As its title suggests, Dyad is about pairing things, and its emphasis on duality runs through every layer. Dyad draws inspiration from old classics like Tempest and contemporary favorites like Rez. The game’s stages require precise movements and intense concentration, but the music and colors invite you to zone out to psychedelic environments. While the aesthetics imply that Dyad is some kind of art game or abstract sensory experience, the rules remind you that it is also a constant competition, since a multitude of rankings and statistics offer concrete performance reports that compare you to other players. While these bi-directional forces sometimes can cause some unpleasant tension, they’re also what makes the game special.
At the most basic level, Dyad is a racing game. You control a squid-like avatar and travel down a colorful tube, sliding around the circular perimeter in order to grab powerups and dodge enemies that hurtle towards you. Firing tendril-like hooks at enemies causes a small sphere to emanate from them. Pass through this sphere without hitting the enemy, and you build up a boost (called a “lance”) that can be used ro produce a short burst of speed and a period of invulnerability. Hooking like-colored pairs of enemies helps increase your speed, but it also exposes you to danger: the faster you move, the faster you have to react to incoming obstacles. Successfully navigating the levels also means you have to deal with contradictory impulses. Get close to the enemies, but not too close, or else you’ll crash and kill your momentum. Try to go as fast as you can, but not too fast, or you’ll lose control.
In practice, this dynamic makes playing the game an exercise in exhilaration and frustration. Thanks to the game’s speed and dizzying visual effects, it is often difficult to predict if you are too close to an enemy or if there’s an incoming obstacle. Dyad’s rules, movement style, and feedback are hazy, which fosters the impulse to play by “feel” rather than through formal technique. Sometimes this works out and you get the sensation of being able to reach out and intuit the best move to make. Other times, you’ll collide with a few objects and have to muddle on with little in the way of concrete feedback on how to improve. Dyad’s speed and spectacle make it hard to see the difference between a good move and a bad one. The result is a game that evokes the aesthetic beauty and experimental nature of something like Flower, while simultaneously enforcing harsh, arcade-style consequences for mistakes.
Even so, it’s probably best to think of Dyad as the psychedelic sibling of a game like Trials HD. Underneath all the trippy patterns, it’s a neo-arcade game focused on mastery. Dyad is obsessed with showing you how well you’re playing, going so far as to give you graphs that chart your speed in between sections of a single track. And it’s in your best interest to pay attention: failing at any point in a level means starting the whole thing over, and if you want to show off your prowess by winning a trophy, you’ll have to work for it. In an era when trophies and achievements are given for simply finishing levels, Dyad makes you earn them by first requiring you achieve three out of three stars on a level, which then unlocks a special (i.e. more difficult) trophy version of the course. You’re free to simply enjoy the neat visuals and techno beats but don’t expect any participation awards.
As difficult as it is, Dyad is ultimately about more than score chasing. References to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jeff Minter’s video games allow the Dyad to comment on its heritage as well as the medium’s history. Strange as it sounds, I’m hesitant to say too much about the ending for fear of spoiling it. It’s actually quite a departure from the rest of the game, but it feels right at home. Dyad doesn’t have a traditional story, but the final level is a perfect narrative capstone for a strange, difficult, and beautiful journey. Fittingly, its title is also a David Lynch reference.
Dyad’s aesthetics and mechanics constantly pull in different directions. The artistic and auditory presentation is trance-inducing, but the rules demand rapt attention. With such a focus on mechanical excellence and on the leaderboard, it would be logical to assume that Dyad’s mechanics would be precise to the point of being clinical. On the contrary, the lights and blurred flashes often obscure the on-screen action to the point where you’re playing with your gut rather than your mind. It can be frustrating at times, but it is also immensely satisfying to snap out of a daze and see your best score materialize in front of your dry eyes (the game is an expert at postponing blinks). Dyad pairs seemingly contradictory mechanical, aesthetic, and thematic elements. The results are often jarring, but these odd couplings ultimately make for an excellent experience.