Bad Dream: Coma (Xbox) | Review

Bad Dream: Coma is a horror-themed 2D point-and-click adventure, involving problem-solving to progress through each of its eight chapters. The Xbox/S/X version costs £8.39, and is also available on Playstation 4/5 and PC.

I’ll be honest. I don’t like point and click games. I never have, although it isn’t for a lack of trying. I grew up in their heyday, in an era awash with The Curse of Monkey Island series, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Westwood’s Blade Runner to name but a few, but I just couldn’t quite connect with games that required sometimes obtuse leaps of logic or using multi-functional objects in often extremely specific ways to negate obstacles. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time.

Of course this pre-existing bias makes me the perfect candidate to review Desert Fox’s Bad Dream: Coma, the third instalment in their Bad Dream dark adventure/mystery series.

NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP

As its blank slate protagonist, Bad Dream: Coma wastes little time throwing you in at the deep end of not only its simple core gameplay loop but the absurdity of its twisted nightmare logic. Within seconds of beginning the player is deposited in a surreal dreamscape, trapped and unable to wake up. Your quest is simple: find out why you and several other NPC dreamers are stranded in this bizarre landscape, and return to the waking world. The complete lack of any traditional preamble is an interesting creative decision that leaves you unsettled and wrong-footed for the much of the game as you second-guess the relevance of rational actions in an irrational realm.

For anyone familiar with the genre, you’re in for immediate nostalgia whiplash from minute one. Each chapter consists of a map of static scenes based around a particular location, with player movement being restricted to directional arrows within each scene and regularly involves players having to unblock or create routes to progress. The right stick controls the mouse pointer that can be swept over a given scene to discover interactables to activate with the A button, while the bumpers select items from your inventory with which to interact with the environment. This is all pretty stock stuff and feels rather stark on a console but luckily BD:C has some other tricks in its sinister repertoire to surprise and delight.

A quick look in the status menu reveals some less than stock wrinkles. The first of which is a morality system, of the standard ‘good’/’neutral’/’bad’ variety. Bad Dream: Coma is designed for multiple playthroughs with the possibility of different outcomes but there’s no great fanfare to this unusual approach, nothing during gameplay to state what is, in fact, good, neutral or bad. Like the problem-solving that forms the meat of the game, you just need to figure it out as you go. This adds meaningful consequences to the proceedings that shape your experience with the game by altering character interactions and puzzle solutions based on your conduct.

However, this creates a problem for someone who, charitably speaking, is lousy at these games (or has never played point-and-click games before). With monotonous and inevitable regularity, I would find myself sweeping the screen with the cursor and jabbing the A button to discover some interactive object that is barring progress through the chapter. But littered throughout Coma‘s perverse landscape are objects that oftentimes will react adversely to your random button-bashing (many less obvious than others), altering your morality and, by extension, the dream world through which you navigate.

Clowns: the staple of any somnambulist’s enjoyable adventures.

ENTER SANDMAN

The different morality states create a natural replayability for the game that is novel enough to attract the curious, but the lack of clear sign-posting or tutorialisation feels less like the tough-love, lack of handholding of a hardcore game that From Software have famously trademarked and more like poor design. It doesn’t require a huge amount of effort (or mistakes) to achieve neutral or bad morality which, again, seems short-sighted to force a restart within the first few minutes of play when accidental blunders are most likely to occur and experimentation should be encouraged, especially in a game whose logic is unconventional.

A further stirring of the point-and-click recipe are status effects. These are impediments or boons that, like the morality meter, carry over between chapters and help to subtly change the interactions and puzzles of your run as well. For example, a particular interaction left me blind in one eye, forcing me to seek out a character who supplied a new eyeball that would allow me to read text for the remainder of the game.

Like the morality meter, the statuses are a welcome addition to what is normally a generally linear genre, but they also have the same fundamental problem: they’re inherently part of the overall problem-solving of BD:C, requiring players to deduce the correct actions to achieve their desired morality, but that mechanic is not advertised as such to the player.

The visual style of BD:C is undoubtedly arresting: monotone scrawled illustrations (seemingly composed by the love-child of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton) with the odd splash of blood-red that are accurate enough to be recognisable but also distorted enough to be disturbing. It’s an effective style choice that steeps the game in atmosphere, giving even the most innocent of surroundings a haunting, morbid air.

That being said, the spurious strokes of penmanship that create the visuals can also get in the way of the gameplay at times. Fine detail areas in the scenery containing useful objects can often appear to be stylistic scribblings or messy ink blots which leads to frustrating epiphanies quite literally hiding in plain sight. There is also the odd occasion where direction arrows that allow the player to move from one scene to the next get lost in the artwork or are even obscured by the UI.

Accompanying the game’s doleful visuals is an original soundtrack that is equally effective at immersing the player in the unsettling world of Bad Dream. From the off-key lullaby of the main menu to the some of the more ‘surprising’ jump scare FX, Coma excels at promoting an unwelcoming environment that spurs the player on. Sadly, the musical score – though perfectly competent – is quite limited, generally running to one theme per chapter that is looped for the duration of it, and this can prove quite grating, especially when stuck at a problem and forced to comb through scenes repeatedly.

“Waiter? There’s something wrong with my soup but I can quite put my finger on what…”

SUMMARY

While it operates on a slim premise and has minimal mechanics, Bad Dream: Coma certainly delivers on its pocket-friendly price tag, weighing in at 7-8 hours of game play on a single playthrough and is not without unconventional production design charm that sells a nicely unsettling story. Unfortunately, despite interesting mechanics that add a further global layer to the traditional problem-solving of the genre and invite skilful replay to uncover all of the various permutations available, BD:C is still very much a game with limited appeal due to the constraints of its production and the mechanics of point-and-click games in general.

While I’m a champion of only molly-coddling the player as much as they need, I’m also a fan of onboarding the player sufficiently that they understand the stakes of the game and its systems clearly. Coma fumbles that first-time onboarding in favour of immersing the player in its odd world and, while fans of the point-and-click genre will probably find this an engaging challenge, that leaves first timers or casual players with a dissatisfying skill cliff to mount from the outset, rather than drawing them into the mystery and forcing them to develop the traits necessary to succeed. That doesn’t mean that Coma can’t be enjoyable. Those in the point-and-click community and, I imagine, streamers will relish the challenge of figuring out the successful sequence required for each morality ending and I think the dream-logic puzzles lend themselves to the co-operative experience of thinking out loud.

Bad Dream: Coma is a flawed but enthusiastic entry in an overlooked genre that clearly still has some measure of appeal.

 

3 Stars

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