Version tested: 3DS
"Doc, you gotta help me. I keep having this recurring dream. You see, I'm this spaceship. And I'm flying through the cosmos shooting malevolent scorpio and centaurus constellations. Just when I'm almost done it culminates with a fight against a giant enemy cancer."
"Clearly, you want to kill your father and sleep with your mother."
Maybe it's best Dream Trigger 3D doesn't have a story. A series of lucid images and techno music strung together under a hazy dream motif, Dream Trigger represents a unique spin on the tried-and-true shmup genre.
While the 3DS' top screen resembles a typical arcade shooter, the twist is that enemies are cloaked and must be exposed if you're to do any damage to them. This is done by placing pings on the sonar, represented by a grid on the touch screen.
A vertical bar sweeps across the touch screen every measure, exploding any pings it touches. Enemies caught in the blast radius are revealed. Hidden foes about to fire are conspicuously shrouded in a white cloud on the top screen, while on the bottom they're represented by purple dots.
This eliminates much of the guesswork, so the challenge comes from predicting their patterns in order to plant sonar bombs along their trajectory. It sounds complicated, but it's little more than scribbling in enemies' general direction to expose them as cannon fodder for the more traditional bullet hell shooter transpiring above.
Stripping enemies of their guise has a dual purpose, as it also refills your ammo. You're invincible while shooting, so constantly replenishing ammo becomes a necessity to avoid the onslaught of bullets. Additionally, there are random drops that increase your score, refill your health, make you invincible for a limited period of time, or briefly grant unlimited ammo.
It's a neat concept, and that extra dimension elevates what would otherwise be a forgettable entry in a well-worn genre. Having to multi-manage between two screens is a great hook, and successfully unveiling a cluster of enemies in one swipe before using your newly-charged firepower to annihilate them is extremely rewarding.
Much of this is due to Dream Trigger's groovy audio-visual feedback. It looks resplendent, with a multitude of psychedelic images enhancing the synaesthetic vibe. Between stages, your avatar morphs between a butterfly, phoenix, dolphin, and various geometric shapes among other things. Environments are even more varied, running the gamut from black and white M.C. Escher-style architecture, Rez-like vector graphics, forests, underwater escapades, and angular tunnels resembling the infamous Death Star trench run.
Despite its kaleidoscope of visual splendour, there's no sense that you're actually flying through these environments. It's still a 2D game superimposed on a 3D backdrop, with enemies dropping from above and swooping around in predictable patterns, making it more akin to Galaga than Star Fox. The 3D effect makes the already hallucinatory visuals pop that extra bit, but the superficial nature of the negative space is a let-down.
The audio is pleasing and complements the action well. Techno remixes of Bach and Mozart add a sense of gravitas, and all the songs are complimented by your improvised beeps and blips peppering the soundscape.
While Dream Trigger looks nice and its mechanics are intriguing, it never goes anywhere with them. Aside from enemy attack patterns switching up and a slight increase in difficulty, every level feels remarkably similar. Backgrounds, enemies and bosses change frequently, but they're usually nothing more than mere palette-swaps, and even these are repeated too often over the course of the game's 55 levels.
This repetition is exacerbated by a severe lack of challenge. Since you're constantly detecting enemies, your ammo fills up regularly, meaning you can spend a majority of the game invincible. Even when I did run out of firepower and sustain a hit or two, health drops were plentiful and I was seldom in danger of getting a game over.
The game tries to make up for its lack of difficulty with a ridiculous system for unlocking levels. New stages appear when certain conditions have been met, but it's not always clear what these are. The "tic tac toe" challenge means you have to draw a 3x3 square, while the "audiophile" achievement is given for using headphones. Some are cumulative efforts, like destroying 3000 enemies over the course of the game, while others are single-stage affairs like completing a level without picking up a single item.
Not every challenge unlocks a level, so you'll be spending lots of time guessing obscure criteria when no new levels are available. Aimlessly replaying easy, repetitive stages does much to undermine whatever goodwill Dream Trigger has built up to that point.
Even when new levels are unlocked, navigating the level select screen is unnecessarily cumbersome. The world map is a series of nodes connected in a web. Moving from one node to another requires the use of one "dream point," a system of tokens acquired for completing stages.
Backtracking still costs a dream point and since levels unlock in no discernible order, it can lead to grinding simply to get around. This is made worse by a creature that tracks you down on the world map (think Mario Bros. 3) and takes you to a much harder bonus stage with a one-hit death penalty that causes you to forfeit all your hard earned dream points, thus stranding you until you're able to work up enough points to get back on track.
Aside from the main campaign, there are options for a free play mode, time trials, and local two-player mulitplayer. Free play allows you to replay unlocked levels without mucking about with the map, and time trials race you against the clock to destroy invisible enemies who don't shoot back. Neither of these mix the formula up drastically.
Multiplayer, however, has two players competing for a high score. The other player remains invisible unless either you unveil them or they detect you. In the former instance, you'll be able to stun them if shot. In the latter, they'll show up as a more imposing "hunter" craft capable of stunning you. It's fun for a few rounds, but too limited to remain a long-term pastime.
Dream Trigger is a novel experiment that starts off refreshing, surreal and unique, but it's too content to regurgitate the same tricks and never evolves past its base mechanics. New coats of paint can only mask so much before it grows tiresome. If you're looking for the best showcase for your 3DS, keep dreaming.
4 / 10