Some people believe dreams are memories collected over the day's time, assembled into a sort of psychic collage that defies description. Others believe that they are prophecies, glimpses of fates not yet transpired in a time when our minds are free to sail to such distant shores. We can attempt to understand them with REM and our so-called science, but when it comes right down to it, the vast majority of us have absolutely no idea what dreams are. We submit to them come bedtime, we perform on their strange stage, and then we awaken in the morning, unmarked but not always unscathed. Sometimes the process is not quite as simple, however, and many times has a dreamer lost sight of the path to morning. What becomes of these people, and where do they wander? This is the realm of the Waker, the star of Poof Games' latest concoction.
You control a mystical, catlike quadruped whose sole purpose is to repair the roads by which drifting dreamers can return to the world of day. This requires collecting wisps, sprinkled across a series of elaborate dreamscapes. You'll use the arrow keys to traverse these worlds, including [up] (or [space]) for all your jumping needs. [D] is an all-purpose interaction key, perfect for picking up or dropping objects as well as flipping switches. [S] prompts your Waker to sprint at breakneck speed, which becomes necessary to solve some of the later puzzles. And the puzzles are plentiful.
Nestled in the levels are enchanted orbs, which will conjure a platform for however long you keep the orb in your paws. Now, what shape that platform takes depends on variables keyed to the specific kind of orb. For example, one brand of globe might alter the platform's slope based on how fast you're running at the time, while another could change with your position within the level itself. Then there's black spheres of nightmare that can warp you back to the start with a touch, self-made prisons of summoned platforms...no one said the life of a Waker was easy.
Analysis: Waker is a project born from GAMBIT, Singapore-MIT's game design lab, and the multidisciplinary input shows. The art and animation invoke the phantasmal in such a way that it's not hard to believe that this idea could have been hauled from the same place dreams come from. Little touches breathe life into the Waker and the world, like the blinking of one eye at a time should you let the creature sit still for a few moments. The music is softly whimsical, the same way a child's dream should be.
While the writing sets up the game quite marvelously, what with the Wakers and the Dreamtime and associated fantasies, the story starts to fade as the game progresses, being delivered to the player in short injections between one world and the next. It's a tad disappointing to have the developers weave all this vibrant lore about what happens when the lights go out, only to have it squeezed into the cracks. It would have been nicer to see the story dovetail with the gameplay more smoothly, but there's still a lot more creativity at work here than your average puzzle game.
The platforming can be as tidy or as troublesome as you'd like; it really boils down to the way you sculpt it. If you can manage to get all your orb-empowered platforms to only have steps at right angles and swerve perfectly through every obstacle, than the platforming ought to be a walk in the park, with dreams for trees. More often than not, however, your platforms will not be works of aesthetic splendor. They'll probably be bumpy, or spiky, or look like a dying man's ECG. And it's in these cases where you run afoul of some wonky physics; you might not be able to jump as high as usual, or perhaps even not at all. Usually, these situations involve such gnarled platforms that you can understand why you can't scurry up that 88-degree slope, but just remember that the cleaner your platforms, the better.
The challenges are all puzzles in the purest sense of the word: they encourage experimentation on the player's part, they may require some unorthodox thinking, and there will be more than one instance of you face-palming as an elusive solution suddenly dawns on you. While the game might be short for those who attack it head-on, it's certainly a trip worth taking, and the dazzling visuals coupled with the imaginative tale of the Wakers marks this game as one of the most innovative puzzlers to date. Now don't let me keep you, for there's already a child lost in the slumber, hoping for someone, anyone to show them the way home.
Well? The Waker is waiting.