps on mentioning all the other restaurants he’s visited. That’s exactly what it feels like whenever Lucy Dreaming drops what it’s doing just to make room for the same kind of tired Sierra and LucasArts references that adventure games have been making for decades. There’s no reason to grasp for cheap nostalgia points; Lucy Dreaming is strong enough on its own merits, and while playing I wanted more of it, not to think about different games I’d finished ages ago. As sins go it’s hardly unique to this one game, but in a title that’s otherwise so fresh and original, it feels especially jarring and out-of-place.
When it’s not mired in the past, Lucy Dreaming is a creative, novel adventure with a unique and compelling voice. It tells the story of the titular Lucy, a young girl determined to rid herself of the recurring nightmares that haunt her sleep. An unexpected email from an anonymous stranger informs her that the key to overcoming her condition may somehow lie at the center of an unsolved murder in her hometown’s past; gradually working her way through her dreaming mind with the help of her father’s psychology textbook, she begins to find clues that point both to the source of her nightmares and to the dark secret at the village’s heart. It’s a novel and intriguing setup, with the two storylines—Lucy confronting her subconscious fears in the dreaming world and pursuing the mystery in the waking one—running in parallel before slowly converging.
Lucy combats her nightmares through the use of a “dream box,” containing both a stuffed animal companion and a book that will influence what she dreams about. There are several different books available as the game goes on, each one resulting in a bizarre and unexpected world: a comedy club for carnivorous plants; a fantasy realm of baked-good-obsessed trolls; a seaside vacation spot run by sentient crabs; a haunted castle ruled by an enigmatic “Master.” These are highly interactive worlds, with conditions dependent on Lucy’s actions in the waking world. You can also swap out one stuffed animal for another to give yourself a more appropriate companion for a given scenario, and Lucy’s ability to carry items from one dream to another means you’ll often have to think creatively about what you’ve seen and how to use it.
The dream worlds are all fun and original, and crucially, they all feel like dreams; each one is a weird, weird place, full of details Lucy couldn’t have anticipated and which she just has to accept. The trolls’ economy is inexplicably based on trading cards, for instance, while the Master’s henchman is apparently building a monster out of cardboard. The interconnected nature of the different dreams and Lucy’s reality leads to some creative puzzle solutions, though it can be a slog to perform the multiple steps necessary to enter a dream, awaken from it using Lucy’s “Pinch Me” totem, change one thing in the waking world, swap books in the dream box, enter a separate dream, exchange one item, then return to the waking world to swap books again to go back to the first dream. It becomes very time-consuming, as you’ll have to solve multiple puzzles this way. Some faster way of cycling through realms would have been welcome, as would the ability to more easily swap between verbs in the rather clunky SCUMM-inspired interface.
Each dream holds the key to progressing through a particular segment of Lucy’s recurring nightmare, but finding the books that will let you access them requires investigating the mystery in the real world. The game wisely invests as much idiosyncratic life into the village of Figgington as it does its dream-settings, and you’ll run into just as many odd characters and heightened situations while exploring Lucy’s real-life environs as you will in her subconscious. Everywhere you go is infused with a spirit of playful anarchy, from a fun-fair booth centered on battering a dead goose to a library that’s been upgraded with a mind-reading device called SATAN.
The story chugs along at a good pace, with revelations and new developments spaced out in a way that keeps you guessing. It’s only once the end comes in sight that the game starts to lose the thread; there are gestures toward a more serious, emotionally complex conclusion, but these elements are introduced so quickly and to such unclear purpose that it all feels a bit muddled and tonally inconsistent. It’s not that the ending is bad, but it’s a less-than-satisfying way to wrap things up for characters we’ve spent the past 9+ hours with.
Of those characters Lucy herself is a special delight, thanks in no small part to Emma Hardwidge’s vocal performance. She gives Lucy a straitlaced, no-nonsense edge to her voice that makes her seem an island of reason in a madcap world; she’s one part well-meaning innocent and another part determined agent of chaos. The voice cast is almost universally excellent—I particularly enjoyed the actors playing Lucy’s cretinous brother Lloyd and her long-suffering teddy bear, Mr. Fumble—but Hardwidge stands out as the clear star; especially impressive since this appears to be her first professional voice acting credit.
All in all, Lucy Dreaming does an excellent job of simply being itself, and that’s part of why its insistence on shoehorning in references to older adventure games rankles so much. For the most part, I wasn’t reminded of Sierra or LucasArts while I played; it feels like the work of a new and exciting voice in the adventure genre. Its pixel-art graphics give the game a unique visual signature, rather than hewing too close to the aesthetics of the past; the bouncy and versatile synth soundtrack is well-suited to this specific story about dreams and memories; the puzzles mostly refrain from riffing on famous adventure game standbys. The constant references and in-jokes thus feel not only stale and played out but oddly inappropriate; my reaction was less “Oh, I recognize that” and more “But what’s that doing here?”
Why, for instance, is there a jacket-clad, arm-waving salesman among the bread trolls when nothing else about the scenario calls Monkey Island to mind? Why go to the trouble of casting the always-talented Dominic Armato as a very un-Threepwood-like restaurant critic, only to dedicate a significant portion of his dialogue to nudges about his most famous role? Why include a comment from Lucy about how a simple, everyday action would have scored her points in a Sierra game? There’s no statement or comment on the adventure genre being offered here, nor even a humorous observation—it’s just reminding you of things you’ve seen and then saying “Well, that’s it.”
Twenty years ago a reference to Cedric the Owl or fine leather jackets could serve as a sly shibboleth to an audience whose genre had largely moved on without them. Today the adventure genre is more popular and diverse than it’s ever been, we’ve heard these jokes a hundred times. I’ve spent so long wading through half-baked “love letters to the classics” that when I find something truly surprising I want to be able to enjoy it for its own sake rather than being reminded, once again, of games I’ve practically memorized.
Despite this, I finished Lucy Dreaming excited by the prospect that Tall Story Games is just getting started in the adventure genre. They’ve come out of the gate with a surprisingly accomplished effort that avoids many of the pitfalls common to beginning developers; there are worse problems to have to overcome than an over-reliance on nostalgic references. When Lucy Dreaming is allowed to simply be Lucy Dreaming, it’s a fun, silly, bizarre, and, above all, a unique entry in the adventure gaming canon—no fine leather jacket required.
Lucy Dreaming: Lucy Dreaming offers an entertaining story full of fun characters and bizarre situations in a surprisingly fresh adventure game package, but its cumbersome controls, unpolished endgame and preoccupation with the hits of the past hold it back from achieving classic status. – Will Aickman