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Thursday, 13 February 2020

Dreams Review (PS4)



If you've been following Push Square over the last year or so, it's likely you already know how we feel about Dreams. Media Molecule's latest title has been playable in early access for a number of months, and we, among others, have already laid down our thoughts on this most unusual project. However, after spending about 50 hours playing community levels and tinkering with the tools, the time has come to assess the complete version of this PlayStation 4 exclusive.
Dreams is a thing of wonder. The play, create, share vision pioneered by LittleBigPlanet is at the beating heart of everything this software is, and it excels in all three areas. Describing it as a game almost undersells what's been achieved here; Dreams is so much more than that.
Effectively, this is an engine for creating almost anything you can think of. It's very possible to make your own levels, of course, but using the set of tools at your disposal, you can create animations, films, sculptures, paintings, music, and more. It's cliché to say stuff like this, but the limit really is your own imagination. Think of this: in Sackboy's original adventure, someone made a functional calculator using hundreds of gadgets and gizmos tethered together. It was, at the time, unbelievably impressive. In Dreams, a calculator is just one of dozens of in-built tools you can plonk into your creation at any moment. This is everything LBP was, but it goes so far beyond that.
Our experience with these tools has been a true learning process. Starting in a completely blank scene, you'll fire up the streamlined menu to look at your options, and it's easy to be frozen by the possibilities. Where do you even begin? Fortunately, the game comes with impressively in-depth tutorials covering all the basics. They are extraordinarily thorough lessons, guiding you through how to sculpt simple shapes, make music, build logic, and more. We would highly recommend completing at least some of these before you dive in. The tools are probably about as user friendly as can be, but before you let loose, you're going to need all the help you can get.
With practice, though, you'll be flying through Dreams' creation mode, and it's supremely gratifying. Spending time learning how to drive this complex machine rewards you with tangible skill. There are few better feelings than overcoming a creative or technical hurdle and feeling proud of what you've done. Yes, your first attempt was a blocky mass of shapes and colours, but before long you've found your niche, and now you're composing music, or designing levels, or crafting characters. You'll likely surprise yourself with what you can make using a DualShock 4 or a pair of PS Move controllers. The toolset isn't perfect; some menus are dense with options and consequently have very small text, and navigating 3D space can be tricky, especially as your cursor-like Imp is prone to drifting. You can swap to a motion-free control scheme which mitigates this, but it feels a little constrained compared to the fluid nature of the default settings. Despite any small issues, the presentation and usability for something so complex is remarkable.
As impressive as the tools themselves are, part of what makes the title so special is its focus on community and collaboration. When someone publishes something to the Dreamiverse, it becomes available for all to enjoy, but they can also choose to make it available for all to utilise as well. Say you need a lamppost to fill in the town you're making. You could always make your own, but odds are someone has already made a perfectly good lamppost. Finding and using other people's stuff is an absolute breeze, and means you can quickly cobble together something that looks good in a few minutes. It's a self-expanding treasure trove of user-generated assets that's brilliant for beginners.
Of course, the Dreamiverse is more than a bunch of lampposts. Alongside DreamShaping, where you'll do all your creating, there's DreamSurfing, which is where you can play, watch, view, and listen to thousands upon thousands of community creations. With so many things to see and do, Media Molecule has been clever to categorise it all; it's easy to find the newest stuff, trending dreams, things your friends have liked, or even developer picks. The best feature of all lets you pick one of these categories, randomise it, and put everything in a continual playlist. If you really fancy seeing what's on the Dreamiverse concerning, say, turtles, you can easily search for that and go through a stream of turtle-related things. It's addictive and extremely fun going through all the stuff made by other players.
Frankly, the variety -- and quality -- of what's been made by the community so far is mind-boggling. Be it highly detailed sculptures or well realised interactive experiences, there's a near endless sea of creations to explore. While we've been surprised at the level people have reached already, not everything will be of such a standard. But this is par for the course with user-generated content, and the quality isn't really the point; Dreams is a new medium through which people can express themselves. Sure, some stuff probably isn't worth your time as a player, but everyone has to start somewhere.
What's so refreshing about the game is how positive its community is. Even on the most basic of sculpts, you can find likes and comments supporting and encouraging the creator, and this warm, welcoming attitude can be seen across the board. We're not sure if the game has been designed in such a way that people are less inclined to troll and hate on each other, or if it's just the nature of the type of players Dreams attracts. Either way, the social features are seamlessly integrated and, so far, have made the game a delightfully positive space.
If you're looking to see what professionals can do with the toolset, Media Molecule has produced a short story named Art's Dream. It tells the tale of a musician who's fallen out with his bandmates, and you're taken on a self-reflective journey as Art comes to terms with his struggles. It's only a couple of hours long, but rest assured that it has all the hallmarks of the studio. It's a little darker than their usual material, but the wit and warmth come pouring out of this musical adventure. You'll go from moody point-and-clicking to cutesy fantasy action to sci-fi platforming, and it all looks and feels great. Obviously, it was all made within Dreams, but some of the things you'll see and play put many "real" games to shame. As good as it is, though, the real point of Art's Dream is to inspire and to show the breadth of what's possible, and with its three distinct styles, we'd call that mission accomplished.
So, here we have a PS4 title featuring extremely powerful tools with which you can make more or less anything; a social network of weird and wonderful creations to get lost in, and a friendly community ready to embrace whatever you throw at it; and a lovely example piece from the developer that tells a great story to boot. What the developer has accomplished is astonishing. There are so many ways a game like this could fall down, but the end result is cohesive, understandable, and exceedingly well put together. Everything in the game, from community jams to Imp Quests, feeds into the act of either playing a variety of content, or making your own. It has its flaws; the Homespace is a nice landing spot but is somewhat pointless. Load times are generally lightning fast, but performance varies from dream to dream, depending on the complexity of whatever you're playing. And of course, your mileage with the tools will vary wildly -- you likely won't be making masterpieces in minutes.
But to mark the game down for these sorts of limitations would be a mistake, especially as this is something that will evolve over time. Right now, there's nothing on PS4 -- or any platform, for that matter -- quite like Dreams. It's Media Molecule at its absolute best, and the studio has delivered on its promise of giving players the ability to make whatever they want. It's absolutely one of the console's best games, as it not only shows the power of the PS4, but the power of community and creativity.

Conclusion

It may have taken the better part of a decade to make, but the arrival of Dreams feels significant. It represents a whole new way for people to make things and share them with the world. Media Molecule has made a suite of tools that feel intuitive to use, but more than that, it's built a social platform where players can collaborate and explore the imaginations of others. It's a technical marvel, a creative miracle, and one of the most innovative games in years

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