Ooh, it’s always so exciting to start into a new bunch of competition games, and what a start this was! Sweet Dreams has to be one of the more surprising comp games I’ve ever seen, because it’s not a text adventure. Instead, it’s more or less in the style of early LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion or the first Monkey Island — a fully graphical experience whose pixelated protagonist wanders around the landscape, picking up and using items, solving puzzles, and chatting with NPCs via a “TALK TO” sort of system. Over the years I’ve heard rumblings about work on a LucasArts type of engine for amateur games, and I’m not sure if this is the product of that effort or something Papillon did all on her own, but whatever the source, the product is fairly impressive.
I thought the graphics were pretty attractive in a low-res way, the music enhanced the setting nicely (although it tended to halt and restart abruptly rather than fading out and back in when it looped), and the interface was intuitive enough that I was able to use it right away without much attention to the instructions. Aside from a couple of irritating technical glitches (about which more later), I’d be very excited indeed to see more games of this type and quality. In fact, there was one moment, when I maneuvered the PC to a bookshelf and took down a book to read, that I got a jolt to my spine, feeling magically transported to those happy days I spent playing LucasArts’ Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, pulling down one hilarious joke after another from its bookshelves. That is, until I started reading the books in Sweet Dreams, which mostly tended to be something like this:
The Human Battery: How the power of positive thinking can be put to
work not only to cure disease but also to solve the energy crisis.
Or they were about fairies, or crystals, or the zodiac… et cetera. And there we have the factor that’s going to limit the appeal of this game. The characters, plot, and setting are all feather-light and sweet verging well into treacly. It’s set in an adorable little cottage, with adorable portraits of fairies and unicorns hanging on the wall, and serving as a tiny private boarding school to four adorable little girls. Actually, these girls are supposedly adolescents, but they look all of eight years old, save for the bizarre breastlike protrusions that they display in profile. The story involves giving your wonderful best friend a beautiful present for her sixteenth birthday, then making a magical journey into an enchanted land of dreams filled with colorful flowers and friendly animals and… well, some people are bound to find the whole thing just unbearably twee. I have a pretty high sugar tolerance myself, and was able to swing with the tone and enjoy it for the most part, but even I felt myself on the edge of diabetes too often. On the other hand, it would certainly make a great game for kids, so long as a couple of its major technical problems got resolved.
Primary among these problems is the main character’s unfortunate tendency to get stuck while exploring narrower parts of the geography. The first time it happened, I spent a frustrating five minutes trying to get her to budge from behind the piano, until I finally realized that the secret was to try to maneuver her using the arrow keys instead of the mouse. Three directions would fail, but one would get her to run in a tiny circle, and if I interrupted this circle fast enough, I could break her out of her self-imposed cage. This running-in-circles thing is something she does a lot, usually when you’re trying to maneuver her close to a boundary, and when it happens she seems more like a trapped insect than a charming little girl.
These boundary difficulties exacerbated the other problem with the game engine: its insistence on the PC being right next to an object before she can interact with it. Sure, it makes perfect sense that you can’t pull a book from the shelf if you’re across the room from it, but I’d have much preferred it if any command to interact with an object on screen was treated as meaning “walk over to the object and then…”, so that I could avoid the numerous times the game told me “You’re not close enough to it.” As for the rest of the game, I’d say it was above average. There were a couple of very satisfying puzzles, a couple of so-so ones, and a couple that just seemed arbitrary. The one I had the most difficult time with was one that exposes the limitations of graphical games — it was relying on somewhat subtle color shading differences, and my laptop monitor wasn’t making a clear enough distinction between them. The story was, of course, cute, and despite the rather cloying nature of the game as a whole, I ended up mostly enjoying it. Once it gets a bit more technical polish, and so long as you don’t mind a very high sweetness level, Sweet Dreams will make an outstanding piece of amateur graphical IF.