Maybe Halloween doesn't have to just be about Frankensteins and warty-faced witches. Could there be room for a more subtle brand of terror, a terror found in the sleeping minds of Japanese schoolgirls, terror that includes a cloaked swordsman with blades in his knees? Well, I'm going to find out by playing Riot / Telenet Japan's 1992 Super Famicom dream-warriors-em-up Psycho Dream!
I'm not sure who the "psycho" in the title refers to. I don't think it's the main characters, but when you see how they're dressed you'll understand why I can't say that for certain. The dream portion is at least more understandable, and before we get into the action, here's what I've managed to piece together of the plot via Google-translated wiki pages and the very meagre crumbs of plot the game itself feeds to you.
It is an alternate version of the early Nineties, where Betamax lost out to VHS and VHS lost out in turn to "D Movies," a kind of cyberpunky, neural-jack, in-brain entertainment system. Sometimes people love D Movies so much that their minds are lost inside and they become "sinkers," unable to escape from their dream-like state. To rescue the sinkers, the National Public Safety Committee sets up a squad codenamed Diamond Dogs - the chairman had obviously been listening to some late glam-period Bowie at the time - made up of special dream-proof operatives who can enter the mind of a sinker and rescue them from whatever their fate may be. Some really hefty late fees from Blockbuster, presumably.
Two of these Diamond Dogs are called Ryo Shizima and Maria Tobari, and they're Psycho Dream's playable characters, tasked with rescuing a schoolgirl named Sayaka from her own dream. There's not much to choose between them, so I started with Ryo because his name was at the top of the list.
I'm happy with my choice, because Ryo looks like a cross between Little Red Riding Hood, Napoleon Bonaparte and the hero of a hitherto-unbroadcast tokusatsu show about interstellar highwaymen. I feel like Adam Ant should be singing a song about this guy while dressed as this guy.
A light shower of insectoid enemies is falling on Ryo, but that's no problem because he's got a sword. The usual action-adventure controls apply: press Y to swing your weapon and B to jump, although Psycho Dream goes a little further by having L and R as the run buttons. That's fine if you just want to, like, run somewhere, but holding L or R also makes you jump higher and so you end up holding them down most of the time anyway. Pressing A unleashes a special attack that hits all enemies currently on the screen, and your limited supply of these special attack is indicated by the "F.AT" counter at the top left. Also, holding L and pressing X causes you to die instantly. What fun! The only reason I can think of for including a suicide command is that it's likely that the player will be getting stuck in places they can't escape from without feeling the sweet embrace of death. That... doesn't bode well.
It doesn't take long to stumble across your first power-up - stumble across, slice from the body of a jelly-beast, whatever - and thus I'm forced to explain Psycho Dream's upgrade system. You ready? Stay with me on this. Power-ups come in the form of these gem-like items, and more often than not the ones you see will alternate between being blue and being yellow. Pick up a crystal while it's blue and your character gains a ranged attack which improves with each consecutive blue crystal you grab - for instance, Ryo gets a blue laser beam that becomes three- and six- way as it's powered up.
Taking the yellow crystals works the same way but improves your short-range melee attacks instead. In the picture above, you can see that the repeated consumption of yellow crystals has caused Ryo to sprout sickles from every nook and cranny of his body. Sure, it makes it real difficult for him to get through airport security but now he can attack with the grace of a ballerina and the sheer bladed fury of Freddy Krueger mowing his lawn. Collecting a gem of the opposite colour will switch you from melee to ranged attacks or vice-versa, but the upgrades don't stop there - once you've collected enough gems of the same colour, red gems will start to appear. Collecting one of those will transform your character into their ultimate form.
Ryo's ultimate form is 100 percent robot. It's pretty sweet.
Being in your maxed-out form gives you both the fully upgraded melee and ranged attacks at the same time. This sounds like it might make your character a touch overpowered, and that's because it does... or at least it does early in the game where there are fewer enemies to bash into you, because after taking a certain number of hits you lose your souped-up powers and are dropped right back to the basic moveset you had at the start.
There are other colours of crystals that pop up from time to time - green orbs give you a temporary shield, pink ones restore health - but most of the focus is on increasing your "level" and switching between close-range or long-range attacks as the situation dictates. It's an important feature of the game and one that comes into its own once you've played a stage a few times, because by then you'll know if a section will be easier to navigate if you have swords coming out of your knees or laserbeams outta your, well, wherever Ryo fires his lasers from.
That's enough (more than enough) about the power-ups, though - how does Psycho Dream actually play? Rather unsurprisingly, given that it was developed by the creators of the Valis series, it plays a lot like the Valis games. Side-scrolling action of the slightly clunky variety, where there's not much specifically unpleasant about the experience - the controls are responsive, there's a decent balance to the difficulty - but you're left feeling that there could be more to the whole experience: more elegance, more flow, more surprises. It's summed up nicely by the enemies' attitude to Ryo, which is one of almost complete indifference. Slime creatures, mutant birds and corridor-patrolling slug-snakes are all out in force, but none of them seem that bothered about dealing with this cape-wearing dream invader. They just go about their business, whatever that may be, and if you happen to walk into them and take damage then that's just an added bonus, something to tell their mates about down the pub later but not the central focus of their day.
While the monsters are so far a little underwhelming, I have no complaints about the setting. Sayaka's endless dream is of a typical Japanese city, but one that's seemingly abandoned by humanity and is falling into disrepair. Monsters aside it's all fairly normal, until you get halfway through the first stage and have to step though this strange vine-covered portal. Rather than sending you to the jungle-themed hell dimension it looks like this doorway should lead to, you end up in a series of banal grey corridors lit by flickering fluorescent lights.
I'm sure some players would be disappointed that the portal didn't lead to a lake of blood or a haunted house or something, but for me this slightly off version of a boring municipal building is much, much creepier and the subtlety of the unusual but still "normal" locations is so far Psycho Dream's strongest point.
The first boss is making a grab for that particular crown, mind you - a vast, amorphous, transparent blob that crashes in through the wall and attacks by poking its gelatinous tentacles out of the televisions in the background. It's pretty fantastic, and while it's difficult to capture its full glory in a still picture, you can still appreciate that it's a wonderfully grotesque slab of quivering ghost-flesh even when it's not pulsating.
Something you might appreciate less is the difficulty of this boss fight, because it's way, way harder than the preceding stage. The difference is so jarring it feels like this is a boss fight from a completely different game, although that's more down to the stage being very easy rather than the boss being extremely hard. Getting close is the main problem, especially if you're in melee mode, but once you've got a handle on the ebb and flow of the boss' tentacular movements you'll be able to get in there and start chopping away until the first stage is completed.
Psycho Dream refers to stages as "tracks" for some reason. Maybe Sayaka was thinking about making a bitchin' mixtape before she fell into her dream-coma. And there's Sayaka herself, patiently waiting for her rescuers while relaxing on an enormous duvet. At least she's comfortable.
The theme of warping realities continues into stage two as Ryo heads into the subway system. The subway is filled with rolling mists, knee-high water and hovering eyeballs that leak blood, so it's about the same as my previous experience on real-world underground transit systems. In fact, none of the enemies are buskers performing an awful cover of "Wonderwall" so the Psycho Dream universe is at least one step above our own.
On your way through the subway you'll encounter this glowing blue orb, a strange artefact that summons a swarm of giant wasps to attack you, its surface at once organic but also suggestive of strange runes and dark sigils carved by unknown hands. It's all sinister and mysterious for you, I mean: I was was rather removed from this air of mystery by only being able to see the pattern on the orb as an angry face with a big nose.
Yeah, kinda like that. Whether he's grumpy because he's covered in wasps or because I killed all his precious wasps babies, I can't say.
Things start getting nicely creepy once you reach the subway platforms, and the weirdness promised by the earlier areas begins to manifest itself as some fantastically bizarre creatures. The train in the background isn't waiting at the platform, it's actually moving through the station at full speed, covered in unblinking eyeballs. In the foreground are ranks of these strange, motionless bacilli, also silently watching the player character. They don't do anything, they just patiently wait for you to chop them down, all while staring at you with their single eyeball. They seem a little less unnerving once you realise they look like hotdogs with dreadlocks.
Also worthy of mention are these freakish foetus-beasts that float onto the screen in their amniotic sac before hatching into whatever the hell those things are supposed to be. These enemies also don't seem that bothered about killing the player, and after a while their bodies crumble and their heads roll off. If this really is Sayaka's dream, she either has some significant fears about motherhood or she's got a big biology test coming up soon and she hasn't studied for it.
Stage two's boss is a giant bat-thing with a head shaped like... well, why don't we just keep your impressions of what this thing's head reminds us of to ourselves, shall we? VGJunk is mostly as safe-for-work site, after all.
After the extremely impressive first boss, it was unlikely that stage two's head villain would ever match up, and so it proves to be. Don't get me wrong, Squishy Dragon-Bat here is still neat, with a bizarre twist on the familiar bat-boss shape. Why are its legs so tiny? What are those hole on its head for? Hey, it's not my dream, how am I supposed to know? I just smacked in in its head until it ran out of health.
I decided to switch to Maria for stage three, and when I say "switch to" I mean "play through the first two stages again" because it seems like you're locked into playing as whatever character you chose at the start. Not that it really matters, because there's almost no difference between the two playable characters, the main one being that Ryo looks like he's auditioning from the role of d'Artagnan in a cyberpunk reimagining of The Three Musketeers while Maria is dressed as your common-or-garden dominatrix, complete with whip.
The differences between the two only become apparent once Maria reaches her ultimate form. Her whip is replaced by claws, she sprouts butterfly wings that allow her to glide very slightly when the jump button is held down and most useful of all her projectiles become homing orbs. Extremely useful homing orbs, a fact that makes it much easier for me to declare that you should always play as Maria. When there's so little difference between the characters, you might as well pick the one that sometimes has homing attacks.
The homing attacks are especially useful in stage three, as it consists of a couple of long elevator sections where your goal is to destroy all the sprouting polyps that line the ceilings and the floors. While this level looks great, with the veiny biological drippings and vicious insects making for a fantastic contrast with the serene cityscape that gently scrolls past the windows, it's sadly a chore to play. Stand near a polyp and hit it until it disappears, move on to the next one, repeat. As I said, this is much more tolerable when you have Maria's homing shots because you can target more than one polyp at once, but otherwise it's a bit of a slog.
On the plus side, I've found Sayaka. All Maria has to do is carve her out of this fleshy egg-sac thing and we can all return to the real world and start dressing like normal people again. At least, I assume Ryo and Maria are only dressed the way they are because their in a dream, right? Maybe that's just how everyone dresses in the Diamond Dogs.
While I was pondering our heroes' sartorial choice, the boss showed up to teach me a lesson for fiddling with cocooned schoolgirls. It's a moth! A big moth with rainbow feelers that can shoot lightning at you. This fight is either very easy or extremely tedious, based solely on whether you're in your ultimate form. Does Maria have fairy wings and homing projectiles? Fantastic, just leap right at the boss and keep pressing attack and it should fall in no time. Only have your whip or your claws? Then you're going to struggle, because this moth is a coquettish sort and as soon as you get near it it skitters away like an embarrassed schoolgirl until it eventually floats off the right-hand side of the screen where you can't reach it. You have to lure it over to the other side of the screen, wait for it to fire its lightning and then move in close, repeating the process each time the moth gets too far away for you to hit. It's not much fun, but at least it's fairly easy to pull off.
It turns out that Sayaka hasn't been rescued after all - once the moth is dead, she just floats around indecisively for a while before vanishing - so it's on to the mean, cherry-blossom-lined, urban streets for the next phase of the rescue mission. It was here, as I used my dominatrix claw to slash at a disinterested dragon, that I realised Psycho Dream was not holding my attention as a game but rather as a visual spectacle. The gameplay isn't bad, but that's all it is - slightly convoluted power-up system aside, it's a competent if unimaginative side-scrolling hack-em-up that's occasionally frustrating due to the extremely short range of your melee moves and the slowness of projectile attack. The world, the setting, the enemies, though, they're all wonderful. Weirdness tempered with the everyday familiarity of the city environments, brought to life through detailed visuals, excellent colour palettes and neat graphical flourishes.
This means it's a real shame that Riot decided to give up on this theme towards the end of the game. This shift begins at the second half of stage four, which consists of a platforming section along a very generic-looking waterfall. The enemies are still great, because confused fish-men wondering how on earth they came to be standing on these narrow platforms instead of being in the sea are always fun, but the backgrounds are much less interesting that what I'd come to expect.
Even the boss is a little dull, as it's just a giant cicada that occasionally fires projectiles at you. I know the last boss was also just an insect, but at least the moth could launch lightning from its antennae and it had a battle plan beyond "sit there and don't do much".
Out of nowhere, stage five suddenly switches to an auto-scrolling gameplay as Ryo races through the city streets without being able to stop or slow down. Why? I don't know. Ryo himself doesn't seem to be in any particular hurry to get anywhere, and you can even turn around and walk to the left while the screen is scrolling to the right, so I'm going to put it down to Sayaka's failing mental state and the subsequent collapse of her dreamscape. Yeah, that's not a bad explanation considering I just pulled it out of my backside.
I'd also like to draw your attention to the enemy pictured in the screenshot above, because it's so gloriously bizarre I feel it deserves to be looked at that little bit harder. It's a little slug-like, with kind of an anglerfish quality to it, but cast in a vile shade of chewed-bubblegum pink. I have no idea what it is or how it functions, but I can tell you that if it existed in the real world I'd be building an aquarium right now to keep one in as a pet. I'd name him Pinky Slime and we would have adventures. Oh, such wonderful adventures.
Is this your dad, Pinky Slime? He seems friendly. That's not going to stop me stabbing him with my knee-swords, mind you. I hope you don't hold this against me and we can continue our friendship long into the future, Pinky Slime.
Now we've reached the sixth and final stage, and my complaints about Riot running out of ideas have reached their peak. In a game that has otherwise felt so strange and unusual by subtly warping the everyday world, for the final stage to be set in a bright purple mine (complete with minecarts) seems like a huge backward step. The whole thing feels like an unused, unfinished level from Bubsy the Bobcat or something, and once you take away Psycho Dream's ambience you're left with nothing much of note.
My displeasure with this stage may have also been increased somewhat by the way I kept attacking the background candles without even thinking about it, my mind subconsciously expecting goodies to fall out. Now that is truly Dracula's curse.
While the latter parts of the stage do get more interesting to look at they're even more tedious to play through than before - much like the polyps of stage three, you can only progress by destroying these veiny nodes, you can only hit one at a time and they take multiple hits to destroy, so the entire stage ends up feeling like pointless busy work. The idea is presumably that you're hacking your way through the final defences of Sayaka's sleeping mind, but there's no excitement to it, unless that's supposed to be Disneyland in the background in which case your childlike glee at travelling to the Magic Kingdom might keep you going.
The final boss of Psycho Dream goes for size over creepiness, although storing sleeping girls in your abdomen is still a little unnerving. In keeping with the game's vague and (appropriately) dreamlike tone, I have no idea who or what this thing is supposed to be and why it has positioned itself as the game's final opponent. Is it a part of Sayaka's subconcious that is attempting to protect her, or some dark power within the D Movie that intends to keep her captive? Did he audition for Ghouls 'n Ghosts but wasn't called back, taking this job to make some cash between working in a coffee shop and writing the screenplay that's totally going to make him famous for real this time? Is it an Evangelion cosplay that has gone horribly, horribly wrong? I'm afraid I cannot answer these questions. All I can tell you is that if you attack its arms enough times they'll explode and its head will fly off.
Now you have to shoot the head. Nice of it to come to me instead of making me climb up the platforms to reach it. It probably feels bad for making me wait so long for that bloody moth. If you can avoid the projectiles it launches and resist the temptation to try and finish it off quickly by twirling into it with your claws out - not something I did, you understand, just a friendly warning that it doesn't work - then you'll eventually destroy This Thing the Final Boss and free Sayaka from her dream.
Psycho Dream ends on a cliffhanger: Sayaka is actually a vampire, and she lunges for your neck as the screen fades to black, leaving your fates unknown!
No, not really. I think she's supposed to be going for a hug of gratitude, not trying to rip Ryo's throat out. Or Maria's throat, the ending is the same whoever you're playing as.
Psycho Dream is over, and there's not much to say about it that I didn't already mention. The gameplay is safely ensconced in "average" territory, in spite of things like the power-up system, having to hold the shoulder buttons for high jumps and the game seemingly being balanced towards melee combat overall trying to change that fact.
Would I say it's worth playing? I absolutely would so long as, like me, you're a fan of Psycho Dream's particular brand of horror or its graphical style. If you're after a game that'll you'll enjoy purely for the gameplay, though, you should probably give Psycho Dream a miss, unless you're really into accidentally collecting power-ups that completely change your character's attacks. It seems like a small audience, I know, but there are people out there who claim to genuinely like Sonic '06 so it's hardly beyond the limits of possibility.
But how does Psycho Dream fare on the titanic totem pole of terror that is the VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter?
Well, it seems that the answer to the question I posed at the top of the article is a tentative "no" - Halloween is not a season for subtlety, and while it's horror-tinged and definitely creepy, Psycho Dream doesn't contain quite enough seasonal spirit to score more than a relatively lowly six on the meter.