Of all the new genres that found life in the indie developer renaissance of the last decade the one that I’ve had the least interest in is visual novels. Given their preference for story over other game mechanics you’d think I’d be all over them but, for some reason, I just don’t see the attraction to them. I’m not immune to peer pressure however and after a few close friends got wind of Dream Daddy, a visual novel/dating sim where your romantic prospects are all fellow dads, I was bullied into giving the game the once over for a review. Whilst I might not be delving deep into the wonderful world of dating sims again anytime soon Dream Daddy was certainly a charming look into the world of what it means to be a dad in the modern world.
You’re a single dad and you and your daughter have just moved to a new house in Maple Bay. Ever since your partner died you’ve spent all of your available time and energy on raising your daughter and you’re not the social butterfly you used to be. It doesn’t take long for the neighbours to come and greet you, inviting you over for a BBQ and some good conversation. You quickly learn that there are other many single dads in the area and your daughter, who is college bound, pushes you to start socialising more. After signing up for Dadbook, the social network for dads, you begin your dating quest. Now all that’s left to do is figure out who your Dream Daddy will be.
Visually Dream Daddy feels like the Flash games of years gone by with the heavy outlining, solid colours and simple shading. Interestingly it was built on the Unity engine meaning that all those stylistic choices weren’t enforced on the developers, they were deliberately built in. Considering that you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time staring at the bottom of the screen however the visuals are somewhat moot. I don’t consider this a fault of the game per-se since its a defining part of the genre but it is something that has kept me from playing games like this in the past.
As you’d expect from a dating sim the game is mostly a text based adventure with sprinkling of dialogue choices to allow you to mould the story. For each of the 7 dads you can go on a total of 3 dates with them although, if you go beyond the second, they will become your Dream Daddy and that’s the end of the game. There’s a few mini-games dispersed throughout, taking the form of a simple challenge that’s part of the current date you’re on. All the choices and mini-game performance add up to a score at the end which, if you’ve done them correctly, will net you your Dream Daddy of choice. Mechanically it’s very simple although the scoring system is (and I believe this is a deliberate satirization of the genre) very obtuse so it’s hard to judge just what exactly you should say to get the highest score with your preferred dad.
The visual novel genre seems like a bit of a misnomer since the visual aspect is really only a backdrop to the novel part. You’ll spend almost the entirety of the game reading through gobs of text although they’re broken up into smaller bit sized chunks. Whilst I can appreciate the fact that the visuals do add something to the overall telling of the story it’s honestly not too much more. That being said I do think the genre lends itself well to the mobile platform as each section can be done in about 5 minutes or so. Unfortunately Dream Daddy is not currently available on any mobile platform but I’m sure it’d run quite well on any Windows based tablet device.
All the criticism of the genre and implementation aside Dream Daddy does a good job in telling its story, giving all the characters enough room to develop. The narrative is a lampoon of the loving but out-of-touch dad idea, pitting you as a kind of technophobic recluse who still does everything they can to support their child. It’s certainly not written by someone who’s gone through that experience themselves so the stereotype aspects are given a lot more air time than the inner monologue that would explain those behaviours. Still it acts as a good vehicle to explore the challenges that come with change and how sometimes we have to force ourselves to be uncomfortable in order to get more out of life. Many of the story’s aspects are also a play on the dating sim genre in general but, as someone who doesn’t play this genre regularly, I’ll leave the commentary on that to those more well versed in its nuances.
Overall the story is a charming look into what it might be like to be a single dad starting out on the dating scene after many years of being out of it. It touches on many issues that are relevant to growing up in today’s society and isn’t afraid to introduce ideas and characters that are likely to make you feel uncomfortable. The levity that is woven throughout the game’s story does make it easier to digest the giant walls of text however it does start to wear a little thin towards the end. It’s certainly a story I enjoyed although I don’t feel a great compulsion to go back and get all the dates with all the dads. That might be a different story if there weren’t so many other games I’m itching to play, however.
Dream Daddy was an interesting foray into a genre that I wouldn’t have typically found myself in otherwise. The light-hearted look into the world of being a single dad fresh into the modern world’s dating scene, even if it comes from a perspective of someone who hasn’t been through it, is charming to say the least. The fact that all the characters are given enough time to shine is definitely an achievement in itself, something that many games neglect. Recommending it generally though is a tough one as whilst I know there’s a fanbase for these kinds of games (both from the dating sim and general sillyness perspective) for your average Joe I don’t know if there’s much in there to like. Still I enjoyed my time with Dream Daddy, even if I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon.
Dream Daddy is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total playtime was 3 hours with 16% of the achievements unlocked.
We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.
For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.
Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.
Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.
Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.
Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.
The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.
Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.
The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.
It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.
Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.
Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.