The tinny sound of calliope music echoes in your ears, intermittently overcome by the shrieks of little children and the bellowing of barkers. Wandering, leaves crunching underfoot, wafts of familiar scents evoking pleasure, buttery popcorn, spun sugar, batter coated food frying overlay an undertone of machine oil. Dizzying sights of whirling lights pierce the darkness of night as a chill wind caresses the skin, raising goose bumps; magic and mystery are in the air tonight. The coming of fall brings one of childhood's delights, the traveling carnival, but as you get older doesn't it all seem a bit creepy? The bright lights cannot quite mask the rot and decay that is noticeable close up, and cast strange and frightening shadows on the faces of workers and fair-goers alike. Underneath the surface it seems as if something lurks, something perhaps evil, and Dreamland, the latest adventure/hidden object hybrid by AstarGames captures this mood perfectly. Perhaps a little too perfectly, as you might never view a traveling carnival or circus the same way again. Or sleep really well after playing.
A quick, frightening animation sets the scene as a young man flees for his life from a carnival that has come alive, attempting to keep him inside. That boy is your younger brother, who has not escaped unharmed, and it is up to you to trace his steps and fight the evil that has damaged his soul. The malignant dwarf who runs the carnival likes to play games, you see, and the price for failure is very high. You as the player must try to beat him at his own game, solving puzzles, finding hidden objects, and navigating your way through the maze that is this evil place, while your opponent gloats via a loudspeaker system that is everywhere. Can you succeed in saving your brother's soul?
Dreamland plays like a standard hidden object/adventure hybrid, with a changing cursor, navigation arrows, and the ever-present glittering dots in the scenery. Sparkles can indicate places to examine, hidden object scenes, objects that can be collected and mini-games and puzzles. Once you solve your way past the gates (requiring a minor blood sacrifice) there is a handy map to be found that allows you to not only navigate the area but also lets you know where new hidden object scenes have triggered and allows the player to "jump" from one location to another quickly. Every hidden object scene will yield one useful object that will go into your inventory, and each scene also includes at least one item that you must "create" either by assembling pieces or interacting with other objects.
Navigation is not quite as simple as pointing and clicking, however. Areas of the carnival are protected by gates, each one a mini-game or puzzle. Once you solve your way through the gates, each attraction or ride requires a ticket, which can only be obtained by spending a special coin (found along the way) and playing the Wheel of Fortune, itself a match-3 mini-game that gets more difficult with each ticket earned. The first mini-games and puzzles are very easy, but the difficulty increases as you wind your way further and further into the dwarf's lair, hopefully attaining your ultimate goal of finding the heart of the carnival, beating the dwarf's puzzles, and rescuing your brother's soul.
Analysis: What sets Dreamland apart from the crowd of adventure/hidden object hybrids is the fact that it has all the bells and whistles of a more expensive (read: Collector's Edition) game for the price of a standard release. Gameplay is gratifyingly longer than usual for the hybrids on the market and the puzzles, while familiar, are fun and actually increase in difficulty along the way. The hidden object scenes are tough, cluttered scenes and there are even two (not one, but two) side quests to search for extra objects as well.
The graphics are eerily beautiful, capturing both the magic and the underlying decay of the traveling carnie. Adding to the atmosphere is the unobtrusive yet creepy music, the haunting incidental sounds (creaking wood, rustling leaves, etc.) and the annoying boasting of your enemy over the loudspeakers as you progress from one location to the next. The hidden object scenes are dark and a little grainy, and very, very cluttered. A handy refilling hint timer (that fills extremely slowly) doubles as help within the hidden object scenes as well as outside, letting you know (if you dare to ask) where to go next. You also have the standard notebook which keeps track of the story and clues along the way as well as that magical map.
Ah, the map, one of the best features of the game. The map serves three purposes: it helps you keep track of the rides and attractions in this winding maze of a carnival, it allows the player to "jump" instantly from one place to another (cutting down on the "back and forthing" so common to many adventure hybrids), and it allows a player to find hidden objects scenes that have reactivated for a second (and/or third) time, cutting down on even more wandering while trying to figure out what to do next. The puzzles and mini-games are skippable after a certain amount of time as well.
The only minor downside to Dreamland is the graininess and darkness of some of the hidden object scenes, making them a bit difficult for old, tired eyes. The puzzles are not original and for the most part pretty easy, but also feature some amusing fun like a shooting gallery and an amazing evolution/progression puzzle similar to the Grow series of games. The atmosphere is spooky, the story hooks you immediately, and the gameplay is refreshingly long for a standard issue adventure hybrid. This is not a game that you will finish ten minutes after the demo runs out.
Beautiful, engaging, lengthy, difficult, Dreamland is everything that you could want in a hidden object/adventure hybrid and more. A feast for the eyes, ears, and brains, evoking that long ago distrust of the traveling carnival and showing the evil that can lurk beneath the surface of any childhood fantasy. Take the time to enjoy the experience and the thrills of Dreamland. And bonus points to anyone who can identify the closing quote.
"All the meanness we harbor, they borrow in redoubled spades. They're a billion times itchier for pain, sorrow, and sickness than the average man. We salt our lives with other people's sins. Our flesh to us tastes sweet. But the carnival doesn't care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. That's the fuel, the vapor that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the scream from real or imagined wounds."