"Esper Dream is a top-down RPG almost as captivating as someone blabbering about last night's dream thinks he is, until it inexplicably tries to get gritty. You play an Esper, a child who can enter the books he reads. Apparently you're a prolific reader, as your quest for the vanished mayor's daughter spans five different worlds. The starting town, which connects to them via grey houses, offers the usual cryptic hints about special items and shops with unaffordable arms. It is conventional..."
Esper Dream is a top-down RPG almost as captivating as someone blabbering about last night's dream thinks he is, until it inexplicably tries to get gritty. You play an Esper, a child who can enter the books he reads. Apparently you're a prolific reader, as your quest for the vanished mayor's daughter spans five different worlds. The starting town, which connects to them via grey houses, offers the usual cryptic hints about special items and shops with unaffordable arms. It is conventional. The first world is not: a maze of laboratory tables, with more mazes inside the computers.
Where you're not alone on the floor. Mobile paw prints dot the lab and lead to random fights. Stationary ones feature fixed monsters guarding bottlenecks to important areas, such as mouse holes leading onto the tables or the computer screens. In the square combat arena, you'll learn strategies for your left-handed water gun, shooting monsters but not treasure, and, if you must, blasting random walls until one opens so you can flee. The worms and ladybugs tip off their diagonal attacks, monsters have three colors of difficulty, and death is light punishment: half your gold, probably less than you'd pay for healing. So you'll get to level four and your first psi (spell) quickly enough.
That psi beam, a whirl of helical dots, eases combat so you can explore further. Mazes contain gold pouches, psi-enhancing toolboxes, and items to trade later. The boss, a fire-breathing flower, sits in the longest dead end, but you can gain better arms and experience first in the grass island--next world over, with isthmi galore, and moai heads and porcupines as good fodder. Or you can sneak in a trade quest: towns, one per world, allow swapping a plain ring up to a gold ring worth 3000 gold, for instance. Find the weakest fixed fights and you can slip through to earn that bazooka or devil armor early. Later worlds offer mazes below spike and desert areas, where keys start as conveniences and become necessities, and you'll squint a bit to see pawprints. The ice-and-space world has areas reachable only from the huge interlocking maze below, with its teleport networks. The first nuisance: teleporting re-locks doors you opened and even kills your light psi. That's only a minor worry, though--keys are cheap, and surely the game will keep cranking out fun enemies and quests.
Not quite. The fourth world, the cliffs, rolls out prohibitively stronger, faster monsters. Half-screen mini-mazes replace the big underground mazes. The dual pharaoh-head boss lives several fights and a short distance from the center entry, but leveling up to reach it again is a pain, as the Famicom needs to flip disk sides to heal in a town, a nag even with warp-speed emulation. Still, fixed ice world ghosts make a decent experience mill. Beat five groups of them guarding Esper Glasses, so you can see them in fights. Soon, you'll gain enough psi to freeze the boss long enough to win.
The change of pace is forgivable, though, as the cloud world, with checkerboard walkways half-concealing paw prints, suggests a return to the fantastic. but after a few fights you realize the cliffs weren't a temporary change of pace. The game's packing in fiercer, weirder monsters: body parts and chess pieces whose constant jumping, ridiculous endurance and nasty damage will eventually derail the most tenacious player. Gold per fight continues to increase while experience stagnates. Even cheating to the maximum level leaves no straightforward fights. The most powerful psi, flash, takes half your energy to kill one enemy group. Who not only guard the three floating castles but every narrow hallway inside. The small castle, 4x4, has a toolbox--not too useful. The medium castle, 6x6, has barrier armor, which doesn't help against monsters that run to a corner to cast spells. A weapon here would've helped, if only to speed up combat. Large, 8x8, is a mess. The best spell is no spell: pushing select freeze the monsters and abuses the game's token sportsmanship so you can plot ahead. You may need to luck out finding a HP or psi capsule in battle. Then, finally, unoriginality you can handle: freeze and blast the boss, part two.
I felt justified hex cheating through this mess. I wanted to remember the earlier evocation of childlike fantasy and not the macabre hack-fest near the end. A game with soft, bigheaded innocents and ducks in a lake shouldn't turn prohibitively difficult. The indefatigable, scowling trees that skulk in corners and shoot or freeze you contrast violently with the early pelicans laying egg-bombs, circling flies, or darting floating fish. You can't stop and appreciate the weirdness any more. Time spent calibrating monsters a bit better, or calculating level-building times, wouldn't have ruined the fantasy; it would've assured people didn't spend most of their times fighting dull monsters. Even a one-time spell to change gold to experience could make a magical shortcut. But I've replayed the game hoping I'd missed something obvious, and nothing like that is there.
So Esper Dream, despite conjuring enough fantasy for a surprisingly smooth "it was all a dream" ending, has clear faults. Unfortunately they seem more due to the cop-out of over-toughening a game than errant, earnest tweaks of a good formula. It swerves too sharply from easy to difficult, missing vast potential for new mazes, trading quests, and special items. The towns in particular seem too sparse. Maybe the designers stopped believing in their originality formula, or they used up all their ideas in the early terrains and monsters. But for three worlds, Esper Dream is beautiful, varied, and absorbing, weaving several maps and quests. Then, you'd best cheat to keep it enjoyable. Because while many oddball Famicom games deserved better than their obscurity, Esper Dream's ideas deserved to deserve even better. Other games have had worse execution, but few were good enough to hold out past halfway, to make the flaws so obvious. In the end, the dream it evokes is the tantalizing sort you wake from just before it works out, immediately sure you've already forgotten its best parts.
Community review by aschultz (July 01, 2009)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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