Retelling of an Indie Art Game Classic
Yume Nikki: Dream Diary is a surrealist adventure game with some puzzle/mystery mechanics and an interesting visual style. Based off of the 2004 original Yume Nikki developed with RPG Maker as a hobbyist project by it’s elusive creator Kikiyama, this title is a total visual and mechanical re-imagining. The setting places you in the bedroom of Madotsuki, who will not leave her room in the waking world but in her sleep the doorway will lead the player to a selection of recurring dreams and nightmares.
There’s about 14 years of buildup and an air of mystery around a creator who kept to themselves that whole time when it comes to Yume Nikki. Naturally this leads to expectations which few games could ever live up to. However, as a player not familiar with the original, I was excited to experience this iteration of the game with completely fresh eyes and offer an opinion not colored by it’s predecessor.
Bend The Nightmare
The gameplay consists of the main character phasing in and out of the world of dreams. In this world you open the bedroom door that Madotsuki is was reluctant to open before and find yourself in a dark room with a carousel of doors to choose from, which lead you to our protagonist’s recurring dreams. It’s up to us to wander around this sometimes open and sometimes linear setting and figure out what exactly we’re doing here.
The game isn’t very heavy on actual game mechanics to be honest. It feels as though the real point of this game is just as an interactive way to show us haunting and somewhat disturbing visuals with the occasional jump scare thrown in. You are either in sections that play as a side-scroller or others where you move in a 3D environment. Dreams are meant to be replayed and revisited as you pick up puzzle pieces and collectible art along the way that let you delve further into the overall experience of Yume Nikki. A puzzle in one dream won’t be complete until you complete some sections of another dream entirely and the game does well to facilitate this by having tunnel-ways that connect one dream to another without having to totally load out into the waking world. Sometimes all of the actions you’re told about are available and other times the game is showing you an art piece where it wouldn’t like you to have everything you’ve seen previously.
Most of the actual gameplay mechanics consist of walking and wandering as you overcome the minimal bits of platforming. Nothing here could really be called difficult, but even the easy mechanics let you down a few times since the game does it’s best not to tell you anything at all. Certain games teach you visually as the player is given a mechanical possibility or shown how to complete a task, but Yume Nikki has no problem leaving you totally in the dark. It felt as though this purposeful technique would lend itself to immersion in the eerie world the game built for us, but instead it leaves an overall feeling of frustration and clumsiness.
In one section you find an item that would reveal hidden paths, and soon after I found myself in a boss section evading a truly well-made nightmare of a schoolgirl creature where no obvious path exists, and you have seven seconds before the creature catches up to you and the section restarts. The game inadvertently led to me to believe I should of course be using the item I just found to conjure up a means of escape well before this schoolgirl from hell touched me with her fifth arm. Instead the answer was to actually pay attention to the level around me and wait for enemy-location-based means of unlocking the way through. You’re supposed to let her get close intentionally, but when the section repeats over and over if you’re touched I’m not surprised it took me as long as it did to let this happen, replaying the same seven seconds of this level and hearing the same sounds repeating ad nauseam. This experience highlighted a lot of what I had to look forward to in the rest of my six hours with the game.
Get Under The Covers
We’re given a beautifully designed world here, and I wanted to fall completely into the dimly lit and often bleeding arms of it’s visual style and tense ambient soundscape. However, the mechanics refuse to let you accept the caress for very long. I found myself hitting good strides of gameplay quite a few times, but the full offering of Yume Nikki is left at arm’s length. Most of the time through your journey you’re left guessing as to what you’re doing and what any of it means. It’s best experienced if you let it wash over you, rather than have an exact A-to-B idea of success in a video game. The strengths of the game lay completely in the rich art style and a soundtrack that fits along perfectly with the overall sense of unease and low level terror this title is trying to sell you. The sounds of grating machinery, sunken synths, distorted creature groans, and sharp bells keep you tense and alert.
The Pink Sea area in particular is a marvel as you float by balloon across this endless dreamscape. It’s noteworthy because it’s the most lighthearted backdrop compared to the dimly lit, desolate, and murky silhouetted locations the rest of the game has you look at. The level designs really hit the nail on the dream setting by using each dream’s sectional qualities to transport you just about anywhere it likes, instead of being tied down to a specific visual vocabulary per dream. I found myself impressed with the choices the game made when I first noticed a lighthouse far in the background that halts your progress, as its oppressive red beacon cycles toward you as you look for cover. Another stage offered up a train car in the middle of a field which doesn’t just take you back and forth, but to multiple destinations with no obvious rhyme or reason. It felt perfectly dreamlike. Twice the game made me jump in my seat as I triggered an unexpected death and once I felt pure dread as I walked into the inevitable not knowing what would come next.
Turning The Lights Off
The game has a lot it’s trying to offer you, but sometime’s it will get in it’s own way. Yume Nikki: Dream Diary has its mechanical issues that leave me feeling so conflicted. I truly was rooting for this game and kept playing because the art and audio stylings did so much to make the narrative worth being a part of. It’s not a very traditional game, so I didn’t look at it with totally traditional sensibilities.
Overall, this felt less like it wanted to be a game and more like it wanted to walk you through a haunted art show, with many underlying themes that you may or not pick up on and a story that you’re not entirely sure it has. I hope to see this game tightened up a bit because it was truly disappointing how the core gameplay mechanics and pacing kept prodding me awake when all I wanted to do was dream. I wanted see more and know more, but it would require more patience than it earned from me to see it fully uncovered.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy provided by Playism for PC. Screenshots provided by Playism.