While minding her own business in an arcane library, magic apprentice Morgan Carter is rudely ripped from her physical form by her sinister ancestor, Randolph Carter. As Morgan’s body clings to life in the real world, she awakens in the Dreamlands, a vast, shifting realm full of ominous creatures and its own obscure mythology. Through his actions, Randolph shatters the Dreamlands into thousands of shards and unleashes corruption upon its inhabitants, and it falls to Morgan to make things right. This is the premise of Dream Cycle, the new game from veteran designer Toby Gard — who was part of the original Core Design team that created OG Lara Croft — and composer Nathan McCree.
If the name sounds vaguely familiar to a specific type of fantasy/horror fan, it’s because Randolph and the Dreamlands are loosely based on HP Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories; the first few locations Morgan encounters are interpretations of Dreamlands locations like the Cavern of Flame and The Enchanted Forest. Lovecraft, a notable racist who wrote eugenicist narratives and astoundingly hateful letters, supposedly used the character of Randolph as a sort of alter-ego; by all accounts, Morgan’s missing ancestor also seems to be an enormous asshole – when he dragged her into the Dreamlands, he also stole her powers.
While Dream Cycle bears the general hallmarks of a roguelike, Gard’s studio Cathuria Games claims that the game’s procedurally generated levels aren’t created quite the same way. There are an eye-popping 10,000 levels in Early Access — each exuding an Inception-meets-Escher medieval fantasy atmosphere where ramparts, curving stairways, and wooden beams meet at odd angles. The map system involves unlocking tiles that are adjacent to the level you’ve just completed, or shelling out a nominal sum of gold to “hire a guide” and travel a few tiles away. Each tile offers up a different objective — so far there are two options: kill everything in the level, or reveal and defeat a special mob called an eidolon.
The game itself takes a page from the FromSoftware school of minimal exposition, which works well for the setting — this clearly isn’t Morgan’s first time dealing with the Dreamlands, and I do love an RPG that favours nuance and breadcrumbs over unwieldy chunks of lore. In each level Morgan might gather a bit of background about Kaman-Thah — a great Avatar who appears to be of Egyptian design, or about her own family. Pieces of modernity dot the landscape — the remains of an enormous submarine, and the jarring presence of a vending machine from which Morgan can buy basic items once she’s levelled up enough. The solitary phone booth — a recurring phenomenon across levels — conjures up the kind of mundane-meets-surreal theme that blew up with 2019’s hit action-adventure Control.
Once I’d gone through a few levels to find my footing, the core experience of Dream Cycle, in all its unfinished glory, really started to shine. It leans heavily toward stealth gameplay, but you’re free to rush in guns blazing — there are contemporary weapons alongside quieter bow options. Morgan’s shadowstep/raven swarm abilities echo the same adrenaline-fueled momentum from Dishonored series, with utility-focused perks like elemental resistance and increased health. There don’t seem to be time limits, which encourages experimentation with Morgan’s powers, and most importantly, careful pacing and positioning to parkour your way around the environment. One-shot assassinations are meaty and satisfying, while the winning combination of smart stealth mechanics and ad-hoc experiments on unsuspecting goatmen are both great fun.
Of course, Early Access means that Dream Cycle has a ways to go – gameplay still feels rather rough, and camera angles, collision detection, and character positioning often feel off-kilter as you map out your next move. Once I was sneaking around a stone parapet when the enemy on the other side simply yeeted itself through the wall to attack me. At times, it feels maddeningly impossible to piece together the floating stone monoliths that yield up snippets of Kaman-Thah’s inner thoughts. Occasionally, despite the clear text prompts, I’m not even sure what I should be doing – more than once, I couldn’t find the eidolon after it spawned, despite scouring the entire level (most of the time, it’ll come find you).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dream Cycle is the promise that it will be an “infinite” expanding world — those 10,000 levels can and will be reset during major game updates, and biomes and new content will be added as time goes on. The silhouette of the “finished” base game is there, and I’m excited to dive into its fully polished form, along with dozens of speedrunners who will undoubtedly find new delights in its gameplay. But how does the Cathuria team plan to keep this concept fresh beyond 10,000 levels? I’m not sure, but I’m eager to find out.