Dreaming Sarah is a quizzical little platformer that has you exploring the dream world of a girl in a coma. Dreams are often an invitation for fiction writers to do basically as they please with wanton absurdity or meaningful but unusually conveyed messages. While Dreaming Sarah does not hold back on the surreal, it does trend a bit closer to the typical reality of dreams wherein somewhat strange things happen and are just accepted as part of the reality your sleeping mind is visiting.
Dreaming Sarah really feels like a hard game to properly define. It has some unsettling moments and imagery but nothing that pushes things into actual horror. Dreaming Sarah offsets that though with some cute art, strange characters, and some silly fun all peppered around a game that’s held together by very loose connections between events. Things start off simple enough, dropping you into an environment with a few token platforming puzzles to ease you into the game. The level of skill needed to succeed in Dreaming Sarah never really pushes beyond that, with a few moments you can fail a jump, hit a spike, or fall into lava, but all it does it set you back a little and make you go again. The platforming exists in service of the exploration, most of Dreaming Sarah’s content being devoted to sending you about in search of new items to help you progress and stumble across the next strange situation. Most of the appeal of the game is the procession of dreamlike strangeness you come across, and thankfully, while subdued, it does deliver on giving you curious things to wonder about as you wander about.
The tour through this dream world is of course the highlight of Dreaming Sarah, and it certainly keeps things interesting as you progress. It’s hard to guess what is coming next, it’s just a shame that these things see so little elaboration. You’ll encounter something weird or interesting and it has only one purpose in this world, if that. I can’t deny that it sparks an urge for discovery though, as Dreaming Sarah keeps up its ability to surprise as you progress, even if everything is fairly subdued and a bit too oblique for its own good. It’s clear there is meant to be an underlying meaning to the things you encounter on this journey, but the game doesn’t really give many clues to what they could be, Sarah remaining silent and most dialog from other characters in the game focused on their little bubble in this dream world. While the pixel art and visual design make Dreaming Sarah’s world interesting, there aren’t many compelling characters, images, or moments to latch onto, making it feel a bit like flipping through an art book for a franchise you don’t follow.
Learning more about the game world is an interesting task, but the process of going about it hurts what could have otherwise been a fine tour of creativity. Sarah has only a few locations she can ever go to at a time, with new paths and areas opening up once you’ve managed to hit a certain trigger. While some progression is a bit clearer like finding items that let you reach new areas or talking to characters to trigger events, sometimes Dreaming Sarah will just leave you without any real direction on where to go next or how its world has changed thanks to your latest activity. Far too often Dreaming Sarah will leave you with no obvious direction to go in, requiring you to scour the available areas for something new that sprouted up without any real connection to whatever triggered its appearance. There is a compass that will guide you to items you might need or places to go, but it’s surprisingly fickle and won’t always help you, sometimes going haywire or fixating on the wrong area entirely. It has the feeling of an adventure game but without any of the connections those games usually have between their items and events, and since traversal in Dreaming Sarah is slow even when you have shortcuts open, the process of finding what random things might have changed drags down an otherwise charming and unusual experience.
The constant walking back and forth doesn’t really add much either. I can understand that dreams may have strange things appear without any meaning, but even a dream can connect its pieces better. Retreading the same ground repeatedly just in case the most recent random change happens to be there is not engaging. An orange juice stand just cropped up without provocation after I had no obvious way of progressing for a while, the game drew my attention to a bullet that is only necessary for a secret, and the game will sometimes drop you into an area that gives the impression you need to be there when your true way of advancing is elsewhere entirely. Confusion is a core component of a dream but it’s not very interesting to experience directionless confusion where things are obfuscated just for the sake of seeming strange. It’s a shame too, because if everything had a more clearly connected path forward or at least pushed you in the right direction more often, Dreaming Sarah would have been a fine little adventure through an unusual world of the mind.
Despite it being the only egregious fault with Dreaming Sarah, the backtracking in hopes of bumbling into sudden progression is not so common that it destroys the experience, it just stands out as an overly present annoyance. There’s usually something clearly meant to be the way to progress that just requires an element to give, just every now and then that element isn’t something that even seems connected to what you’re trying to do. To get to enjoy the locations, you have to put up with the game’s meandering composition. A bit more cohesion in the game’s throughline wouldn’t have to sacrifice the disconnected nature of the game world, but Dreaming Sarah seems to commit a little too hard to being surreal even when that doesn’t pay off with something interesting.
THE VERDICT: Despite all the backtracking, Dreaming Sarah is still a short experience with enough packed into it to be an interesting adventure. Its gameplay is simple but its world is diverse, but while you will be exploring this world quite a bit due to how progression is laid out, you’ll find the themes and symbols aren’t explored very much at all.
And so, I give Dreaming Sarah for PC…
An AVERAGE rating. Cute, silly, and a bit unsettling, Dreaming Sarah is an intriguing journey through a visually interesting dreamscape, but it wears out its welcome by having you traverse its entirety a bit too much. It builds up a pretty good atmosphere of unease but leaves a bit too much vague perhaps to try and encourage discussion, but there’s not really enough direction to continue the conversation beyond the few more obvious symbols in the game. It still manages to be interesting despite it’s shortcomings, but it’s not going to make any waves since it won’t commit to much besides its poor approach to making progress.
Dreaming Sarah is no nightmare, but like most dreams people have, it will come and go without leaving too much of an impression. It’s a brief trip through strangeness that is interesting to see, but that’s about it.