There’s a certain charm that comes along with many indie games. Sometimes, it’s the simplicity of the game’s mechanics, sometimes the art style, and many times a combination of things. Either way, I love digging into smaller titles and seeing what great ideas are brewing sometimes just beneath the AAA title surface.
Cavern of Dreams blends charming and nostalgic aspects as it shoots for the indie and retro gaming stars. Created by Bynine Studio, the game teleports you to the era of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 with its controls, graphics, and mechanics in a 3D adventure.
While some people reading this review or playing this game might not have a sense of what it was like to be a few feet from your CRT screen exploring early 3D gaming worlds, now we all can and with a fresh approach and a real sense that this game was a labour of love.
Exploring the Cavern of Dreams
As Finn the Little Dragon, you’re tasked with saving your family members who have gone missing. Each is a little egg in a handful of worlds throughout Cavern of Dreams.
I wasn’t sure about the quick, minimalistic setup initially; there wasn’t much to chew on at the start. But not long after, I was sucked into the world of exploration and collecting within this third-person 3D adventure.
And that’s where the game shines. As I mentioned, it feels like jumping back into a N64 title from the late 1990s. The worlds are self-contained and have their biomes and puzzles to solve: think of Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64. There’s also a hub world where you can find other charming characters and points of exploration.
Notably, there is little to no combat in the game. Cavern of Dreams does an excellent job of creating a fun world to play in; I didn’t even notice until I was two hours into my playthrough that I hadn’t bopped on anyone’s head, swung my tail to whip them across the screen, or anything like that.
Collecting and Puzzle Solving
Eggs or relatives you must rescue are often placed within harder-to-reach places or involve helping a resident NPC with a task. Most are accessible through a hybrid mix of platforming and puzzle-solving. Interestingly, Bynine Studio goes out of its way to tell you that every egg can be reached with your base kit of abilities. None of them are locked behind Metroidvania-style backtracking or limits.
You’ll be awarded new abilities for every dozen or so eggs you rescue, but each one makes your adventure a little easier and robust. I found this to be a welcome surprise, allowing players of all abilities and ages to have a chance to collect and earn as much as possible from the get-go. On top of that, little Finn is outfitted charmingly with new abilities. For example, he grows little wings when you learn how to glide through the air!
Not all the puzzles are easy, and I even found a few throughout the playthrough to be too obscure. Thankfully, the game is very forgiving and I never felt much pressure to unlock and find everything.
Cavern of Dreams may take inspiration from some retro games from the 90s, but it does introduce some fun mechanics I haven’t seen before. One of Finn’s base abilities is to roll around the world. This is a great way to speed across open areas and launch yourself for a wickedly fun jump that can be used to clear far gaps. Momentum plays a factor as well, so traversing the environment is essential.
Because there is no combat in the game, most of the time between tasks and puzzles is filled with light platforming and using abilities like the roll to get around. Sometimes, that makes some areas feel a little too sparse, but it was never quiet enough for me to feel bored.
With no health system in the game, Cavern of Dreams tries to balance “death.” Falling off a level or into a dark pit instantly respawns you to the last doorway or entrance you used. In some scenarios, this is forgiving and not a problem, but occasionally, it places you frustratingly far from where you just were. While this feels dated and not all that great, I still forgave this decision as it rounded out the feeling of a game that came from those 3D platformers 25 years ago.
Cartridge Look and Feel
Booting up my N64 is always a great trip down memory lane. It’s not always the specific games that do it but how they look and sound. If Cavern of Dreams existed back then, it would likely be cemented as one of those core gaming memories.
Finn and his supporting cast are all designed with love and care, with their unique designs and personalities. The main protagonist is a cute dragon that emits sounds and exclaims adorably. Whether it be a friendly face or the ambient sounds around you, everything feels well-designed and full of personality. Birds chirping, engines whirring, echoes, gusts of wind, and more; Cavern of Dreams also brings a great set of sounds and music that are more “current gen” than what was possible on Nintendo cartridges back in the day.
The worlds and characters are all depicted in a style that looks like a game from yesteryear. Some aspects of their movement and design feel more advanced than they would have in 1998, but this game looks and feels like a classic. Many walls have muddled textures; water movement isn’t as dynamic or fluid, and platforms are chunky and sometimes “more square” than you’d expect, but all of these things lend to the retro charm the game aims for.
It feels like Bynine Studio created a labour of love with Cavern of Dreams. Whether it’s the worlds you explore or the characters you meet, it all comes together in a charming late-90s package.
If you’ve spent countless hours with a console like the N64 in your lifetime and enjoyed some of the heavy-hitter 3D adventure classics from that era, this game will be right up your alley. Just like those games, this one has some less-than-perfect edges, but it’s all part of the appeal and reason a game like this exists in the first place. Its simple, child-like nature is a welcoming return to a simpler time I’m sure many of us are itching to have back.
[The publisher provided a copy of the game for review purposes.]
Reviewed on: PC
Review: Cavern of Dreams
Cavern of Dreams is a labour of love to a simpler time in gaming. With a charming, child-like nature, this 3D adventure is a great way to enjoy a new game that draws inspiration from some of the best platformers from the late 90s.