Platform: Vita (Reviewed), PS4, PS3, PC, Android, iOS
There's a lot to admire about developer Bedtime Digital Games. The studio started out as a student team. It achieved Kickstarter success. It released a game based on surrealist art utilizing themes and styles inspired by iconic artists like M. C. Escher and Salvador Dali. All of those things are worthy of merit, and the former art student in me absolutely adores the influence behind Bedtime Digital Games and its labor of love, Back to Bed.
Sadly, while there are a few genuinely grand moments, Back to Bed stumbles along the way. This isn't the successor to Monument Valley that some folks were maybe hoping for, but at least it's a start.
In a world of dreams
The first thing that catches your eye when you first start playing Back to Bed is its art design. In this regard, the game absolutely shines and succeeds in creating a mesmerizing visual experience. Despite the fact that there are limited themes for the levels, the game is always a treat to behold. Even after you've completed a dozen or so stages, the surrealist art style remains fresh and intriguing.
It helps that each stage, though similar in overall style, features a different structural design. The way the impossible, Escher-like architecture morphs into itself is definitely a wondrous sight. And even though the enemies themselves aren't all that interesting, design-wise, whenever you come across a walking clock or evil dog creature, it's always the stuff of nightmares due to just how bizarre these creatures look moving around the map.
The Persistence of Memory
You play as Bob, a man suffering from a bad case of narcolepsy. While falling victim to a bit of daytime snoozing, Bob falls into a harsh dream world where only Subob, a dog version of himself, can aid him. It's a simple, unimportant premise, but the still scenes that narrate the story every few levels feature some great artwork, just like the actual levels.
While in the dream world, you're tasked with getting Bob from one end of the level to the other. You never control Bob directly, and are instead given full control of Subob, who must ensure that the sleepwalking Bob doesn't fall off ledges, walk into traps like railroad tracks, or bump into enemies. Whenever Bob walks into a wall or column, he'll turn clockwise and continue on his merry path toward imminent death, so it's up to you to grab large apples and place them strategically on the levels.
For a game like this I would expect it to start out easy enough and slowly escalate into highly challenging territory, but that's not the case with Back to Bed. Made up of 30 levels, the game never truly realizes its full potential and remains a rather easy affair throughout. As you're introduced to new features and enemies, the game never picks up the steam necessary to create a satisfying experience. You're always just placing apples so that Bob can walk into them, turn clockwise, and eventually get to the exit.
My problem with Back to Bed isn't in its apple-placing structure, though. The game's biggest issue is that it never gets challenging enough to ever feel rewarding. I never felt proud of myself after reaching the end of a level. And when things did get tough, it was usually due to some cheap hazards that simply required a bit of memorization or fast reflexes for placing apples. Other than that, none of the puzzles were ever especially daunting or memorable.
When dreams turn into nightmares
After you complete the 30 levels of Back to Bed, which will likely take about two hours or so, Nightmare mode unlocks. Nightmare basically throws you back into the 30 levels you already cleared but adds an extra objective. Before you can guide Bob to the exit, you must first lead him to keys that are scattered all over the level in order to unlock the door. This element adds a nice layer to the experience, and it ups the challenge some, but it doesn't always work.
For what it's worth, Nightmare is certainly more rewarding than the normal mode. And while it's also a game of memorization and fast reflexes, figuring out how to get Bob to collect all of the keys in a stage and then create a path for him to reach the exit is a nice touch and something that I would've liked to have seen more of.
Nightmare serves to increase the overall length of Back to Bed, too. So while the initial 30 levels will get you two hours of playtime, Nightmare can take you up to three hours to complete, giving you a five-hour experience that really only gets good during those final hours, even if Nightmare mode can get frustrating at times, too.
Pick your poison
Back to Bed is available on multiple devices, but its recent arrival on the PlayStation Network makes for the least enticing version. Priced at $19.99, it boasts a much higher price tag than its Steam ($5.99) and mobile ($3.99) counterparts. On the plus side, the PlayStation Network version is cross-buy between the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and Vita.
Speaking of the Vita, that's the version I played the most. After completing 15 levels on the PlayStation 4, I switched over to the Vita, which seemed like more of a match with Back to Bed. And while it's certainly the ideal platform for this type of game, I did notice much slower load times and a few framerate hiccups, though neither were deal breakers. Unfortunately, the Vita version doesn't feature any touchscreen features — not even for the menus — which is strange given that the game is also available on iOS and Android devices.
What you get with Back to Bed on the PlayStation Network is an overpriced version of a competent puzzle game that's largely uninteresting from a gameplay standpoint. Conceptually and aesthetically, it's brilliant. But that brilliant concept is never fully realized. What you're left with is a game that looks gorgeous and sparks some interest, interest that will likely fall into a slumber as you get deeper into the game and quickly discover that this surreal world is merely a pipe dream of something greater.