In the world of witchcraft, everything is not what it seems. For example, I hopped into what ostensibly looks like a classic point-and-click adventure game, only to find out it has open world, Sims-like, and Persona-like elements baked in, and it's all set in an H.P. Lovecraft story full of mysteries and thrills. Is that relatable to anyone else? No? That's just because you haven't played Dreams in the Witch House yet. After my seven hours spent traipsing through the arcane streets of Arkham, I gotta say... that combo of ideas WORKS.
Just the Facts
Developer: Atom Brain Games
Publisher: Bonus Stage Publishing
Release Date: Feb. 16, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
For years, I've imagined one day building my very own point-and-click adventure in Adventure Game Studio, the community-driven old-school adventure game engine that tons of modern point-and-clicks have used to advance the genre. Atom Brain has stretched the engine in ways I couldn't even imagine with their debut release, Dreams in the Witch House.
Atom Brain, the one-man Finnish game studio comprised of Antti Laakso, brings this horror survival adventure game to life through a Lovecraftian lens.
Based on the 1933 H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, Dreams in the Witch House serves up tons of fun little in-jokes and references to Lovecrafian lore. My favorite is the random "all-you-can-eat fish buffet" event that has your character visit Innsmouth and its... interesting fishermen. Dreams in the Witch House tells the story of Walter Gilman, a freshman at Miskatonic University in the mysteriously magical town of Arkham, Massachusetts. With a passion for math, Gilman specifically picks Miskatonic because of the particular focus of his developing theory: the relationship between complex mathematics and ancient magic rituals. Renting the attic room of an ancient boarding house — a strange room with a slanted wall and whispered rumors about its past inhabitants — Walter begins his life in Arkham. And what happens next is up to you.
"...Dreams in the Witch House provides something fresh to one of the oldest genres out there. Atom Brain's genre-blending point-and-click offers a tight package with tons of nuance and enjoyment to be pulled from future playthroughs."
Dreams in the Witch House has an unorthodox approach to narrative, unlike what you'd see in your traditional point-and-click adventure game. Rather than serving a straightforward narrative path, with a handful of logic puzzles and escape room-like obstacles in your way, Witch House is more about uncovering the story at your own pace. There are randomized elements to your schooling and occult adventures: your courses, city events that you can find out about by reading the paper, and even where certain characters you can meet will be at any given moment.
Even the when and how of running into certain scripted events can be altered by Walter's state of mind. And for a point-and-click to carry with it the idea that "no two runs are the same" is so fascinating.
With those randomized elements, the genuine sensation that you never know what's waiting for you every time you go to sleep, every time you return home, every time you go to the market... it creates a constant tension that rattles you when you find your "routine" disrupted.
You'll be keeping up with your schoolwork by studying your course subjects, trying to stretch a couple of bucks across the week, and keeping yourself fed (sometimes you'll have to dig through trash), all while maintaining a good night's sleep and trying to avoid getting sick. In a lot of ways, it's a genuine simulation of a college kid's life. Until those disruptions.
Within almost a day of living in Arkham, Walter's life starts to get... fuzzy. Static invades his brain just walking down the street. Dreams of alien worlds, of geometric shapes and incomprehensible beings, start to bleed into his reality. Visits from a human-faced rat in his dreams start to become real.
As the game progresses and things spin more and more out of control, the uneasy feeling of losing your sense of self starts to take hold and you start to wonder if Walter will be able to make it through the year. And as these elements show up with increasing frequency, there's a prevailing sense that something big is coming for Walter and this town — and you have little sense of how to stop it.
In comes the time management of it all. The open world concepts. The aspects that make Dreams in the Witch House more "scary Sims with survival elements" than your traditional point-and-click.
"Your first playthrough will probably be spent trying to accomplish a little bit of everything, which you will quickly discover is impossible. Much like in real life."
You are free to choose how to spend your time in Arkham. Every day you'll open up the town map and head wherever you'd like. Wander down to Miskatonic University to check out library books or set up a study date? Head downtown to buy medicine or cheap canned food? Maybe get a full meal or a cup of coffee at the cafe to keep the negative effects of sleeplessness at bay?
All of this leads to you constantly questioning whether you're making the right choices. You're starving and you might need to sleep off the rat bite you got from digging through the trash. But you've got an exam in a few days and could really use the extra study time. But of course, being sleep-deprived and hungry makes studying less effective, so is it worth it? Maybe you'll choose to do odd jobs for money, but you don't have a raincoat, and you work in the rain and get sick, setting you back quite a bit.
Juggling Walter's needs — sleep, hunger, sickness, warmth, wetness, and sanity — against the clear goals ahead of you — passing your classes and developing Walter's theorem while understanding exactly what is happening to you with these dreams — becomes a hectic act that you're never quite able to keep up with. Your first playthrough will probably be spent trying to accomplish a little bit of everything, which you will quickly discover is impossible. Much like in real life.
Spreading yourself thin will keep you alive and get you to AN ending, but it might not be the most satisfying and will leave you with more questions than answers. To truly dive into any one part of the game's mysteries, you'll have to focus pretty hard on one part of the world and leave other elements of Walter's life behind. Knowing the best parts of the story might be hidden behind an "optimized" run of Walter's time at Arkham can certainly be frustrating, but the promise of approaching your day-to-day life however you'd like is just too intriguing. And the idea of replaying a point-and-click for unique events and endings is all too rare these days.
(It should be noted that Atom Brain has implemented various difficulty levels, including an Iron Man which will delete your save if you die, but you'll still need at least two playthroughs to get a sense of what you're working with.)
I appreciated the detailed nature of nearly every task I sent Walter out on, adding back in that little flavor of classic point and clicks. Want to study? You'll have to find the book in the library's index, head to the correct aisle of the library, and identify the book amongst the shelves. Don't forget your school ID or else you won't be checking out any books! Taking classes brings in the Persona comparison, where every study session or lecture you attend offers tiny bits of information about a subject you'll have to remember for the eventual exam. Learning actual astronomy and mathematics concepts dictates your ability to succeed in your schooling, alongside how many "exam" points you accrue.
Learning different things gets you access to different tools, too. Chemistry? You get access to a chemistry set that allows you to recreate items that otherwise cost money. Math? That'll help you decipher the undecipherable in the places where math and magic combine. Occult? Well. The less you know about what unlocks when you learn about the occult, the better.
While the unique setup worked for me in how it mixed up the usual point-and-click formula, fans of very traditional point-and-clicks may be let down. The story is delivered in small pieces, and if you don't delve deep into certain aspects of Walter's potential focus points, you'll have no idea what is even happening when those bits of the story are presented. That in turn makes the more story-focused diversions more frustrating than anything.
Similarly, while the fear of losing hold of any one of Walter's faculties remains throughout the game, the actual scares fade over time. What initially starts as frightening punctuations to entering your room or going to bed at night becomes predictable. It becomes easy to brush past in favor of getting to your next objective.
But in spite of all of that, Dreams in the Witch House prevails.
Packaged up in a traditional point-and-click audio/visual package — detailed painting-like pixel art, light but effective sound effects, and a mood-setting soundtrack — Dreams in the Witch House provides something fresh to one of the oldest genres out there. Atom Brain's genre-blending point-and-click offers a tight package with tons of nuance and enjoyment to be pulled from future playthroughs.
If the static starts to invade your mind after a few hours of studying or observing the strange wall in your house where you swear you hear a baby's cries... ignore all that and spend some time with Dreams in the Witch House. It'll be worth your time.