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DreadOut – It May Not Be Perfect, But It Knows How To Scare

DreadOut has been in my sights for a while, ever since I first wrote about it on my own personal horror-gaming blog, Noble Gaming (warning: shameless self-promotion), months before I walked the cyber-halls of IGM. As a result, I already knew how terrifying Digital Happiness‘ Indonesian third-person indie horror was before I jumped at the chance to review it. Just as when I first tried the demo, I spent my time with this supernatural PC game regretting my decision to sit down in the dark playing it. No, it’s not awful, just really, really scary.

The player takes control of Linda, a school-girl travelling back from a trip with her teacher and classmates. One problem, though: They quickly find that they have taken a wrong turn or three on the way, and upon realizing they are lost, pull up to a collapsed bridge. The only way to continue is on foot, and that’s where the real trouble begins. After finding a way over to the other side of the bridge, the group discover an abandoned town, and everything starts to get really spooky, really fast.

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In Dreadout, the mood is almost immediately tense, and channels complete fear into the player in a way that only Asian horror can; with possessed or ghostly young girls usually consisting of a mass of dark hair, hanging limply over a pale face, either staring blankly in my direction, or with their back to me, waiting for me to get just a little bit closer. No matter the exact scenario, such moments evoked enough memories of Asian horror from my past to have my palms sweating and heart racing.

In fact, Dreadout borrows quite a bit from existing horror, whether that be from Asian gaming or cinema, and it is this sense of nostalgia and pre-existing fears that makes the game so scary. One of the most obvious comparisons is to the beloved Fatal Frame series. Again, this pitted an Asian school-girl protagonist against the supernatural, arming her with only a camera to defend herself. The main difference between the two is the upgrade from an antique camera to a modern smart-phone, branded the ‘Iris Phone’, meaning that Linda will also be able to tweet such fearful things as ‘Ghosts everywhere. Probs gonna die. #Awkward’, or something along those lines.

DreadOut doesn’t just rely on the usual ghostly girl, or hypothetical tweets, for all of its scares, though. There are a number of different ghosts, each with their own horrific design and unique way of trying to kill you. For example, early on you discover a boar-like being that cannot be killed and knocks you over repeatedly, which manifests when someone who was greedy in life dies; and another example is a white, spectral woman that cries and screams when you’re nearby, said to have once been a prostitute in life, killed in a jealous rage by one of her ‘clients’. If that doesn’t show the extreme spectrum of death DreadOut wishes to torture you with, nothing will. Once these ghosts are ‘killed’ using Linda’s phone, these stories are added to the game’s Ghostopedia. Personally, as someone who has always been interested in Eastern culture and folklore, I would have liked these entries to be slightly more fleshed out.

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But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to basics: The player moves Linda around with the arrow keys, using Shift to run, ‘F’ to turn on the smart-phone’s torch, and ‘E’ to interact with the world around you, which varies from opening doors to picking up items. In addition, there are visual cues to let you know when a ghost or clue/helpful item is nearby, in the form of a red or blue border around the screen.

When seeing the red border, and hearing the high ringing noise that accompanies it, a ghost is nearby. However, the majority of these supernatural beings can only be seen when looking through the camera of Linda’s phone. Not only is this terrifying enough – there’s a ghost nearby, after all – but looking through the phone switches the viewpoint from third-person to first-person, meaning that you feel even closer to whatever dreadful ghoul is now baring down on you. All you want to do is run, and instead you’re trying to hurt the creature by taking its picture like a calendar model.

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Although, now that I think about it, when it comes to movement, DreadOut borrows from retro horror games again, although this time, not in a positive way. Moving Linda around can be quite awkward, and for the times that you’re not creeping very slowly in the direction of something terrifying, you’re more likely to get stuck on an object than escape whatever ghoul is currently chasing you. While this kind of gameplay was almost part of older horror games, such movement in a game released in 2014 feels somewhat outdated. To be fair, I’m not generally a PC gamer, and so I may have had less problems with a controller, but this was not possible for me on this occasion, and so I have to base my criticisms on my PC experience.

Another issue I had with DreadOut is that it felt unnaturally tough at times. Not only in terms of the game’s occasional boss-like ghosts, whom were made all the more difficult to beat with clunky movement mechanics, but also the game’s puzzles.

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One puzzle I struggled with was rather early on in the game, when I found a locked cupboard inside a school. To cut a long, confusing story short; to find the key I had to take a picture of vague shapes on a wall, which revealed a picture of girls being hung in a classroom, and a key at their feet. Once I found the classroom where they’d been hung, I also found the key to the cupboard, but as one of the first puzzles I’d solved, it felt extremely convoluted and luck played a big part in my solution. Some form of ‘hint’ button may have been nice when I felt at my most confused, but I would have settled for a few more helpful notes scribbled in Linda’s diary.

And, all of this puzzle-solving took place while the ghost of a teacher followed me around the corridors of the school, howling constantly and making me yelp on more than one occasion when she appeared directly in front of my face. I wish I was joking, but ‘yelp’ is the only word that perfectly describes the noise I made when she first appeared before me.

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Since this is a game about death, it’s not so hard to imagine that I also died more than a few times – mostly on the aforementioned ‘boss’ fights – and when this happens, Linda wakes up in darkness, surrounded by a few candles. In the distance, a white light billows towards you. If you run towards this light, you return to life. In theory this is fine, and an interesting, interactive way to return to where you left off. However, it’s not that simple. Each time you die, the light gets further away, meaning you spend longer running through this purgatory than before. Now, if, like me, you find a certain scissor-ghost extremely difficult to beat, you’ll spend a lot of time hiking through this darkness, until the repetition turns fear into frustration.

Once I got past these moments of frustration, which were unfortunately frequent, I was right back into the all-encompassing fear that DreadOut does so well, but was never quite sure if it was enough to save the game from these setbacks.

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All in all, DreadOut does what it sets out to do; scare. In this regard, it completely succeeds, combining nostalgic concepts of Asian horror with modern technology. However, while it evokes fond memories of Fatal Frame from the Playstation 2 days, it also happens to have similarly outdated movement, with a portion of the tension coming from being unable to navigate the environments smoothly when in danger. Add to this the incredibly difficult puzzles and boss-like ghosts, and you have a recipe for purgatory-bound frustration that unfortunately sours the experience.

DreadOutreleased today on Steam for PC with a price tag of $14.99. If you’re a fan of Fatal Frame or Asian horror, then there is definitely fun – and nightmares – to be had here. Otherwise, this game isn’t the most accessible on the market, and you may want to spend your money elsewhere for now.

Although, if you decide this is where your money is best spent, you’ll be glad to know that the second act of DreadOut will be available as a free update to all of those that have purchased the game, with a paid-for free-roam mode also planned for the future, which brings together all of the different environments from the game’s storyline with a heap of original ghosts. It’s good to know that even if Digital Happiness’ game isn’t perfect, it still has plenty left in the works to terrify those who persevere.