Edited 19 June 2021 - 11:05 PM
I guess I'll get the obligatory statement out of the way and say that when I saw a new Jamian quest was out, I was pretty intrigued and a little excited to play. I remember pretty fondly to Forbidden City from 2015, which I actually didn't like nearly as much on the first play-through as I do now having done a second play through. Given that high bar, how does Dragon Dream stack up? DD begins somewhat similar to Forbidden City, actually, with the starting village and overworld both giving strong throwbacks to FC; however, upon looking a little bit deeper, you can see that DD is not just a retread of FC and is, in fact, something special in its own right.
The plot, script, meta-humor, and ending are all indeed pretty silly throughout DD. Yet ynderneath the silliness there's some pretty substantial nostalgia, throwbacks to old Nintendo games, and commentary that unless you're also an 80s kid, you might not get, or at least really appreciate.
The dungeons are all nicely detailed and labyrinthine without being needlessly large and causing the player to run in circles after forgetting the path, nor do the dungeons require much back tracking. That happy medium of dungeon design is pretty rare, and a welcome sight. Instead, the important goals of each dungeon seem to be fairly close to the starting point, or at least accessible by a convenient warp from the starting point. Thus, backtracking through already-cleared rooms is kept to a minimum. There's a decent amount of enemy variety and enemy selection to keep the player alert, but not so much as to slow the player down and kill the pacing of the dungeon. Cheap difficulty-boosting gimmicks like damage tiles and conveyor floors, which were pretty common in the FC dungeons, are thankfully used a lot more sparingly in DD.
The puzzles in this quest are definitely my favorite part, and many of which I haven't seen elsewhere. Case in point: those letter and number-entrance puzzles throughout the quest. Without spoiling much, the puzzles in DD often, if not always, come across as obtuse or even frustrating at times. That is, until you have that "aha" moment and realize the solution to the puzzle, wherein you see that the solution was pretty obvious all along. The puzzle solutions are one big part of DD that will punish the player for overthinking things and not slowing down, taking a breath, and looking very closely at the clues that the quest generously provides. The quest always provides a solid hint for each puzzle if you are observant enough to notice and comprehend those hints. For another case in point: the mini-boss in the blue fort is seemingly impossible to defeat at first, second, or even third glance. That is, until you have that "I wonder if this might work" thought and try a trick passingly mentioned by an NPC earlier in the quest. Looney Tunes to the rescue, and that seemingly impossible mini-boss is actually a real pushover. Those sorts of puzzles that strike the player as impossible, or extremely obtuse, but then appear completely obvious in retrospect, are the best sorts of puzzles and something that I personally enjoy very much.
Difficulty wise, DD is not nearly as difficult and combat focused as FC. Playing on the normal difficulty level, I found the difficulty advanced very smoothly and was never much of a problem at any point. If anything, I found the quest started on the difficult side, then became pretty mild by the 1/4 point. Then, around the 3/4 point, the difficulty kicked back up markedly. The final level becomes quite difficult after lulling you into a false sense of complacency. The final level is difficult not so much in terms to survivability, but rather in that "what am I supposed to do" sort of way. The final boss, however, is one of those chaotic and prolonged fights which wrecks havoc on my attention span - and I'll admit I went back and chose easy mode just so that I could finish and see the end credits. Progress is quite linear, much like FC, requiring an item from each dungeon in order to explore the next dungeon. Unlike FC, though, DD does a better job of actually keeping the dungeon items pretty relevant throughout the whole quest, which is a definite improvement.
The overworld is pretty unremarkable in my opinion. Though smartly designed as a whole, and allowing quick travel, the scenery isn't all that scenic. I found the music choices throughout to be nicely above average, but not quite as great in terms of novelty and setting as the music choices in FC. The custom bosses are all smooth and well crafted, though there are certain screens in the game where there are obviously a lot of moving parts in the background and the frame-rate can get choppy if you're playing with a humble computer like I do.
Overall, DD is not nearly as epic and ground-breaking as FC, but then again, a lot of the things I didn't like so much about FC are also thankfully absent. The puzzles in DD, and out-of-the-box solutions are some of the better ones I've seen in my years and years of playing ZC. While I wouldn't call this a puzzle quest, it's not really a traditional dungeon romper either. Instead, I guess you could call this a pretty novel, puzzle-heavy medium-length quest. Whatever you want to call it. Dragon Dream is a unique and enjoyable experience and is well worth the play through if you like to use your brain a little bit while you play.