DreadOut review: Dreadful
Backed by a $29,000 Indiegogo campaign and the efforts of Indonesian development team Digital Happiness, DreadOut is an attempt to capture the scares of Fatal Frame from a fresh angle. It starts off strong too, with protagonist Linda en route to a ghost town, on a field trip with four fellow students and their teacher. A collapsed bridge leaves the group with no choice but to explore on foot, establishing the perfect circumstances for some scares.
As the group of excited teens runs into the town, you’re given the choice to hang back alongside the teacher, chase after the boys who sprint ahead, or simply look around at your own pace. While the way the group approaches the town is scripted, I appreciated the sense of emergent gameplay I got as I wandered around and explored.
After a few minutes it becomes clear that there is only one real place to go, though: a large school at the end of town. Exploring the other buildings only provides a few useless collectibles and some extra soundbites from the rest of the group. The meat of the game is inside the school, where, after night falls, you’re split up from the rest of the group. It’s there that the game started to lose me.
Armed with a cell phone flashlight and camera, you, as Linda, must explore the haunted school and find a way out. The gameplay is not unlike other survival horror games -- explore an otherwise mundane environment, open doors, explore rooms, and solve puzzles.
Taking a page from Silent Hill, Digital Happiness designed the school to real world specifications, meaning it’s made up of nothing but several hallways and small rooms. Where they go wrong is by not offering you a map that marks off the areas you’ve explored the way Silent Hill always did. Without a map I was left confused, often backtracking over the same areas unnecessarily, making wrong turns, and losing interest as a result.
Then there are the puzzles and enemies. Nearly everything about DreadOut is unnecessarily obtuse, from the way you defeat enemies to the way you solve puzzles and find items. There are clear attempts to offer signposts about what to do next, but they ended up throwing me off-track more often than pointing me in the right direction.
In one instance, a black cat wanders a hallway, as a way to lead you toward a puzzle, but anytime I saw it it was walking in the opposite direction. The result? I spent a ton of time looking for a way into a locked bathroom stall that you never actually open by the end of the game. In fact, the entire environment is jam-packed with red herrings, useless rooms, and collectibles with no purpose.
A few puzzles left me so stumped that I begrudgingly took to the internet for a solution, something I absolutely hate doing. I thought it would be hard to find answers for an unreleased game, but it turned out the Steam forums had several users asking questions about the very same sections. Usually when a puzzle stumps me and I’m left to look up the answer I end up feeling stupid, but with DreadOut I’m not really surprised people are struggling.
Puzzles weren’t the only roadblocks I hit either. One enemy encounter, which would have been brilliantly creepy otherwise, simply left me furious. Trapped in a small room, I had to wait until the enemy appeared, then had to quickly snap a picture to damage it before it attacked. Getting attacked at all meant almost certain death, as I got stuck in an animation loop nine times out of ten.
Then there’s the way the game handles death. If you thought Too Human’s mandatory 30-second death animation was an unnecessary punishment, wait until you’ve died a few times in DreadOut. Death leaves Linda in purgatory, where she must run to the light to escape and come back to the main game. Each time you die the distance between you and the light gets further, until eventually you can be running for two or three minutes. In one instance the run through purgatory left Linda fatigued, spitting her out in front of the same enemy I’d been losing to, but now without the ability to run. I died again and the distance increased even further. An onscreen tooltip suggested that I should try my hand at casual gaming -- right back at you, Digital Happiness!
These frustrations distract and ultimately dismantle what should have otherwise been an effective, creepy horror game. On the art design front, DreadOut has some inspired, off-putting creatures on par with the best Silent Hill has to offer.
On the one hand I have to commend DreadOut for trying to be more than the no-depth scare factories that so many other indie horror games aspire to. It’s a callback to the third-person horror games of the PS1/PS2-era and I appreciate that. On the other hand, every attempt to inject that much-needed depth is met with frustrating design decisions. I wanted it to be over well before the end of its brief, two-hour playtime.
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