Review: Back to Bed

Indie studios have always had the rare opportunity to play with art styles in their games. Some of the best indie games of the last decade like Journey, Braid, and Castle Crashers have experimented with visual design, a stark contrast to the hyper-realistic AAA games of today. It’s no surprise that indie studios are fond of challenging the status quo with alternative art styles; in a way, it’s in their blood. From the aptly named Bedtime Digital Games, Back to Bed takes the lead-the-way puzzle design of Lemmings and mixes in a dose of trippy, surrealist dreamscapes that will make any art major drool.

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Back to Bed follows Bob, a narcoleptic man who is routinely thrown into the perilous world of his own dreams. In his dream world, Bob sleepwalks, so without guidance, he becomes the victim of razor-toothed manholes, speeding whale trains, and ravenous dogs. Fortunately, that’s where Bob’s subconscious comes in. Taking form as Subob (a dog-like creature with a face exactly like Bob’s), his subconscious guides sleepwalking Bob to the safety of his own bed. The game stays focused on this dream-like aesthetic throughout its entirety. With plenty of inspiration from surrealist Salvador Dali and the impossible designs of M. C. Escher, Bob’s world has plenty of artistic appeal. The design is a portrait come alive, with all of the surreal cues along for the ride. Expect floating mouths, inverted walkways, and flying chess pieces appearing on a regular basis. With a sharp reverence for the surrealist movement, Back to Bed makes a great first impression.

The main gameplay mechanic of Back to Bed has the player taking control of Subob, who must form a path to get Bob to safety, making Back to Bed a puzzle game at heart. Subob can pick up objects like giant green apples or oblong fish bridges to lead Bob to his bed. But Bob is vulnerable to many things, from walking alarm clocks to good ol’ gravity. Subob controls pretty well with either a mouse or controller (controller is ideal, though), but can suffer from the grid-based playing field. To place an object, you need to stay near it, but the sensitivity between tiles can be too great. You’ll sometimes place an object in the wrong place, leading Bob to plummet off the map, forcing you to pick up from his starting point. It’s nothing unmanageable, but it doesn’t feel as precise as it should be.

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The puzzles themselves have a basic set of rules to follow. Anytime Bob runs into a wall or object, he turns clockwise, giving the game a solid amount of control in your escape plan. The game also lets you increase the speed of the game with an easy button command, thankfully preventing you from playing the waiting game with Bob. Still, the mechanics are actually pretty simple and Subob never learns any fresh abilities to upgrade his skillset. This makes the puzzles in the game feel annoyingly straightforward, contradicting the surreal aesthetic. Aside from a few instances where you must use stairs to walk onto walls (a la Escher’s Relativity), the game doesn’t offer any significant changes; these moments are usually only applicable to get an item. The Dali/Escher world is little more than an aesthetic, as very few of the surreal staples are used to change the gameplay. In more extreme cases, the level design can actually suffer from the surreal design, as the Escher-style “impossible designs” can disorient and confuse players. One instance required me to place a bridge across a gap, even though the gap’s perspective made it look impossible to do so. While that’s a clever reference to Escher’s work, it made the level in question very frustrating.

For $6, Back to Bed gives you a solid amount of content. The main campaign is a bit short at only 30 levels across two worlds, but completing the game unlocks Nightmare Mode for more challenging puzzles. But despite a good amount of content, the game’s lack of evolution is disappointing. Some of the best gameplay twists are introduced in the last quarter of the game, but the game ends before these ideas can come together. It’s a shame, because with a little more length and a few more creative ideas, Back to Bed could’ve been a sleeper hit (pardon the pun). Instead, it ends before it really gets going.

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Closing Comments:

Back to Bed’s main mechanics are sound and well-demonstrated, but it rarely uses its surreal aesthetic as anything more than eye candy. The excellent art design pushes boundaries and plays with perspective; a Dali work in game form. The gameplay doesn’t benefit from this design choice, though, as the surreal elements don’t affect it. Puzzle design is respectable and can be challenging, but more of the identifiable art design could’ve been integrated into the puzzles themselves. If you can overcome the control quirks, Back to Bed can be a fun little puzzle game, but one that uses its aesthetic uncreatively.
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Platform: PC