I don’t believe there exists a subsection of gaming that heightens my nostalgia and love for the passtime more than 3D platformers from the 90s. From the juggernauts in Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, to the underrated but still enjoyable lesser likes such as Croc: Legend of the Gobbos and Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time, there were innumerable classics that won me over with their low-poly visuals, adorable characters, and satisfying gameplay. Cavern of Dreams, an indie platformer developed by Bynine Studio, wears its inspiration for the golden era of 90s platformers unabashedly on its sleeve, culminating in an adventure with plenty of charm, but a few minor shortcomings also.
From the get-go we are introduced to our cute little red dragon protagonist Fynn, who has ventured into the Cavern of Dreams in search of his missing, yet to be hatched siblings. He quickly meets an otherworldly sorceress named Sage, who promises not only to protect his siblings as he retrieves them, but also provide Fynn with fancy new abilities as he collects more and more eggs. Fynn decides to take Sage up on her offer for a free creche and new interesting powers, and after a brief tutorial that sees you collect your first egg and gain the ability to whack things with your tail, the Cavern of Dreams quickly becomes his oyster, and you’re free to explore its various unique locales on the hunt for Fynn’s scattered siblings.
It’s not a stretch to state that the narrative of Cavern of Dreams is paper thin, serving as a simple justification as to why Fynn is frolicking around various worlds jumping about and searching for things to collect. While this could be somewhat forgiven, as many early 3D platformers didn’t pack much of a narrative punch either, I was ultimately a little disappointed that less effort was put into telling much of a story. This problem became more apparent as I collected the various collectible cards strewn about the various different worlds hosted in the Cavern of Dreams, as they offered fascinating tidbits on friends and foes that you otherwise wouldn’t have known.
Also lacking from Cavern of Dreams small assortment of characters is much in the way of personality. Banjo-Kazooie showed us 25 years ago that additions such as silly speaking sounds and witty dialogue can help breathe life into characters, and while there are some instances of solid character dialogue in Cavern of Dreams, it doesn’t happen enough to leave much of an impression. As the adventure progresses, you do come to know of the antagonist and the reasoning of their actions, which I found to be interesting, but other than that Cavern of Dreams opts to let its colourful surreal world and gameplay do the talking.
From a visual standpoint, Cavern of Dreams absolutely nails its attempt at replicating the aesthetic of N64/PS1-era 3D platformers. Its colourful low-poly graphics and lo-fi textures feel befitting of the time, and the nostalgia evoking blur filter truly hammers its retro vibe home. Those who aren’t a fan of the blurred look can toggle it off, and the visuals definitely look crisper as a result, but I feel Cavern of Dreams is best with the blur filter intact.
Dialogue like this is great, but I wish there were more
Each world is visually distinct from the other which is nice to see also. The titular Cavern of Dreams serves as the hub world throughout the adventure, with a decent amount of secrets in store, as well as pathways to a handful of additional worlds. The first level you encounter on your journey, Lostleaf Lake, takes place in a forest smattered with autumn leaves, with a lake, treehouse and mysterious tomb just a few places available to explore. Its calm and relaxing guitar track nails the wholesome autumn vibe, as do the apples adorned with smiley faces that can be thrown into the grown to make climbable trees that are needed to reach otherwise out of reach areas.
Airborne Armada on the other hand takes place on and inside of an abandoned and slightly unsettling living Airship. This level is more industrial in nature, and sees you navigating through Mr Kerrington’s (yes, the ship has a name) machinery. Accessing areas of interest out of reach on his exterior can be achieved by manipulating his controls from the interior, which I found to be a neat touch. I’m not going to spoil the other worlds you visit, but they also have their own unique style and are a joy to explore. I do wish that the Cavern of Dreams had a map however, as I did often find myself getting lost.
One of the most important aspects of a 3D platformer is how satisfying and reliable the movement mechanics are and how it feels to control, and unfortunately for Cavern of Dreams, the initial impressions weren’t great. Fynn’s jump is a tad too floaty and unreliable, and the roll ability, while handy if you want to move quickly, is hard to handle due to its unreliable physics, often seeing Fynn zooming off so quickly that the camera can hardly keep up.
Hello MTV, welcome to my crib
However, as I acclimatised to Fynn’s floaty jump and learnt how to best wrangle with his oddly fast roll, the game started to open up. Furthermore, by expanding this moveset with handy abilities such as the Horn Dive (think Mario’s ground pound), which can be used to launch Fynn slightly higher than his default jump, and the glorious Glide ability that makes navigation at the end of the game an absolute breeze, I found myself enjoying the feel of the game much more.
Cavern of Dreams features no combat whatsoever, instead relying on its exploration, puzzle-solving and some relatively basic platforming. Your goal is simple, to collect the various eggs that have been scattered across each level. Some eggs can be obtained simply by finding them in the environment, making use of your abilities as you unlock them, while others require you to put on your environmental puzzle solving hat. The crypt in Lostleaf Lake for example teases you with a riddle that you must solve to reveal its secrets, and there are multiple instances where you have to arrange angel statues in a particular order, with the solution discoverable somewhere within that level. It’s nothing complex by any stretch, but they’re enjoyable challenges that feel like they belong perfectly in a 3D platformer of this ilk.
It wouldn’t be a 3D platformer without more additional goodies to collect. Each core level has 40 mushrooms to find, which not only serve as something else to track down, but are needed to feed some of Fynn’s siblings and are actually crucial to completing the game. Also up for grabs are the aforementioned collectible cards, which fill out an Encyclopedia accessible in the main menu with a bit more information on characters and enemies you encounter throughout your adventure. The collectible cards are also surprisingly well hidden, and were a welcome challenge to track down in the end game.
Arrange the statues to win a prize!
Cavern of Dreams is a charming N64-inspired platformer with plenty of heart. Its controls and movement may not be as fluid and reliable as they arguably should be (especially in its early hours), and its lack of much in the way of story is a bit disappointing. Yet despite the shortcomings, it remains fun to play. The act of exploring and tracking down collectibles is a tried and tested gameplay loop, and thankfully, Cavern of Dreams provides wacky worlds littered with secrets to uncover, as well some surprisingly engaging challenges. If you’re nostalgic for the era of early 3D mascot platformers, or perhaps just want a short and sweet six to eight hour adventure to sink your teeth into, then spelunking in the Cavern of Dreams is not a bad option.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Bynine Studio
- Super Rare Originals
- October 19, 2023