Dreamwild (opens in new tab) is something special: a solo-developed, retro-styled shooter that has a singular aesthetic. Half the game looks like Ray Harryhausen stop motion gone vaporwave, while the other half is a brisk, Quake-style shooter in surreal neon dreamscapes, its vibe cinched by a fantastic soundtrack.
In terms of structure, Dreamwild is a fairly lightweight roguelike—a lot of the juice lies in figuring out its rules and the specific combination of items and secrets to unlock the final encounter. Dreamwild has you diagonally bunnyhopping (a movement trick lifted from Quake) around its arenas.
Your main weapon is a glowing golden sword ringed with these runic circles floating in the air. It flings sword beams at your foes when you're past a certain health threshold, but like The Legend of Zelda, you lose this ability after taking too much damage. There are also secondary weapons hidden throughout Dreamwild's procedurally-generated environments, none more desirable than its Titanfall/Cruelty Squad-style grappling hook.
I'm a little torn on the grappling hook's rarity: it's so good as to feel essential, especially in the game's megahard, platforming-intensive final area. But that same scarcity leaves a grappling hook appearance so welcome, so game changing, it makes me appreciate the delayed gratification.
In addition to the combat arena worlds, which have a classic PC shooter look to them, you can rest up and grow in power at a home base presented with pre-rendered backgrounds and sprites out of Donkey Kong Country or Killer Instinct.
That's the thing that immediately demanded my attention from the game's first trailer (opens in new tab). Dreamwild's non-combat exploration segments are absolutely fantastic. The backgrounds remind me of the most elegiac, nostalgic '90s-era renders (opens in new tab), and these environments are filled with a surprising number of NPCs you can talk to. They all look like the dudes from Hylics (opens in new tab), and have this claymation quality that's simultaneously unnerving and charming.
They don't have a ton of dialogue, but what's here is fun and characterful. The floating heart with eyes and tentacles by the healing fountain is an incorrigible flirt, for example, while your merchant is an exuberant, floppy flesh monster with a kawaii face. One of the dreamsprites has a small character arc and a backstory tied to your main adventure, lore that's expanded on in some deliciously opaque, FromSoft-reminiscent unlockable tomes.
The shooter portions are just as striking but borrow from a different vein of '90s nostalgia than the rendercore exploration bits: early 3D first person shooters. Dreamwild has two rendering modes, "crunchy" and "creamy," which ape the two dueling pianos of late '90s 3D graphics: crispy software rendering with banded textures and lots of pixels, or the smooth textures and higher resolutions of old 3D accelerator cards like the 3DFX Voodoo.
In terms of actual retro games, it's usually Voodoo all the way for me, but I highly recommend sticking to crunchy mode. It's more of an "as you remember it" style of treatment, and the pixelation honestly does Dreamwild's art style a lot of favors, not unlike how classic sprite work just looks better on a CRT.
You're dropped into these vast, procedurally generated moonscapes for the action portions, and the levels remind me most of the uncharted worlds from Mass Effect (one of the best parts of Mass Effect, sorry haters). Each of the four combat dreamwilds has a unique look and mechanically distinct enemies, and I think it's an impressive achievement to have this much variety in a solo-developed, $8 game.
My favorite area is the "Sunken Grounds (Cambrian Technology Bed)." Its verdant hills are dotted with unexplained ruins and haunting stone faces. In the Cambrian Tech Bed you do battle with flying lightning whales and hostile CRT television goblins, while the starting Scourge Plains are inhabited with bruiser ogres and dive bombing floating eyes.
The horde survival is frustrating at times, and I'm still working at reaching the ending. I had one run cut short agonizingly close, with only a sliver of the final boss' health left. Despite my frustrations and many tragically terminated runs, Dreamwild's achingly nostalgic vibe will keep me coming back for a while yet.
I think it's an almost unfair value at $8. For the price of a sandwich, you can play a shooter that genuinely moved me. I got chills up my spine the first time I saw every one of Dreamwild's areas, from its alien purple tundra under an angry red eyed moon to the claymation palace where all my weird little friends hang out, all of these places stirred something in me. I just can't recommend it enough, and if you want a sandwich that'll bring you to the brink of tears, buddy, you're gonna have to fork over more than eight clams, I'll tell you that much.