Genre: Survival Horror
It’s that time again, folks. Time to dip back into the indie survival horror pool and see what we come out with. Thankfully, there have been a few successful hooks in the past, some of which I’ve discussed here and some I haven’t gotten the chance to yet. Of course, all of these efforts tend to lend their success to hit titles from the genre’s past- and that’s not a bad thing. Titles like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Clock Tower forged a well-beaten path for developers to take something and make it their own. In this case, Fatal Frame, a personal favorite, comes to mind.
DreadOut is a game that I followed a bit in its inception, watching the news of its funding and its subsequent development. Touting that it would be a spiritual successor to the Fatal Frame series, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. As a mythology buff, the promise that it took inspiration from Indonesian mythology and culture piqued my interest, too; it’s not a realm I’m familiar with but I’m always looking to learn more. When I came out, I took advantage of the first sale I could and slotted it into my Steam “to play” list.
Now, here we are. About five years later, I’ve finally booted it up to sit down and play thanks to some discussion on Twitter with some fellow horror fans. While I’ve been working on trying to get through the last mainline Final Fantasy title I haven’t beaten and I’m anticipating that the first quarter of the year will be busy with Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists and Resident Evil 2, I’ve been working to clear out my backlog- and DreadOut felt like the perfect place to start.
The story of DreadOut takes place over three “acts”, but they all connect in a linear fashion creating one large narrative for the game overall. Stepping into the shoes of high school student, Linda, you awaken in a strange village street, separated from your friends. Linda’s only hint that they may still be alive is a distorted voicemail on her phone from her best friend, Ari. Events contort quickly from eerie to dangerous as Linda begins to see spirits and strange things through the phone’s camera, and she quickly realizes that her only method of defense and escape is to utilize the camera to banish these spirits or perish at their ethereal hands.
Over the course of the three acts, the story of Linda, Ari, her three classmates, and their teacher begins peacefully enough as they begin their final field trip of the year- only to have their way blocked in a variety of ways and lead them to a strange school and the village surrounding it. As she tries to piece together exactly what is happening to her and her friends, Linda will delve deeper into the secrets of the town they have been drawn to. Was it fate that drove them there? The spirits themselves, ensnaring them for some nefarious purpose?
Maybe it was something else entirely?
If you’ve played a Fatal Frame game, you know the mechanics of DreadOut almost to a tee. Roaming around in a third person view via directional keys, you’ll control Linda as she finds items to collect and take note of. There aren’t a lot of puzzles in the game, so most of the items end up being keys, notes, or items to help minimize the penalties for failure in the game.
Much like the Camera Obscura in Fatal Frame, there is an indicator when a malignant force is nearby, though this is a bit more prominent in DreadOut, illuminating the sides of the screen in a bright red. Sometimes you can see the threats without your camera. Sometimes, raising your camera is the only way to really confront the force at hand. Thankfully, it’s as easy as pushing one button to raise your camera and another to snap as many times as you like. When an enemy is vulnerable to your camera flash, it will ‘glitch’ a bit, distorting with static. Some spirits have tricks to them as may be expected but most can be taken down with direct confrontation.
Unlike its spiritual predecessor, however, the game also highlights when benevolent camera shots can be taken, surrounding the screen with a light blue tint. This is usually the best way to find keys, special ghosts, and important areas. I found this incredibly useful, as items only highlight once you are within proximity of them. For those seeking more of a challenge, though, the border ‘warnings’ can be shut off in the options, as well.
The Good, The Bad, And…
DreadOut has an amazing amount of atmosphere, and a lot of that can be attributed to the mythology that it draws its spirits from. Even with the inspiration of Fatal Frame, the spirits feel unique and the fairly common setting of a haunted school doesn’t feel so overwhelming or bland as it has in some other works. The supporting cast does a lot to add to this, whether it’s by classmates Shelly and Yayan teasing each other when things start to go from back to worse or run-ins with them as Linda is working toward an escape. While Linda herself is pretty light in personality, the cast and environments feel rife with character.
Another boon to this game is that it rarely wants you to have to backtrack too far if you should meet an unfortunate end while confronting one of the many adversaries Linda will come across. The game autosaves for you and usually places you right before you left off. The only annoying mechanic involving dying is the Limbo mechanic. Without going too far into it, it is an inconvenience that can be altered through the game’s options menu (which I would highly recommend, though it can be changed at any point in your playthrough).
Unfortunately, the game is incredibly glitchy. In one run-through, I had an enemy block an entire hallway- which I thought was intentional but actually made me have to reload as it made a vital item inaccessible- crashed the game entirely when I attempted to capture a picture of a spirit, and has an enemy “pin” Linda in a corner, making the character model freeze and continuously take damage but never die, causing another reload scenario. It’s an independent game so there is a little leeway for forgiveness on this, I guess. For such a short game, though, these experience ending conditions crop up too frequently.
I will always recommend playing horror games with headphones and, if possible, in the dark. While the obvious reason is that it will enhance the experience and amplify the terror, it can also bring out ambient noises and sounds that might otherwise go unnoticed. DreadOut is a great example of this. Hearing the sound of scissors snipping behind me or a ghost grunting off to my right set me on edge. At some key moments, there is music and no matter how serene it sounded, it always felt like there was an ounce of foreboding behind each measure. The voice acting is pretty spot on, and I give kudos to the crew for making the game feel a bit like an early-aughts horror film by adding driving rock music to the beginning and credits of the game; the title sequence set to Mocca’s “Lucky Me” made me feel some warm fuzzies as a horror fan of the era.
Looking at DreadOut is a nice visual experience, as well. The character models and environments are pretty sharp, though the obvious standouts are the spirits that you come across ranging from grotesque to artistic and rarely uninteresting. Even when the angles of the camera become cinematic, everything is framed properly and feels easy to navigate. I want to find something to be critical about, but aside from looking a bit aged, the game is really nice to take in.
I feel bad for sitting on DreadOut for so long honestly. Part of that involved the fact that the game came out in an episodic format and when I had gotten it, Act 0 was the only piece that I could play. Playing over the whole of the three acts was worth the wait. Even with deaths and being stumped in a place or two, I ended up at a little over five hours and the game packs that time with atmosphere, chills, and quality efforts to breathe culture and new mythology into the horror genre.
With multiple endings and optional ghosts to seek out, there are some fun endeavors to bring players back and reward exploration. If you can deal with the technical fallacies the crop up somewhat frequently, DreadOut is worth the time. It has improved quite a bit since I first attempted to play, but with a film being released and a rumored sequel, the improvements are most likely coming to a standstill. Invest in this if you’re a patient horror gaming fan and if it’s on sale, invest even if you’re impatient. The speed bumps don’t do enough damage to ruin the overall journey of DreadOut.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
For the first time in a while, I want to discuss a couple of plot feelings I had with DreadOut.
In the first count, while there’s an overarching story, the spirits and mythological beings you run into are completely disjointed. They do make puzzles really interesting, but there isn’t really any explanation as to why all of these creatures have gravitated to this school and village. I’m torn between wanting the game to show me as much as it can regarding Indonesian mythology and supernatural phenomena- even with some references that have nothing to do with the ghosts and evil you come across- and wanting the explanations to all tie into the setting and plot much like Fatal Frame and other games of the sort.
My other concern involves how the last pieces of the plot are handled. In the ‘best’ ending, Linda escapes with all of her friends either dead or possessed by the entities orchestrating the events that have terrorized the group since they arrived. In fairness, there are some loose ends left with this ending, as Yayan- who disappears moments after you arrive at the school- is never heard from again while everyone else is confirmed to be deceased except for one character who is involved in the entire ordeal. Certain scenes like a conversation with a possessed Ari (one of my favorite scenes in the entire game, mind) bring about interesting ideas for how the plot could play out and continue to be a ‘grounded’ story about an evil place that draws people to their doom almost like Silent Hill.
The ending of DreadOut, however, feels like the game is going to have to be some grandiose action game if it is going to continue in the direction that is being outlined. I worry about this because I feel that horror of this kind has to have some kind of ceiling to it in order to keep it feeling more like a creeping terror and less like an action adventure game. By the end of Act 2, we witness Linda demonstrating some interesting supernatural abilities and in the end, she listens to a voicemail from Ari saying that they are going to become the Keepers of the Dark. This could be handled well, but I know that I fell off of the Resident Evil train once it hit the point where it felt more like a “blast everything out of your way” setting than a “think and run when you need to” one.
Hopefully, we’ll see how this is handled in a sequel or in the standalone accompanying game Keepers of the Dark. This game claimed a small piece of my indie horror heart so I sincerely hope that small piece isn’t broken with the direction the property continues in.