Like a dream come true… but it’s still in alpha.
I’ve previously expressed interest in reviewing re:Dreamer, a collaborative Gender Bender/TG/TSF adult visual novel created by CaptainCaption and Espeon, as it fell in line with the types of games I typically cover on this quaint little site of mine. However, I was unsure when would be the ideal or best time to review it as re:Dreamer is a Patreon-funded title where a new build is released every two weeks, with new content and features introduced in each new build. This put the game in a very tentative position on my schedule, but then, on May 22nd, CaptainCaption offered me a review copy of Version 0.3.5, so I decided that the time was now and expedited a review as soon as possible.
Before beginning the review proper, I should also offer a brief rundown over who these two creators, the two sole members of developer Dream Team Studio, are for those not so deeply entrenched in the TG gulags.
CaptainCaption(he/him) is a long-standing TG writer who has created a plethora of detailed TG captions and short stories that can be found on his DeviantArt page. He is also a former member of the Student Transfer dev team, where he worked on the Connie route from version 2.0 and the Sayaka route in Version 4.0, among other things including the Student Transfer Scenario Dream Girl, which I reviewed a while back. He serves as the writer, editor, and programmer of re:Dreamer.
Meanwhile, Espeon(she/her) is a long-standing patron and commissioner of Japanese TG comics and is managing the translation efforts of TS Ero Trap Dungeon. She serves as the creative director, editor, and primary financier of re:Dreamer. Additional funds come from the Dream Team Studio’s Patreon, which is used to compensate CaptainCaption for his work and commission custom art assets for re:Dreamer.
Collaboration between the two began on September 14th, 2019 and the first demo of the game was released on October 7th, 2019. Since then new builds have been released regularly, with the project currently seeing a new release every two weeks.
Version 0.3.5 of re:Dreamer is currently only available to Patreon backers and will not become publicly available until June 19th, 2020.
I have discussed re:Dreamer in detail with CaptainCaption before writing this review to clarify certain details about the game and its development.
I have been supporting Dream Team Studio on Patreon since February of 2020, and continue to do so.
re:Dreamer is in alpha. Everything within the game is subject to change, including the script, art assets, music, and mechanics.
re:Dreamer Version 0.3.5 Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Dream Team Studio
re:Dreamer follows Zach, a 20-year-old college student going through life in a slump, feeling as if something is missing, and lacking the convictions and purpose they thought they would have developed long ago. But that all changes after Zach pirates a suspicious-looking mobile game by the name of re:Dreamer, which they unknowingly use to transform their body from that of a frail young man with a feminine visage into a cute busty young woman. Shortly after a very colorful transformation sequence, they are greeted by Ai, an AI companion who seeks to guide Zach throughout their journey in re:Dreamer, which is simply described as a reality-editing sex game.
Though in more practical terms, it is a gamified contest to see who can garner the most acclaim and points on a closely guarded social media platform for degenerates and perverts by doing wacky and wild sex things that have yet to be expanded upon in detail. This, naturally, does not sit well with Zach, but considering that this is the only way for them to undo their unsolicited transformation, they have little choice but to participate in this twisted game.
It is from this initial point where the story branches out into a scattering of possible routes, but unlike its tangentially related peers like Press-Switch and Student Transfer, re:Dreamer is not another choose-your-own-adventure style sprawling narrative-platform TG visual novel. Instead, the game is designed around a far more deliberate structure that follows a scattering of mostly linear routes, with the current build only consisting of three, none of which are developed beyond their first day of content. While that might not sound like much, the content in re:Dreamer still amounts to several hours of storytelling, and once it gets going, it gets really good.
The story plays off the various tropes seen in a lot of TG media but frequently expands upon them with an extra psychological and realistic layer. The tone shifts between the doubt and dread spurred on by Zach’s transformation, goofy anime-style shenanigans, and sexual encounters that double as formative experiences to further character development and change their related dynamics, in addition to offering some provocative funsies. While the characters are a vibrant lot whose colorful banter and clashing personalities make for a rousing time.
It can be funny, it can be heartfelt, it can be methodical, it can be existential, it hits pretty much every note I want to see not only as a story, but as a TG story. This game is coming from a pair of developers whose savviness and familiarity with TG trappings and tendencies cannot be understated. They, quite simply, get it. They’ve read hundreds of TG stories, they’ve seen what works, internalized their preferences, and they understand how to make this subject matter interesting and compelling on multiple levels.
This can be seen in their approach to the current plotlines that play with established ideas and some wild cards thrown in for good measure, but I do not think any single thing in re:Dreamer represents this understanding quite as well as Zach themselves. A character who, in many senses, was crafted to be a protagonist in a visual novel like this. Their long-standing gender issues give them a basis to both reject or accept the circumstances thrust into them, either learning to accept their dysphoria for what it is or defying it more than ever after their depressed desires were brought to life in one of the worst ways possible. They’re a very intelligent and worldly individual capable of analyzing issues great and insignificant, yet they lack the awareness needed to pick up on the painfully obvious, thus leading to a lot of humorous encounters and general introspection.
But above all, they’re an excessively detailed character whose colored history, quirky tendencies, and general fragility really struck a chord with me, and makes them serve as something of the emotional heart of the story. Partially because they’re a cute little dork who just can’t seem to catch a break, but also because I cannot help but see part of myself in Zach. I mean, they’re a frail autistic kid with a TG fetish, repressed dysphoria, a scattering of academic honors, and not-so-great motor skills, who feels lost in the world. Take out the part with them being a knack of an engineer and throw in some creative writing skills, and… that’s pretty much how I would have described myself back when I was their age.
Though this type of character might not be everybody’s cup of tea, and an effort is made by the developers to help diversify Zach, to teach them to behave in accordance with what the player wants from their protagonist while retaining and staying true to Zach’s established personality. This little bout of narrative ambition is known as the T.E.A.C.H. system, a series of variables (Trans, Emotion, Autism, Control, and Horny) that track aspects of Zach’s personality and changes how they react to other events. Which takes the form of flavor text and unique scenes when these variables meet certain criteria.
As a system, I think it is an interesting way to allow players to, in a sense, customize the story to their liking by emphasizing or de-emphasizing traits of Zach’s personality to their preferences. It goes to add some weight behind the player’s character, furthers the player’s relationship to Zach in a way, and allows the game to better cater to a broader spectrum of tastes than it would if Zach’s personality were less reactive.
In order to test the system, I decided to play through the Keisuke route, the longest route in re:Dreamer, twice with inverted T.E.A.C.H. variables, and the differences in both playthroughs were not especially notable. These variables do trigger certain brief conversation, small remarks, and autistic tangents, but it ultimately is just a periodic pinch of flavor injected into the game, with something around 95% of all dialogue, and every major scene, being part of the story, which is probably for the best. Otherwise, the game would be a nightmare to manage from both a developer and a completionist player perspective, especially for a player who is not aware of the T.E.A.C.H. system, as it is never explained during a typical playthrough.
The actual explanation of the T.E.A.C.H. system is only available through the official flowchart or by viewing the legacy ending for Version 0.2.2, the T.E.A.C.H. variables can only be viewed by going to the developer menu (Shift+D) and accessing the Variable Viewer, and there is nothing in the game that signifies when your variables change. This is all on the developer’s exceedingly lengthy to-do list but represents one of the shortcomings of the current build of re:Dreamer. Though, it’s far from the most pressing or worrying issue in the game.
You know how I just said all those glowingly positive things about the story of re:Dreamer? Well, when I said that, I was referring strictly to the three expanded routes in Version 0.3.5. Before players can get to these routes, they need to go through the prologue section, and it is… not good. The game begins without a true introductory sequence for the player to get to know Zach and their daily life and instead rushes the player into a transformation sequence with a nice blend of fear, anticipation, eroticism, and humor.
Once the transformation is complete and Zach has been sufficiently woman-ified, they are then greeted by Ai, who is supposed to give Zach a brief tutorial about re:Dreamer, which goes on for what feels like a solid hour when the rules to this game within a game really are not that complicated. The two, while a hilarious duo in their own right, have the combined attention span of your average field mouse, and waste little time going on insane unrelated tangents, well before the objective of re:Dreamer has been established, and the reader has a firm idea of what this story is about. This string of antics can technically be avoided through an alternate rendition of the prologue where Zach masturbates, but this rendition has the opposite problem, skimming over the details without letting Zach properly react to the perilous predicament they have been thrown into.
I can easily understand why somebody would lose interest in this title after getting partway through the introduction. It’s rough, it’s far too wordy, it takes too long to dole out basic information, and chances are that within the first ten minutes the player will be greeted by a 3 screen long ramble about kinesthetic sense, kinematic formulas, and dysmetropsia. In an environment like this, first impressions are everything, and this sloppy introduction to Zach and what re:Dreamer is, both in and out-of-universe, does not leave a particularly good one. Once the player does get past the intro and moves on with the character routes, the storytelling and pacing do improve substantially as things actually start happening and more characters are thrown into the fray.
That being said, even in these routes Zach’s prolonged introspective tangents can be a bit overbearing and detrimental to the overall pacing, and the script could benefit from some trimming all around, being a bit too verbose and slow for its own good. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good slow-burning story rife with character interaction and development, but I also value pacing and keeping a story rolling forward. (Yes, I know that’s rich coming from a notorious windbag like me.)
Then there are the issues, or rather questions, raised by setting re:Dreamer in an alternate universe where World War II persisted until 1978, Japan took over both China and most of the western United States, and mankind has yet to step foot on the moon. This is only really explained in the appendix as a sheet of expansive lore that raises a number of incidental questions due to the lack of information about the current state of technology and gender issues, which are naturally major components of re:Dreamer.
This can muddle certain aspects of the game, and raise questions about the world that simply are not answered. For example, Zach begins the game surprised by Ai’s existence as an artificial intelligence, but the reader does not know how remarkable something like this is in this world. Or when Zach’s attempted explanation of their situation goes awry and one character thinks that Zach’s transformation was the result of them transitioning, the reader lacks a basis for how accepted trans, or LGBT people in general, are treated in this world and this nation.
There’s also a very strange instance where Ai boasts about her profound knowledge over psychology, citing the DSM-5 as a reference point, and diagnoses Zach with repression and autogynephilia. Even though, from what I could tell by reading the DSM-5, neither of those things are diagnosable. According to CaptainCaption, Ai is just lying to get Zach to play along with re:Dreamer, but that is not made clear in the game itself and comes across as just poor research from the developers.
However, all of these shortcomings, all of these problems, can still be fixed as the project is still in alpha and nothing in the game has truly been locked down and finalized. Everything is subject to change, and per my conversation with CaptainCaption, the developers are planning on revising the introduction, properly introducing the T.E.A.C.H. system, and explaining the world in more detail.
Moving on to the presentation, re:Dreamer uses a modified and trimmed-down version of the Student Transfer game engine, which is obvious from the jump given how, with the near-identical user interface, it’s easy to mistake this game as a more elaborate Student Transfer Scenario. This is partially helped by how the game clearly uses art assets from various sources, but these are simply meant to be placeholder assets to help visualize the game while Dream Team Studio is in the process of commissioning backgrounds, character sprites, and hentai CG scenes.
This results in some visual inconsistencies such as how Zach is supposed to have red eyes when their sprite has yellow eyes, how Keisuke’s sprite is missing the top 15% of his head, and how Zach’s appearance further changes depending on the CG used for a given scene. For an alpha comprised of placeholder assets, it does its job for the time being and uses what it has fairly well thanks to the inclusion of small animations and frequently fluctuating expressions that keep the proceedings lively.
That is, with the exception of the conversations between Zach and Ai. Because Ai does not have a sprite (and will not be visualized until the introduction of a phone system), most of the scenes shared by these two tend to look… boring, as it is just one person talking to an intangible voice, standing in a room. It’s functional, it works, but it is a noticeable omission that robs the one-on-one scenes between the two of a certain energy and liveliness, especially the introduction.
The use of placeholder assets also carries over to the soundtrack, but whereas the visual assets are filled with room for improvement, the soundtrack is… pretty much perfect as far as I am concerned. It’s an expansive soundtrack composed of songs lifted from F-Zero GX, Panty and Stocking, Jet Set Radio, No More Heroes, Touhou, and Umineko just to name a few, and while it may be a bit… odd to compliment a game for simply selecting good unlicensed music for its soundtrack, they are incorporated into the game well, go to further establish the tone of scenes, adding an extra layer to the proceedings, or being otherwise hilarious in their application.
From the use of a track from the Paprika soundtrack in a scene where Zach must flee from a dark force invading their own mind, hellbent on erasing Zach’s very existence to the decision to pair a Jurassic5 song to the sex scene where Zach gets fingered by their Aniki. It all works so well that it is hard for me to imagine a better soundtrack for this game. Unfortunately, it is set to be replaced sometime later on with creative commons music tracks… which is a bit upsetting, but probably necessary to keep this project going for very long.
To wrap up my thoughts, re:Dreamer has the potential to be something amazing between the quality writing, the enthralling characters, and the developers’ commitment to storytelling. The passion and experience of its developers goes without saying, and what they came up with has the makings of what I can only assume is their honest to goodness dream game, and it’s at least something close to that for me as well. I could go on about its promise all day… but the ultimate purpose of this review is to assess re:Dreamer Version 0.3.5. What the game is and not what the game could be in several months.
In its current form, would I recommend re:Dreamer? Well, I want to as there is a genuinely great set of stories, or at least the beginning of stories, to be found in this game, but to get to them one needs to go through the padded and pedantic prologue and deal with the first impressions that come with it. Knowing fully well that the game is in active development, that my issues with it are known by the developers, that there are at least some plans in place to revise things, and that new content is always on the way, I honestly would recommend that one wait to play re:Dreamer until the game is further along and improvements are made.
As part of this review, I have also created flowcharts for re:Dreamer as of Version 0.3.5. This flowchart was based on the official flowchart provided by the developers, but I condensed things for the sake of readability and navigation. I apologize if not all of the variable checks and distributions are accurate. I could not decompile the script files and view them myself, so I copied information from the official flowchart.
For the sake of usability and image size, the Keisuke route has been given its own flowchart.
I plan on reviewing re:Dreamer periodically throughout its development, but I do not intend on returning to it for several months. Hopefully, the various shortcomings I identified will be addressed by then, and I will be able to put out a more glowing review and recommendation.