Once again, I’m late to the party. I came across Dreaming Sarah, an exploration platformer made by the independent developer Asteristic Game Studio, just recently, despite the fact that the game itself was released in 2015. At first I thought it was related somehow to Dreaming Mary, another independent game that came out a few years ago, but it’s really not.* In fact, the developer says straight up that his game was directly influenced by Yume Nikki, a Japanese RPG Maker game in which you control a girl who is exploring her dreams. Yume Nikki has influenced a ton of games, so that isn’t a big surprise. The influence is especially evident in Dreaming Sarah, though. You play as silent protagonist Sarah, a blue-ponytailed girl who mysteriously awakens in a field in the middle of a strange forest. Although this is a platformer, Sarah cannot punch or kick or stab anything – there’s no combat in the game, in fact. Her only goal is to break out of her dream and into the real world, where she’s trapped in a coma. You might expect this fact to be concealed until the end of the game, but the developer throws it out there right in the first line of its description, so I guess it’s not meant to be a secret.
Fortunately, Sarah can discover various items throughout her dream world that give her new abilities and that unlock new areas of her dream world. Most of these items are hidden in worlds other than the initial forest area, worlds that are often far more bizarre and surreal than the forest. Sarah also runs into other people and beings, residents of her dream worlds, who sometimes have helpful advice or a new item to offer.
As Sarah unlocks new areas in her dream world, the game drops hints about what might have happened to her to cause her coma. I should note that, even though I wouldn’t exactly call Dreaming Sarah a horror game, it does contain some unsettling imagery. Even more unsettling that the above eyeballs staring right at you. Yes, really. I won’t spoil it for you, though.
Dreaming Sarah also contains a few puzzles. Some of them are quite easy, but a few require you to take cues from your environment that may lead you to a new item. The puzzles are all doable, and none of them are really difficult at all, but they do require the use of dream logic – Sarah is exploring her dreams, after all, so this is fitting.
There’s not actually much more I can say about Dreaming Sarah without spoiling parts of it. I really like the pixel art and the general style of the game. Special mention has to be made of the background music, which is made by one Anthony Septim (who gets top billing in the game, right after the initial title screen for some reason.) Every track fits the changing environments in Sarah’s dream world and adds to the mood. Just like the background music in Yume Nikki, it’s simple but effective. I’ll be following Septim from now on, along with Garoad, the guy who wrote the soundtrack to VA-11 HALL-A.
I’ll also be following Asteristic Game Studio. I’m not going to say Dreaming Sarah was amazing. It was about two hours long as I played it, and despite the variety of strange dream worlds it all felt a little lacking at the end, as though it could have been something more. In fact, it’s kind of hard for me to say the six dollar price tag is justified. I enjoyed the game, but I also bought it during a sale, and it might be worth seeking Sarah out on sale too if you’re interested in it.
Then again, two Big Macs cost more than six dollars, and I’d say that playing Dreaming Sarah is at least better than eating two Big Macs (and playing Dreaming Sarah won’t devastate your colon, either.) So maybe the value of the game is entirely relative. But I do see a lot of potential here, and I hope this developer follows Dreaming Sarah up with something even better and more fully realized. 𒀭
* Dreaming Mary is well worth playing, though it’s much more of a nightmarish horror game in the vein of something like Blank Dream. Unlike Dreaming Sarah, it’s also free, so if the wallet is light at the moment and you can’t spare even a dollar (or six dollars) for a game then it’s a good option. The same is true of Yume Nikki. And Blank Dream, which I reviewed here. In fact, you’d better just play all of them.
Edit (8/23/18): It’s interesting to see how far you can come after a year. I don’t know why I was being so weird about this game’s six-dollar price tag. It’s a well-crafted atmospheric game with a good soundtrack. I think I was going through a lean period at the time, so I was especially sensitive about paying money for things. Now I’ve pretty much given up on giving a fuck about anything, so I don’t mind dropping six dollars on a good game, even if it only lasts for two hours.
I still like that line about the game not devastating your colon unlike two Big Macs. Not sure where that came from.