Picture this: you’re trapped inside your old high school, alone. All of the lights are out and the doors are sealed shut. It’s nighttime, so you can’t really see out any of the windows, and although you know there’s no one in the school with you, you keep hearing sounds like rustling feet. No matter where you turn, they seem to be just behind you. You whip around and pull out your camera; a ghastly visage fills the screen as it screams and rushes towards you.
Welcome to DreadOut, you’re dead.
(Would you rather watch a video than read this? Click here to check out our video review of DreadOut)
Yes, it is true: the Indonesian indie horror game DreadOut, developed by Digital Happiness, is finally coming out this Thursday (May 15). I got a chance to play through the full game over the weekend, and I’m happy to say the news is mostly good.
Gameplay: scare me, confuse me
DreadOut is a puzzle/action horror game in the style of the Fatal Frame series. Players are dropped into the shoes of Indonesian schoolgirl Linda Melinda, and tasked with solving puzzles and fighting ghosts using only a camera phone. Generally, Linda moves around in the third person, but the only way to fight or sometimes even see ghosts, generally, is by switching to the first-person camera mode, and you’ll switch between them often. You’ll also make frequent use of your phone’s flashlight function to search through dark corners for clues.
Combat in DreadOut is pretty similar to Fatal Frame. When ghosts get close enough, the image on your camera will distort, and snapping pictures at that moment damages them. Some can be taken out by repeatedly snapping, but others are a bit tougher, requiring you to snap a shot of their weak spot or to find and use a particular tool before they can be destroyed.
If you fail to deal with a ghost, it will generally kill you, and you’ll end up in limbo. Once there, you’ve got to run into the light, Carol Ann style. The more you die, the further away this light gets. And unfortunately, while Linda Melinda is an excellent ghost photographer, she’s not exactly an Olympic sprinter, so if you die a lot, you’ll end up spending several minutes between actually playing the game where you’re just holding the Shift+W and waiting to make it back into the game. I understand the developer’s impulse behind this—to give death in the game some meaning and make players try to avoid it—but as someone who dies a lot in games, I found it to be frustrating pretty quickly.
In between encountering ghosts, you’ll run into puzzles. For example, when you come across a locked closet, you’ll need to figure out how to find a key to get inside it. Some of these puzzles are pretty damn difficult even though the screen will vignette in blue when you’re near something important. With a little help from my colleague Iain, I was able to figure them all out eventually, but they are not easy, and I spent a lot of time in the game frustrated at not being able to progress. I even emailed the developers for help, but they were just as cryptic in their responses as many of the game’s clues. I’ll admit, there were a few times when I even yelled at my computer monitor in anger, but when I did eventually figure a puzzle out, I felt pretty good about it.
Story: don’t go in there
Linda Melinda and some of her classmates and a teacher are on a car trip when they encounter an unexpected bridge closing. Unsure of what to do, the kids run off into a nearby town, which everyone is surprised to find completely deserted. Eventually, they come to a school, and when they decide to go in, all hell breaks loose. Linda is separated from everyone else, including her apparently-possessed best friend, and locked in the very-haunted school building.
Over the course of the game, you’ll run into cool clues like handwritten notes and newspaper clippings that will fill you in on some of the dark things that happened in the town. You’ll also see photographs and visions that fill in some of the blanks. All of this stuff is very interesting, and it really helped suck me into the game’s world.
Unfortunately, what you won’t see after the introduction is any of the other characters: DreadOut is a two-part game, and what’s going on sale this week is only Act One. The developers tell me that the second act will be available once it has been finished as free DLC for those who purchase the first act. But for now, don’t expect the game to come to any sort of satisfying resolution.
You also shouldn’t expect it to take too long. It took me about five hours to beat the game, but a lot of that time was spent trying to figure out puzzles, trying to figure out how to beat ghosts, etc. Now that I know all the answers, I suspect I could play through it in an hour. The school area where the true game begins is also the only area available in the game right now. Surprisingly, none of the content from last year’s demo (which was excellent) makes an appearance either. Your biggest complaint about DreadOut is likely to be that, at least until Act Two comes out, it is simply too short.
There is a little bit of replay value in that once you’ve beaten the game, you can replay it with a couple new costumes, and there’s also some extra gameplay to be found outside of the school if you wait around until nightfall without entering it, although most players aren’t likely to do this unless they’re told to try it.
Sound and visuals: that indie polish
What is there, though, is pretty well done, and it’s clear that the folks at Digital Happiness spent a lot of time on everything. The visuals, while obviously not up to the level of a triple-A PC game, are pretty damn impressive for an indie outfit, and aside from the occasional buggy or unrealistic looking animation, they’re good enough to make the whole game feel real.
The design team has also done a fantastic job making the game feel unique. There may not be many ghosts because the game is so short, but the ones that are there are well-designed and based on Indonesian folklore. They’re also creepy as hell. One of them in particular scared the hell out of me on several occasions by making me think I had killed her and then popping up behind me. I’ll admit it: I definitely screamed out loud at least once while playing DreadOut.
The game’s sound effects also deserve special mention, because they are absolutely fantastic. Clearly a ton of thought went into the sound design for this game, and the result is a brilliant collage of creepy that will keep you consistently on edge as you wander around the corridors of the school searching for the next clue. I highly suggest playing with headphones or surround sound as well, as the game takes advantage of this and you will continually hear subtle sounds behind you or off to one side that make you spin around nervously to see what’s out there.
The verdict: flawed, but still spooky
All in all, the experience of playing DreadOut was a mix of fun, fright, and frustration. You’ll get some genuine scares out of the game, but you’re also likely to be frustrated by at least a few moments, and surprised by how quickly it’s all over. Whether or not the game is really worth the $15 it’ll run you on Steam is hard to say until Act Two comes out, but personally, I’d recommend buying it anyway.
It’s not perfect, but it’s damn ambitious, and what’s there is so well-executed that I feel the developers deserve to be rewarded and encouraged to make additional content for the game. If being scared by Indonesian spooks sounds up your alley, I don’t think you’ll regret taking a trip into the world of DreadOut, even if it does serve up a little frustration along with its fun.
Watch the video review: