Thalia wakes up at her apartment ready to face yet another day, the same old routine, but something feels off. She's trapped underwater. "Take this power and face the darkness that lies within you," a voice says as a weapon named the Dreamcatcher appears before her. She reflects in a mirror at the end of the corridor until an shadowy figure appears and begins to mock her. An unwinnable battle leaves her out of breath, but she soon wakes up in her apartment again, this time for real. Or so she believes. Turns out She Dreams Elsewhere takes place inside Thalia's comatose, anxiety-plagued brain.
She Dreams Elsewhere's (opens in new tab) elevator pitch falls somewhere between Undertale and Persona, mixing a top down perspective that resembles old-school RPGs with turn-based combat and a moody, surreal setting. While the setup isn't too novel, the carefree and relatable characters, and intriguing twists make She Dreams Elsewhere stand out. I was so hooked with my hour-long demo that by the end I restarted just to see the beginning once more.
After Thalia recovers from that frightening nightmare and greets her dog, her friend Amia knocks on the door. She was invited to a party but ended up sleeping in until 9 pm. Aside from that surreal waking nightmare earlier, Thalia has other things on her mind. Leaving the house and confronting her social anxiety is an everyday battle, which is portrayed in both dialogue options with other characters, and even items and skills.
The first item you pick up before leaving your place is called "The Same Shit I Wear Every Day". Conversations usually involve self-doubt, repressed inner monologues, and plenty of modern slang with no shortage of curse words. It hits close to home a couple of times, showcasing relatable characters in mundane situations slathered in emotive psychedelia.
At the party, the mysterious figure from the earlier manifests itself inside the protagonist’s head, antagonizing her and making her feel useless. Thalia's suddenly transported to a simple introductory dungeon where I find keys to unlock doors in order to progress, but it’s also where I stumble upon two of my real (I think) friends who join the party (and my nightmare). It's also where I learn about the colorful combat system.
She Dreams Elsewhere's turn-based fashion seems rather ordinary at first, but a quick look at the skills shows off some dreary thematic stylings. My favorite one is probably Insult. Its description reads "Don’t hold anything back. Verbally, that is," and lowers an enemy’s defense for two turns with a chance of stunning them. You can heal yourself and your teammates using green tea bottles and chocolate bars, and much like Persona 5, exploiting elemental weaknesses stuns foes for a turn.
Two moments stuck with me. The first happens as I was making my way to Amia’s apartment and make a new friend along the way. After a brief chat, a drunk man approaches us and combat begins. The music is fast, aggressive, unnerving. It turns what I thought was a safe place into a warped battleground where everything can attack me, making me doubt whether my surroundings are real or part of the same surreal nightmare I was trying to wake up from.
The other is the demo’s boss fight, which turns Thalia’s pet into what looks like a sketch from Courage The Cowardly Dog, its animal shape taking the form of a stretched and twisted creature with a grim smile.
She Dreams Elsewhere is a genuinely scary game, and the end of the demo left me with more questions than answers, setting up an intriguing mystery built out of a troubled person's psychology. Leaning on Thalia's friendships to find out exactly what’s happening both outside and inside her mind will probably be the only way forward. Clearly, She Dreams Elsewhere isn’t afraid to bring up topics surrounding mental health and everyday struggles into conversation.
It's a wash of lovely sights and sounds, too. The mix between 8-bit art style and bold, magnified illustrations during combat makes for one of the most appealing art styles I’ve seen in a while, especially with a soundtrack that jumps from lo-fi compositions to raving techno beats without hesitation. I’m excited to get to know more about these characters and to discover what’s happening to Thalia.
She Dreams Elsewhere is due for sometime in 2020, so until then I'll lean on something that Amia said as we were searching for a way out of the maze: "Dude, chill. Ain’t no use worrying about it now."