Through The Nightmares spins childhood fears into a devilish platformer
Sure are a lot of spinning blades in this dream
Magic Week could use a dash more dark magic, I reckon. Through The Nightmares may not be about spellcasting and amateur alchemy, but it still draws upon the arcane and otherworldly, setting its deviously difficult action-platforming inside the sleepscapes of frightened children.
You are the Sandman, and you are neither sprinkling happy dust on Danish eyelids nor delivering Liberace-haired boyfriends to vocal quartets. Instead, you’re an active fighter of nightmares, diving into the brains of restless kids to explore their most traumatic memories and, ultimately, defeat the monstrous embodiments of their fears.
As it happens, a lot of children dream of 2D platforming. At its core, Through The Nightmares is a vaguely Super Meat Boy-esque runner and jumper, with no direct combat and instant death (followed by nearly-instant respawns) from a variety of environmental hazards. Hazards often drawn from the child’s unpleasant memories: the demo I played takes place in dark forest covered in deadly thorn traps, the creation of a kid who’d previously got lost in the woods.
The level design is competent enough, even if it sometimes feels like it’s serving up a folklore-flavoured versions of collapsing terrain and circular saws I’ve jumped over a thousand times before. And it’s tricky without demanding absolute, to-the-pixel accuracy to your movements, which strikes a nice balance for challenge. Games like these need a gimmick, mind, and Through the Nightmares has a pretty good one in the Sandman’s shrinking power.
Ol’ Sandy can shift between tiny and full-size forms at will, affecting not just the ability to squeeze though gaps but your weight as well. This is deployed in various interesting ways, and often requires fine timing for success. For instance, breakable platforms won’t crumble when Sandman is shrunk, but because he can’t jump as high or far in this state (little legs, y’know), you’ve got a split second to embiggen and leap away before a spike pit breaks your fall. In the demo’s climactic moment, which sends Sandman plummeting through a chasm, you can changes sizes to speed or slow your descent, granting more control in avoiding the dangers that are following you down.
In fact, once you acquire it a few minutes in, this shapeshifting power is in near-constant demand, becoming as fundamental as jumping. It ended up reminding me less of any Meat Boy adventure and more of 2012’s Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, another platformer that jazzed up traversal with an instant-swap mechanic’ one that regularly needs to be engaged mid-jump and/or under immense time pressure. Through the Nightmares is a lower-budget affair, though still feels technically tight and successfully pulls off the unsettling atmosphere it’s aiming for.
I also like how you can pick up special flasks and drop them to create a respawn point of your choosing, though I did end up hoarding most of the ones I found with the same “I might need it later” paranoia that I always applied to Skyrim potions. Maybe if the Sandman entered my nightmares, he’d have to climb a pile of prematurely emptied bottles.