RDBG #2: Dream Quest (2014)

Our first game to explicitly use actual cards in its deck-building is Dream Quest, a largely one-man project by Peter Whalen originally released as a mobile game on iOS in 2014. Today we’re looking at its PC port, released on May 14th, 2014, according to Steam (I have no date for the iOS release). Having to click an X to close boxes and not being able to use arrow keys for movement betray its touchscreen origins, but it’s playable enough with a mouse. Having the UI elements spread out over a high resolution display partly makes up for the slightly rough edges retained in the transition from mobile.

Premise and Gameplay

Players must descend through three levels of grid-based dungeons, encountering enemies, shopping at stores that provide cards or alter your deck, and other such interactions. If you’ve played Slay the Spire – an assumption I feel fairly safe in making if you’re reading these posts – you may be very surprised just how similar it is. There’s not a lot going on plotwise, other than an amusing little bit of between-floor flavour text that randomises some of its adjectives and nouns every run.

Actually, these provide some hints about what the floor boss is – so not that random!

Engage an enemy in combat and you will take turns drawing and playing cards collected throughout the dungeon until one of you dies. There’s several things to keep track of, but it isn’t overwhelming. Are you playing enough mana to be able to use powerful spells? Are you focusing on passive abilities granted by equippables, or do you prefer card effects themselves? Are you building your deck around blocking and healing damage, or are you trying to raise your chances of dodging it outright? 

Your run begins with you choosing one of four starting classes (but there’s many more to unlock): Priest, Wizard, Thief, and Warrior, each with their own unique gameplay twists. Priests and Wizards are fragile but are able to use powerful mana-limited healing or attacking spells, while Thieves and Warriors focus more on the quantity or power of their attacking cards. Further to this are class-specific talents which, once used, need to be recharged after a number of encounters. Warriors can ‘smash’ one tile of dungeon walls to potentially open new paths, while Priests can illuminate dangers and treasures anywhere in the dungeon. With over 300 unique cards, there is a lot of scope for different builds with different classes. The catch is that the learning curve for a sense of what those builds may actually be is steep and can take several runs. If the gameplay gets its hooks into you, then that’s no problem, but without a tutorial or suggestions for what directions to take certain characters in, unpeeling the onion with trial and error will either engage or frustrate you. Regardless of what strategy or class you go with, I found it best to try to choose it early and stick with it. Bosses and elites are punishing and have passive abilities that can come down hard on an unprepared deck. I must give credit that many enemies have elemental resistances, an added consideration when collecting cards and something I’ve yet to see in any other roguelike deck-builder. With card draw and hand size being so limited early on, it is better to have a deck that does one or two things well rather than just picking up every powerful card that comes your way.

Randomised Elements

Randomised elements include the positions of enemies, card drops, and the layouts of each dungeon floor, which is obscured in a ‘fog of war’ that hides potentially dangerous encounters. Your character’s name is also randomised each time, which is amusing.

The whole thing has a very homebrew feel to it, but with gameplay depth that would humble a lot of current-gen triple-A stuff.

At times, it’s a game where you definitely feel the forces of luck, but I found it to giveth and taketh in fairly equal measure. My more fruitful runs were usually those wherein the first or second floors had more than one healing monastery or upgrade spot. Your first heal or upgrade is free, but subsequent patronage costs gold. However, if there are multiples of the same kind of location on the same floor, you can bounce between both and save money. Likewise, some runs will grant you a powerful card or two early on that you can really anchor the rest of your deck around. When playing as the Warrior, I will generally look for something that will increase deck draw – you can play as many action cards as you like without resource restrictions, and there’s something really enjoyable about cards doing additional damage because you’ve just played so damn many of them.

On the other hand, several runs ended before having a realistic shot of getting off the ground due to having no real direction in the deck, or getting stuck fighting an enemy that you’re just plain underleveled for or have nothing in your deck to target their weaknesses with. The bosses do not mess around and there will be times you get forced into a fight you feel a good level or two away from standing a good shot of winning. The wizard has the ability to teleport around the map, but doing so risks putting him in areas he can’t escape unless through opponents that significantly outlevel him. Generally however, enemy encounters feel well designed, and the game gives you plenty of those exciting sat-upright ‘how-am-I-gonna-get-outta-this’ moments when something shows up with a surprising attack or passive ability. Even your worst run will have you feeling like it was partly your own fault for not having made better decisions, and you do take away spendable points, so your time is rarely wasted. In fact, you can even use a ton of these points to restart your run from the start of the floor you died on, so even when your run ends, there’s still interesting decision-making to be had. 

Death comes for us all, just for me more often than most.


Unfortunately, no mention of Dream Quest can get around the topic of its artwork. I don’t want to harp on about it, but I think it’s safe to say it is probably the deciding factor that truly held back its chances to be a breakout indie hit before Slay the Spire came along. Even in 2014, indie games lived or died by their ability to get a viral foot in the door. The sketch-like character portraits (suggested by online commenters to have been done by Peter Whalen’s daughter; I could not find a source for this) and stickman card art (by Whalen himself) essentially guaranteed the game would not be looked at twice by many. 

More’s the pity, really, because several of them, like Choke here, are very funny.

A lesser whinged-about element of its presentation, funnily, is the music. The limited selection of tracks here are either merely suitable at best or curiously inappropriate (the ‘cloud’ area music comes to mind). Anyone who watches too much YouTube may recognise one or two of Kevin MacLeod’s royalty-free bangers putting in some work. There are no sound effects at all, save for a rather satisfying level-up fanfare. You will be wanting your own background noise after the first few hours, really. Nevertheless, let your eyes get used to your first run or three, and you will soon stop caring about the cosmetics. Indeed, the MS Paint-esque card art actually has a minimalist purity to it – the majority are basic stickmen or weapons that convey what they are at a glance. 

Closing Remarks

Go into Dream Quest with reasonably adjusted expectations and I think you may be surprised how fully-featured it is. By this, I mean that in spite of its appearances, it already features a surprising number of the gameplay elements that we take for granted in more modern examples from the genre. Most nouns and verbs that have particular terminology definitions have clickable tooltips explaining what they mean. Passive abilities and new cards are unlocked upon losing a run (play on harder difficulties to speed this up). ‘Elite’ enemies and optional events are hidden around the maps; a risk-reward staple of the genre. Dream Quest lacks the presentational or mechanical onboarding it needed to get curious people or genre newcomers through the door in its own time, but to see so many of the staple elements of the genre present and accounted for at such an early stage makes it no harder to enjoy now than it was then. It’s no less rich an experience than playing Slay the Spire with beta art.

Standout Cards

The Priest can play Prayer cards, which let you choose how many turns later you want its effect to kick in, becoming more powerful the longer you wait. It’s quite a unique gameplay mechanic, and you can build viable decks around several of these with other cards that trigger them early. 

There’s a lot of cards in the game that focus on card draw, but Rallying Stroke’s 2-cards-2-damage always make it a welcome sight. Attack cards don’t cost any resource to play, and whittling an enemy down by drawing and playing card after card is great fun.

I mean, look at it. It’s Wrath of God. You may not like this art, but there is a certain humour in its simplicity. These stickmen go through some pretty awful stuff!