Welcome to the phenomenon known as the launch window, that magical time early in a system's lifespan when everyone wants to stick their toes into the water and test it out. Timing is everything, which means that a lot of stuff is recycled content we've seen before, but there are also a handful of experiments which would have a hard time finding an audience any other time than those dozen or so weeks when all the day-one devotees are itching to buy anything that sounds even remotely good for a system. Thus, many pitches simply get approved.
Landing near the tail end of this window is D3's Dream Trigger 3D
, pitched as a bullet-hell shmup, but with interesting enough mechanics to make me tend to classify it outside that genre. Seeking to offer a showcase experience for the 3DS
, the game operates a little differently than games traditionally classified in that vein, having you defend yourself in a fixed-plane playfield while powerups fly toward you out of the screen and cool 3D backgrounds flow behind. And though I am finding myself enjoying it more and more as I continue to play—particularly with its nice musical score—and feeling that there's really something special here, I can't help but wish for a little more.
Unless you've actually played this game, you've got an extremely slim chance of being able to comprehend it based on available information, so let me try to explain it. You and your enemies occupy a flat plane on the 3DS' top screen; you move around with the analog slider. You'll see (most) enemies swoop in as glowing orbs on this screen, but although they can shoot at you, you can't actually defeat them in this state; first, they need to be pinged with your sonar. You lay sonar pings by touching the grid on the touch screen; button controls are available for the stylus-averse, but they hobble you by requiring you to fly your avatar where you want to lay pings—trust me, you want to use the stylus! These pings activated when a Lumines
-style timeline sweeps by; if an enemy is caught in their wave, it is revealed and becomes fair game for you to take down.
Dream Trigger shines most brightly in the give and take of all the game's mechanics as they come together. The boxes on the bottom edge of the top screen are your available pings, replenished as the last batch you laid are activated; this keeps you from furiously scribbling to ping the entire playfield at once. Successfully pinging and revealing enemies will fill your energy bar, which lets you fire. Firing, in addition to taking down your enemies, grants you invulnerability, but also drains this energy. Thus, you enter into a back-and-forth dance of revealing your enemy and leaping to take him down as quickly as possible so you have enough power to cross any hazards that may come your way before you get a chance to fill the bar again.
Pickups will also fly toward you from behind your playfield, crossing it and, if not picked up at this moment, spinning outward until they finally vanish. A yellow pickup replenishes one of your HP, represented as up to three glowing orbs orbiting your avatar; purple grants you temporary automatic invincibility. The blue ones are score pickups; getting the best scores depend on you not only getting these but chaining them without missing one—these make you pull a little harder on the potentially tense thread of pinging and firing as you may need to move away from your prey to pick them up. Red is the coolest of them all, though, granting you a flashing firepower bar that doesn't goes down for a limited time, letting you hold down the shoulder button with impunity, swooping over enemy waves and pickups alike.
The bottom line is that I really
like the core mechanics of this game. As a long-time fan of games designed around the DS' unique control offerings, I thought Dream Trigger sounded interesting from the outset, and I was right—not only is it different, but very competently designed. Early battles are fairly easy once you've established your rhythm (and learned to place pings without looking at the touch screen except in rare occasions), but as you go deeper into the game's fifty levels, the tug-of-war of pinging and shooting becomes more tense. As I write this review, I am getting my ass handed to me by the fourth boss of the game; in his last phase, I have to be extremely cautious with my firepower use, because those refilling pings are so rare, yet he's careening all over the screen spraying bullets... I'm sure I'll survive this one soon, but it'll be a hard-won fight.
So what is it that I wish for, then? The core gameplay is indeed great, but how it's packaged from there outward is where it starts to fall apart. I've got no issue with the levels themselves, but the fact that every one of them ends in a miniboss encounter with the same theme music and the same strategy to take them down—they just move a little differently—has grated since early on, when the levels were still pretty easy. Even in the free play mode, you have to spend time taking these guys down if you want to get a score. (Speaking of scores, the systems by which your points are added up and new levels unlocked are just shy of inscrutable. Only through cooperative efforts on message boards have I managed to piece together a fair idea of how at least the important bits work.)
There are three main single-player modes: World Map (where you unlock new levels, awkwardly), Free Play (replay anything you've done for scores and achievements), and a decent Time Attack—but they're not enough. After playing my first few levels, I started wishing for a sequential mode, where you automatically played as many levels as you could get through without dying, without minibosses—it would have been a godsend compared to ambling around in World Map mode. There's also a versus mode where you can go head-to-head with a friend who also owns a copy of DT3D, which I got to try out; it's got some neat mechanics like being able to ping your competitor and shoot him down, but ultimately it falls sort of flat for lack of options like letting the on-screen enemies shoot, or being able to use more sonar pings per sweep than the set limit of half what you can use in single-player. How cool would a co-op gauntlet be, too? It's hard to play the game without thinking of what it could be, but isn't.
I suspect it's because I love the core of this game so much that I'm disappointed by its lack of options. Even with the tedious miniboss fights, it's still a joy to sit down and play through new levels or replay old ones to try to top my last score. I really do like this game and what developer ART has done with it, from the gameplay to the music and visuals; it's just that it lacks the structure I need to unquestionably mark it as one of the greats. But for the launch window, maybe that's okay.