Niko: Through The Dream [official site] is a ghastly title, but is it a ghastly game? I’ve been wandering through its dream-ish puzzles for a good while, to give you my impressions:
Niko offers style over substance like an empty Armani shopping bag. Confusing vacuity for mysticism, awkwardness for difficulty, and hackneyed tropes for esoterica. And it’s really clumsily made.
It is a first-person puzzle game, deliberately ambiguous about your goals, full of floating windmills and glowing lights, in what I suppose is meant to be reminiscent of dreamscapes. You could argue, perhaps, it might be the dream of a 90s Nintendo sprite.
A seemingly interminable opening sequence unfortunately combines Westernised Manga-style doodles with GCSE art lesson pencil sketches, in an incoherent and achingly boring stream of twaddle, making the arrival of the game engine something of a relief. However, as you begin stumbling around in a series of floating-in-the-air puzzles, its floaty controls and terrible feedback offer little more.
Options are few and far between. You can select your resolution, and put the game in a window (although it forgets these settings when you restart), but there’s nothing there for changing music, volumes, mouse sensitivity (set very high), controls, nor even knowing what the controls might be. And that means there’s also not an option for turning off the absolutely idiotic head bobbing. You are playing, it seems, a nodding dog on a spring.
Pausing offers three unintelligible icons to click on, none of which is “return to game”, meaning you have to play button roulette to find options or the main menu without quitting to desktop.
Jumping is incredibly poor, making any section that requires scaling objects or catching ledges enormously tiresome. The floatiness of your movement, and a weird artificial tug when you’re too near an edge, combine with invisible barriers and required guesswork to ensure frequent failure.
It even attempts boss fights. One sequence has you dodging (since you have no means to fight back) attacks from some giant masked thing, that’s horribly clumsily made. Dodge it a few times in a row and it’ll try to show you a new point on its head you can teleport to, but to do this it madly moves you to somewhere you weren’t standing to do so. By the second stage some other beastie is revealed in a painfully slow sequence, that then does nothing other than attack you in a cutscene after you’ve already teleported safely back to the head, meaning you’re in two places at once, bewildered, and bored.
There are swimming sections that completely fail to usefully represent when you’re running out of air before it’s impossible to get to the surface, jumping sections that would be fun if you didn’t slide off every surface, and large-scale puzzles that occasionally verge toward decent, but are always brought down by the controls.
One level a good way in has you scaling a huge array of staircases and blocks, and it should be a treat to work out the routes around it to find all the little floating cubes. But instead it’s an exercise in frustration, as you make frantic micro-adjustments to your drifting jumps, and then slide off the surface anyway.
None of it is helped by the complete lack of purpose. Yes, solving puzzles to get to the next puzzle is often enough to keep going, and it’s the reason why I haven’t just torn this up and thrown it over my shoulder. But when there’s nothing tangible going on, no coherent meaning, just lots of ethereal gubbins and faux-significant nonsense, it becomes more than a touch alienating.
There are some decent puzzle sections in here, although they’re hours in. But each is brought down by the controls, the mouse sensitivity (that you can, I’ve discovered, adjust by editing ini files – utterly unacceptable), and that every surface appears to have been made of highly polished and Vaselined ice cubes.
Dreamy puzzle games are a particular favourite of mine, so it’s odd to have been quite so repelled by this one. Not just mechanically, which are the game’s ultimate failings, but thematically too. It feels artificial, over-forced, and extremely clumsy. Things are smeary and opaque because dreams, right?
Certainly your mileage may vary when it comes to your reaction to the themes, but until the controls are fixed, sharpened, this is very hard to recommend at all. And it’s hard to see how it’ll ever be less glitchy or more focused. Not a nightmare, but certainly not dreamy.
Niko: Through The Dream is on Steam for £7.