January slipped past with a surgery and recovery with my family, so I had no chance to game during my downtime. I'm glad to slip a title in before the month is completely gone.
In a lot of ways, Dream Chamber
is a missed opportunity. It's a hand-crafted point-and-click comic detective story noir from Microids and Darkwave Studios, an Italian game company, released in October of 2013; I picked it up as part of a Groupees bundle. It was clearly intended to be the first game in a series featuring the adventures of Charlie Chamber, the clueless dreaming protagonist of the title, but it was received with lukewarm notices, so I guess there aren't likely to be any sequels.
Which is a shame, because there's a lot to like about the game. Much of it doesn't click in its current state, but the errors are in the right direction: Dream Chamber
errs in shoving too many new mechanics and bright ideas into the pot without cooking them up properly. The resulting stew is scattered and jarring, but also interesting.
The plot is routine and forgettable - priceless object stolen from museum gala by faceless menacing secret cartel - but the characters are genuinely interesting. Or, at least, Charlie is. Charlie is a sheltered, daffy rich kid in the heart of the Depression, given to mistaking poverty for rustic settings and wondering, whenever he sees something nice, if he might have owned it somewhere along the way. He's become a detective out of boredom, and he's chauffered to the various locations in the game - museum, police station, speakeasy, docks, and so forth - by his manservant, Gregory. (During the rides, Charlie natters on about topics of the day - Gandhi, aviation, ball players - which is amusing but gets old fast, especially since the menu of topics is limited and cycles through quickly.)
Charlie has a special talent. Bumbling and silly as he is, he has an active photographic memory that works through his subconscious, so after visiting a new location he can explore it again by sleeping and walking through it in his dreams. Things he overlooked the first time, or which he saw but couldn't examine because it would have disturbed nearby characters, can be added to inventory in the dream world. This is a great idea, but it's larded on without much thought, so in practice it amounts to just coming back later when the NPC has left. If the devs had integrated this mechanic more carefully, it would have been a real winner.
Not so charming is the bizarre mini-game that dogs certain meaty conversations. Charlie explains that he gets bored easily, so he likes to imagine conversation as medieval warfare to keep his interest up. At key points when he's talking to important witnesses there's a blared fanfare and we are shown a castle garlanded with towers which we will, ahem, bombard with the cannonades of our dialogue choices. Choosing the right option, which is far from obvious, will raise the damage done by our cannonballs. To "win" the conversation, players need to pass a damage threshold by knocking down the towers, and - well, I could see what the devs were trying to do here, but it's really bizarre and not much fun. It only happens about five times, but it's jarring every time.
Similarly, one of the features of Charlie's dream state is a golden portal that appears in his bedroom, inside of which is ... Charlie. He can talk to himself about the turns of the plot, which could have been fascinating but in fact is largely a complete waste of time. One clue is passed over through this method, but, like most of the things in the game which don't fit properly, it's annoying overall.
The cartoony art is odd and appealing, and the Prohibition-era jazz soundtrack is in fact all new and written for the game. In exploring each environment, Charlie voices his observations to each clickable object, and much of this is genuinely funny, but it involves clicking each object four or five times, and that gets old fast. The minor characters are not very meaty, but voicing is largely good - I had some quibbles, but nothing game-smearing. The script bears the marks of translation, but most of it works, and the puzzles are largely within the bounds of point-and-click reason.
The game is not very successful in communicating what it expects in certain situations, so I did check a walkthrough a couple of times, both for ludicrous-solving help and to make sure I wasn't missing obscure stuff: in most cases the game doesn't offer much in the way of clarity about when it's time to move on. In one instance, for example, despite Charlie's insistence that he needs to find a way into a location that I'm not going to tell you what it is because spoilers, the player needs to take him out of this spot to go somewhere else to read a book that has defied previous attempts at reading, which will give him pointers about how to get in there. Since we've just watched a suspect enter this location, it's counter-intuitive to leave while the narrative is unfolding. Dream Chamber
is short, but I played it in short helpings. At first I was skeptical about the whole thing, but I warmed to it as I got used to the level and flavor of absurdity in the gameverse. With a little more design time to develop and integrate the good ideas that are stuck on to this attractive vanilla point-and-click adventure like extra arms, this game might have been a gem. As it is, it's a curious trifle that can probably be explored pretty fully in five or so hours of attentive play, and it's worth it if you like this sort of thing. My list, which so far comprises a single title.