Buried amongst the fairly smelly detritus of the early 1990s gaming scene was a grim little curio called DreamWeb, a top-down futuristic adventure that released on the Amiga and PC by the now long defunct Empire Interactive. Though the marketing for the title carried the tagline “a game to die for”, which might seem so cringe-worthy now that you run the risk of fracturing your spine (maybe that’s why Empire Interactive died, who knows), DreamWeb actually turned out to be quite the interesting effort and one that, conceptually at least, was a far cry from anything else on the shelves at time.
Generously taking aesthetic inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (the opening title sequence even does the whole moody red font fading on black thing), DreamWeb’s setting is nothing if not evocative, with neon-lit buildings, rain-blasted streets and no shortage of seedy alleyway grotspots. Set in what would seem to be a futuristic dystopian take on the United Kingdom, players find themselves stepping into the shoes of Ryan, the initially unremarkable protagonist of the piece who later evolves to become something of a raging asshole.
You see, Ryan has been having some trouble sleeping, not least because he’s been having these weird, Cronenberg-esque visions that are generously stuffed with prophecy, murder and other fairly horrible things. Specifically, Ryan’s visions center around a monk that tells him he’s some sort of ‘Deliverer’ and must kill seven apparently evil people to prevent the titular DreamWeb from spiraling into destruction to the ruination of basically everybody.
Somewhat cleverly, you were never 100% sure if our boy Ryan was on some mystical quest to rid the world of evil, or, if he was just an absolute raving fiend with a hard-on for knocking folk off of their mortal coils (though a prequel novel hints fairly heavily towards affirmation of the latter). As such, this question is one that the game regularly toys with throughout its duration.
After being made aware of the seven victims at the start of the game, henceforth referred to as the ‘Seven Evils’, Ryan’s personal life soon takes a turn down the toilet and he finds himself lazing at a local bar when the first of these evils, a particularly ostentatious rockstar by the name of David Crane appears on the television. Naturally, like any good, potentially murderous nutter worth their salt, Ryan pursues his quarry to a penthouse, kills his bodyguards and then goes into his bedroom whilst our man David is mid-shag, and puts a bullet into his head that sprays his mind-meat on the headboard behind him.
Funnily enough, it was actually this scene that caused a fair amount of uproar at the time of DreamWeb’s release. Specifically, before you blow Davey boy’s noggin off, he’s entertaining a lady with some top groin-bouncing action; which though somewhat explicit as both participants are naked, is still within the boundaries of what was allowed back then. However, when Ryan walks into the apartment hand-cannon in, well, hand, said lady promptly escapes under the bed, leaving Mr. Crane’s man-rod in full-frontal view of DreamWeb’s top-down camera.
Left more than a little rosy-cheeked by this scene, the Australian Classification Board refused to provide DreamWeb with an age rating, essentially meaning that the game couldn’t be sold legally within the country. As a result, a reworked version of the game gave Davey Crane some trousers to satisfy the minimum requirements for a Mature rating (thankfully the violence remained intact), so that DreamWeb could finally see a release down under.
So yeah, it’s no stretch to say that DreamWeb was routinely pretty unrestrained in terms of the sex and violence that it would show on-screen. From vicious stabbings, to people getting cleaved in half by axes and, of course, grey-matter splattering headshots, DreamWeb was a game that earned something of a reputation at the time of its release. Aiding its depiction of the explicit was the fact that despite being viewed from a top-down perspective on aging computer hardware, DreamWeb’s diminutive sprite and animation work was actually rather accomplished and wholly capable of depicting the aforementioned scenes of violence and other such mature subject matter.
If you peer behind the blunt force trauma of DreamWeb’s moody aesthetic and grisly subject matter, however, the actual game that lurks beneath is a touch lacking to say the least. The first thing that stands out with DreamWeb is just how limited it is. While you can move around the environment freely enough, the different locales you end up venturing into are small, boxy affairs that are routinely stuffed with incidental items that serve little other purpose than to fill your inventory with pointless crap.
Equally, the conversation system finds itself similarly stunted. Rather than embracing non-linear, multi-path dialogs with NPCs, DreamWeb’s chats are dreadfully rote affairs that always follow the same route and conclude in the same way – a crying shame when you consider the delectable world and character building opportunities that DreamWeb’s compelling setting provides.
Another issue is how combat is handled. Despite the similar perspective, DreamWeb is no Hotline Miami, not least because the combat is handled in a highly choreographed and restrictive fashion that fails to include even the smallest amount of that game’s penchant for high-agency, ultra-splatter. Nope, instead you walk into a room and if there’s a confrontation about to happen, you have time to access your inventory whereupon you just ‘use’ the firearm/weapon you have while a predetermined shooting/death animation plays out.
In the end, though heavily flawed and suffering from a litany of questionable design decisions, DreamWeb still found itself captivatingly drowning in atmosphere. Oddly constructed and even stranger to actually play, DreamWeb earns its niche in gaming history as an effort that thematically succeeded in doing something wildly different, but mechanically broke under the weight of its own substantial ambitions.
All the same, it is difficult to shake the feeling that shortcomings aside, if released today by a publisher with a big pair of swinging brass balls like Devolver Digital, DreamWeb would be the Toast of the Internet(™), and eager players would milk themselves dry over it. Which brings me to my next thought; about that remake then…