Hold Fast To Your: Labyrinthine Dreams

In my last post I was lamenting how far behind I am when it comes to posting about games. But now I’m posting about a game a mere week and a half after its release. That’s nearly instantaneous, by the standards of this blog. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that the game in question is the latest (and first commercial) offering from Solest. Longtime readers will remember that I’m a big fan of their first game, Master of the Wind, and may also have read my thoughts on the still-incomplete X-Noir. So I definitely wanted to give Labyrinthine Dreams a spin.

Labyrinthine Dreams was made with RPGMaker, like Solest’s earlier titles, but it doesn’t play much like them. Master of the Wind is a full-blown, epic-length Japanese-style role-playing game, and X-Noir is something of a hybrid between a role-playing game and an adventure game. But Labyrinthine Dreams is a puzzle game. Set entirely within protagonist Beth’s dreams, players must guide Beth through strange labyrinths in her subconscious, each of which has certain symbolic meaning to her. It’s a short game, easily finished in around an hour, although one’s playtime will depend on how much time one takes to figure out the puzzles.

Labyrinthine Dreams also benefited from a successful Kickstarter campaign, which mostly funded updates to the art and sound. And it shows. While Labyrinthine Dreams is still recognizable on sight as an RPGMaker game, it’s an unusually beautiful one. The opening sections, which take place in a dreamlike forest, are striking, with crisp graphics that admirably disguise the tile-based nature of the environment, and other nice touches like the leaves which flutter past in the foreground. The original musical score by Joel Steudler underscores the surreal nature of the locations, and the major characters have full voice acting. I enjoyed the voices, with Beth herself being a particular highlight, but players who don’t care for them can switch them off in the options and go with text-only dialogue instead.

That dialogue is important, because the story is a big part of the game. Players will learn about Beth’s troubled past as well as her more recent struggles, and will guide her as she faces her hardships. I was intrigued to discover that Beth is actually a character from X-Noir, because I didn’t remember her at all. She’s certainly not mentioned on the cast page for X-Noir. Then I realized that X-Noir has actually been updated since I played it, with a brand new case added (the fourth), so perhaps she doesn’t appear until then. Regardless, it’s an interesting tie-in, and I’m sure that playing Labyrinthine Dreams will provide context for her character when she appears in X-Noir.

The story of Labyrinthine Dreams works best in the early sections of the game, when the connection to the puzzles is strongest. Beth’s movements in these sections are cripplingly restricted, perfectly complementing her feelings of being stifled, following seemingly arbitrary rules, and constantly being led away from the path she truly wishes to take. But as the game moves on, the connection between the narrative and the puzzles weakens. It’s still there, but it’s less immediately apparent, and can lead to something of a disconnect between the player’s actions and the story that’s unfolding. For a few puzzles I didn’t see the connection until after I’d solved them. After playing I discovered that Solest based the early sections on personal experience, but let the puzzle design dictate much of the later portions of the story (I learned this from a blog post on their site, but I won’t link to it directly because there are spoilers within). This matches what I felt while playing. The early puzzles serve the story, but later the puzzles and the story vie for the spotlight.

And the puzzles themselves follow familiar designs. In most cases I’d played something similar before, sometimes from Solest’s own back catalog. They’re cleverly designed and pose a good challenge, but puzzles constructed from well-worn templates are harder to tie to a narrative than ones specially designed to fit. I also felt that the narrative itself stumbled towards the end. The dream world becomes less dreamlike, with Beth surprisingly lucid as she talks about her life. My dreams (when I can remember them) barely make any sense, but Beth shows little sign of confusion as she analyzes her situation. I wasn’t particularly convinced by her epiphany either, even though I saw it coming, and while I liked the ending, the final confrontation was a bit disappointing. It is something Beth solved by herself, without any input from me. Which is fitting, perhaps, but the finale would have been more resonant if it were melded to an actual puzzle where the player must make the realizations, rather than having Beth voice them in a scripted sequence.

I worry that comparisons to To the Moon are inevitable, which is unfortunate. To the Moon has a heavy story focus, and its occasional “game-like” elements merely got in the way; Labyrinthine Dreams splits itself evenly between the story and puzzles, and its story is comparatively simpler and less tightly constructed. Its emotional impact is also likely to vary from player to player. I expect it will resonate most with players who have gone through similar experiences, and may be especially relevant to those with artistic tendencies. But I don’t think it will manage the broad appeal of To the Moon, and those who simply want a deep and emotional story may find themselves frustrated, or at least distracted, by the puzzles.

I wonder if my issues with the story are due to its brevity. Solest have demonstrated their skill in writing compelling characters in their earlier, long-form offerings, and I think a slightly longer story may have served Labyrinthine Dreams better. If Beth had more time to develop, the game’s climax would be more meaningful. But I’m happy to see Solest trying new things with their game designs. They could have just made another long-form role-playing game to follow Master of the Wind, but instead they are branching out, looking to make different and interesting games. And Labyrinthine Dreams is a big step forward in terms of production values, which does wonders for setting the tone of the game. While I’d happily play a new role-playing game from Solest (and their upcoming game, code-named Project Kobold, looks to be just that), I’m glad that’s not the only thing they’re trying to make. Labyrinthine Dreams is a welcome departure, one that I enjoyed despite the issues mentioned above, and it’s definitely worth a look. The story has a solid foundation if a few problems in execution, the puzzles offer a consistent challenge without becoming stale, and the price is right (currently $5 on Steam). Above all else, Labyrinthine Dreams left me eager to see what Solest does next.

I encourage you to try it for yourself, and maybe dip into Solest’s earlier games while you’re at it. You might find yourself eager to see what they do next too.

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