Impressions: Niko – Through The Dream

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.

Well, quite.

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.

Hello!

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.

11 Comments

  1. sub-program 32 says:

    Well that sucks. Many of the Steam reviews don’t adress these control issues, with the exception of one, but generally things appear rather mixed.

  2. webwielder says:

    “Mixed” Steam reviews are code for “pretty awful”.

  3. webwielder says:

    If you want to play a terribly named dreamy first-person puzzle platformer but with good controls, fun puzzles, and no pretension or attempts at profundity, I highly recommend Q-beh 1: The Atlas Cube.

    • sub-program 32 says:

      I already have that game, though I did not finish it because my computer got replaced. Might need to play that one again and see if it actually ported my savegame via Steam. XD Also there is a game called Tri which looks good too.

      • Sarfrin says:

        I bought Tri by mistake based on a vague memory of a preview of the Talos Principle. It’s quite enjoyable but the voiceover is terrible.

    • Sarfrin says:

      I was hoping this would turn out to be good, so thanks for the reco of something similar that is. :)

    • Premium User Badge

      SuddenSight says:

      I agree with the recommend, though I dispute the “dream-like” characterization. Maybe I missed something, but Q-Beh seems like a straight puzzler with no real story.

      On the other hand, I strongly recommend it if only for the level design. Though it isn’t the most high-def, prettiest thing ever, the levels are extremely well crafted – no invisible walls, sparing use of real walls, but I haven’t found a way to “break” anything. In fact, the game encourages you to find shortcuts by rewarding you for minimizing cube usage (this isn’t terribly overt, mind, and can easily be ignored).

  4. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Glad I held off on this one. Shame, it looked like a game I would’ve enjoyed.

  5. jezcentral says:

    When was the last time John smiled? Even Deus Ex wasn’t enough for him. :(

    I’m not saying he’s wrong, but someone should get him to review better games. Hopefully Just Cause 3 will unfreeze his heart.

  6. holy_knight says:

    What a severely biased impressions. You simply destroy some weak points when the game has many virtues. Play something else, definitively this game is not for you.

  7. sylvrashlyn says:

    I have to stay I strongly disagree with this review. I am currently in my second running of the game, and I’m still greatly enjoying it. Yes, the controls are sometimes difficult to manage and can require minute adjustments, but I’ve never had many problems with it. I HAVE found however that it does matter how sensitive your MOUSE is. Using a friend’s mouse made the game much easier to play than using my own, but mine is far more sensitive.

    As far as lack of story, IF you are willing to take the time to solve all the puzzles and really explore the world, there is a very simple, but interesting story to be told, and that story is the reason I am playing it a second time. You have to FIND them though. If you just play the game to play though the levels and move on, you miss a LOT. The whole point of the game is exploring the level to find the overarching story. Every level has one story part, but it isn’t always obvious where it is for you to watch. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone though.

    Lastly, as far as the animations are concerned, it’s just the artist’s style, and if you pay attention, there are several hints in the opening animation to give you an understanding of what the story base is. The in-level animations and other pieces found by exploring the levels enhance and give details to the beginning animation’s hints. But you have to be patient, and you have to look for details.

    No, the game is NOT for everyone. But there is a lot more to it than I think this reviewer was willing to look for. I strongly suggest giving it a shot for yourself. This game does have a lot to offer for someone who is interested in exploring and has an open minded imagination. Both my friend and I are definitely fans.