2019-04-14: Dream Maze: The World's Only PJFPDC
Yume Meikyuu: Kigurumi no Daibouken (localized by translators as "Dream Maze: The Kigurumi Adventure") is probably the cutest RPG I've ever seen. It's a really light dungeon crawler with shallow mechanics, plot, and difficulty in which you run around in a garish childhood dream themed dungeon beating up stuffed animals and making pajamas out of them to wear to further raise your stats.
No really, this thing is a fever dream and it was really cute for about 90% of the way through. Dungeons include motifs like cake, building blocks, and TV; your healing, experience, and money is candy. All three of those are kind of bundled together because while candy is money, you can also eat it directly to heal, and can buy stat upgrade items as your sole means of increasing your max HP and luck. Since foes directly grant you a means to heal as a reward, your ability to sustain in a dungeon is effectively infinite as long as you don't overstep your reach. As a result, inns, shops, and the like are few and far in between and there's no method of instant exit from a dungeon.
There's not much story here: you have a dream about a world with four princesses and a queen and an evil demon who locked them away. You have to climb four towers to rescue the princesses, then storm a temple to defeat the big bad and rescue the queen. That's it. There's no NPCs to talk to really, save for the princesses themselves and a few tutorializing encounters in the very beginning. Aside from that, the dungeons contain nothing but monsters and treasures, and there's no towns. You even spend the entire first dungeon and a half solo before finally getting your second party member; your third doesn't come until the end of the third dungeon. This is ridiculous amount of time to spend without a complete party; fortunately the game is so easy it doesn't really matter.
Combat is super simplistic to match the simplistic overall system. You encounter packs of either large or small enemies and fight them in a turn based manner. You can punch, kick, or use your kigurumi's special power (of which only a handfull even have a special power). You direct this attack onto a 2D grid the enemies are standing on, and if they're fast enough, they'll move before the blow actually lands. This can lead to some very frustrating battles against enemies designed to be extremely dodgy. When you win, small enemies give candy, and large enemies leave behind a kigurumi you can take and equip to alter your stats.
One of the things that really takes the edge off the difficulty is that regardless of how many enemies on screen, only one will attack per turn. In some cases you'll want to intentionally leave weak foes alive to increase the chance that they'll attack and not a big heavy bruiser, so it has its own elements of strategy to it, but it's not hard.
Also, later on in the game you'll get access to special kigurumi talents that freeze, sleep, or paralyze foes. Once you have a solid lockdown kigurumi, battle becomes a breeze as you can also dictate the order in which your characters attack. Do your damage and make sure to end your turn with the crowd control, and your foes will never get a turn. I'm unsure if this was an intended mechanic to increase ease of access, or a dire design oversight.
The navigation challenges start out really kind: each floor in the first tower is super straightforward and every floor has a shop in which you can buy a map for just a few candy. Even a beginner to the genre would likely have no problem completing the first tower without making their own map. As the game progresses, however, the challenges get more spicy and the map shop starts becoming harder and harder to find-- eventually just not appearing at all on certain high challenge floors. The game will eventually throw at you: holes and areas that can only be reached by them, spinners, announced teleports, silent teleports, and a trick so far that's been unique to Dream Maze: floors with multiple regions with their own maps, and no announcement or indication that you've been teleported to a new region.
That latter-most trick was really neat when I first discovered that's what was going on. With no bought map, you can only get your X/Y coordinates on a particular floor. So at some point I ended up warped to a location I'd already mapped, but it was different. Turns out that floor had four maps and no way to tell which you were on without mapping it. It was a sudden difficulty spike and the gimmick returns several times through the rest of the game.
All of this runs up to the final dungeon, which drops the cute childlike motif in favor of eye-searing vaporwave and neon, and throws out even the assumption that floors are a specific size and fit in one map screen. Here the first few floors are four times as large as any prior floor, really slowing down mapping. Aside from that, though, there's no dirty tricks; just a straight run to the end. With every floor though, the eyesore palette changes to something even more bright and garish to the floor before-- that's the real final challenge.
At the top of the tower is the big bad demon, who of course turns into a Dream Tapir for the final battle. This battle goes exactly like how the last three towers likely went: freeze him and pound him while he's helpless. He has a ton of HP though and is capable of dodging far more often than most enemies, so it can be a challenge to lock him down. With the tapir down, you're left to walk three more steps to find the queen and end the game.
Two things about this final leg though: first, there's two doors after the boss. One takes you to the queen, the other takes you to an impostor and a really easy forced battle. The translators apparently chose the right door the first try and never went back and looked because, well, the dummy fight breaks the game:
I'd have been so mad if I crashed the game in the final seconds without a save; just saying!
Second, after the credits you're dropped off in an inaccessible section of the 4th tower. Here there's several items that seem to do nothing, and a locked door that leads to a developer room. I never found the key, though, so I did not get to experience the dev room. Alas.
As for summarizing the game and giving a review? I'm torn. The first thing to point out is this is clearly a dungeon crawler for beginners, or maybe even kids. For at least the first half of the game, exploration is straightforward, maps are easy to come by, and there's no complicated mechanics. The second half takes the kid gloves off with some really dirty tricks I've never seen anywhere else, but maybe that's okay as an introduction to some of the meaner points of the genre?
Given its simplicity though, there's not much here. You eventually get some really good kigurumis and enough candy that you don't need any more, and you realize there's literally no point in fighting. At that point, the most efficient thing to do with combat is freeze enemies then flee. This would be alright if the dungeons were full of treasure, encounters, etc, but they're not. For any given dungeon there's a switch to activate its fast travel elevator, a key, a boss, and a number of "presents" that seem to only be a score of how well you've explored the dungeon. As a result, most of the hallways and rooms are empty and just serve to fill space. Once you have your three party members, you can blow through dungeons until you hit a locked door then go back and try to find the key.
As a result of the last point, I just blew straight through the final dungeon. Any time I found an upward staircase I took it, didn't explore any of the floors, fled from every battle, and probably missed the dev room key as a result, but I was able to finish the game. This makes me wonder what the point of the 15 floor final dungeon even is.
There's a lot of questions I left unanswered: I didn't get into the dev room, I didn't figure out what the presents actually do, and I got several items that had no description and I could not figure out what they did. However after 20+ hours of grinding through dungeons that were empty and barren of even challenging combat, I'm ready to move on. Do I recommend playing Dream Maze? Sure. But if you start to get bored after the 2nd tower, just know it's not going to ever get any more interesting.