Cavern of Dreams: Simple but Sweet

There’s a simple joy in revisiting the past. Retro pastiches are nothing new, they’ve existed for as long as people have felt nostalgia. Indie game developer Tyler McMaster, the only current member of Bynine Studio, certainly felt that longing when he, as a largely one-man team, developed his first major title Cavern of Dreams

Cavern of Dreams is a 3D collect-a-thon platformer in the style of old-school classics like Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64, and Ape Escape. The graphics and music lovingly recreate the aesthetics of the Nintendo 64 and original Playstation, aesthetics that McMaster has said were particularly inspired by Donkey Kong 64. The art style is blocky and colorful, the music is bouncy and melodic, and the sound effects are punchy and cartoonish. You play as Fynn, a little dragon who’s wandered into the titular cavern to find his unhatched siblings, who’ve been kidnapped. With the help of the kind wizard Sage, Fynn gains new abilities to help him delve deeper into the cavern, rescue his siblings, and find the mysterious villain behind the kidnappings. 

Your siblings act as the game’s main collectible and a common reward for completing puzzles and platforming challenges. Think Mario 64’s power stars or the jiggies from Banjo-Kazooie. The levels are open-ended, you’re free to explore and discover the various challenges in just about any order. A lot of those puzzles are on the simpler side, hitting objects in a certain order dictated by a conspicuous poster or bringing an item to a character, and while that’s a shame for anyone looking for a challenge it does mean the game keeps a good pace. You’re unlikely to get stuck on a single puzzle for too long, and even if you do, you can always leave and come back to it later. The lack of combat is also worth mentioning. Only a couple levels have enemies at all and even then they’re invincible, acting more like environmental hazards than foes to be struck down. A cynical person might be tempted to call this game “baby’s first collect-a-thon” because of these elements, but I think it’s more that the game knows what it wants to be. It wants to be a game much more focused on exploring whimsical landscapes and having fun rather than providing a meaty challenge. That’s not to say there’s zero challenge, there’s still the occasional bottomless pit and pool of lava that are one-hit kills, but with no health bar or lives you’re barely punished when you make a mistake. Even enemies and obstacles only knock Fynn back.

That leaves exploring the levels and some simple platforming as the main things to do, and I think the game executes them fairly well. The cavern itself acts as the winding hub world with its own collectibles to find while you’re going from level to level. The levels themselves are all connected sections usually coming off of a main area. Each section is visually distinct, sporting unique landmarks and challenges, which makes them easier to navigate, and each usually holds one or two challenges (typically for eggs) but sometimes they open new areas elsewhere in the level.

 Fynn isn’t as snappy as other contemporary platformer characters, but the levels are  built with this in mind and the controls are still responsive. Movement speed is solid and the roll move is fun to use, though most of the levels are a bit too cramped to make full use of it. The other abilities Fynn gains throughout the game expand his movement and allow him to solve some situational hazards and puzzles in the levels. None of the movement options felt useless, though the water spitting is used less than the rest of the moves, and it’s satisfying to find every area and see what’s inside. 

The game is also short, my playthrough lasted just under six hours and that’s not even going for 100% completion, but I don’t think this is a mark against it. Being short isn’t by default a bad thing especially when the game only costs $12.99. The ideas inside are simple and straightforward, each level is fairly small but densely packed with things to discover, and the lack of padding means the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. Like its inspirations, you don’t need to collect everything to reach the end, and the game doesn’t really care which eggs you get as long as you have the required amount. It won’t be long before you’ve gathered enough eggs to access the final area.

If you’re a fan of 3D platformers, or you just enjoy more casual gaming experiences, you should absolutely give this game a try. It’s a concise, delightful journey through interesting worlds with a simple premise. Even if you’re new to the genre, this is a great place to start if you’re looking for games outside the list of classics. If you grew up playing those classics, I think you’ll find a comforting charm in Fynn’s adventure. There’s something therapeutic about a piece of media that can effectively transport you to the past and share in your joy for it. Modern gaming is a wonderland of stories and experiences, but sometimes you just need the equivalent of visiting the kind of restaurant you loved as a kid. Nostalgic games are often made from a love of the past they emulate, and as players we can have a form of discussion with the developers about our shared adoration. This game is a solid example of that love given form. It’s a simple form and may not be to everyone’s standards, but Cavern of Dreams is a gem of nostalgic nods to yesteryear, and I look forward to seeing what Bynine Studio puts out in the future. Cavern of Dreams is available now on Steam.