Friday, July 6, 2018

DreadOut -- An Indie Horror Game That's Actually (Surprisingly) Good

DreadOut (2014) is an indie horror game in which you play as Linda, a school girl on a field trip that takes a wrong turn and gets her (along with her teacher and classmates) trapped in a literal ghost town where seemingly every spirit is out to kill or possess you. As the rest of your classmates are picked off one by one, your goal is to find a way to rescue your friend Ira and, eventually, a way to escape the ghost town without succumbing to the ghosts' malicious intentions.

In practice, it plays a bit like a cross between Silent Hill (you're wandering around a creepy abandoned town) and Fatal Frame (taking pictures of ghosts to vanquish them), but without any sort of survival-horror health systems or resource management. Although it has a quasi sort of combat system vaguely reminiscent of a first-person shooter (if you substitute your camera for a gun, it's kind of the same principle), this is more of what you'd consider a "pure" horror game where it's not at all about the action -- it's more about the atmosphere and the scares, with hints of light puzzle solving sprinkled into the equation.

The game is split into three chapters; an introductory dream sequence that acts as kind of a prologue or teaser for the full game, and two full chapters where you're trapped in a location (one is set in a school, the other in a mansion) and trying to find a way out. Each chapter has some kind of vague over-arching goal you're trying to accomplish, but it's really just a matter of "try to find the next thing you have to do to advance the game" while dodging ghosts or taking pictures of them in the right way to vanquish them, solving puzzles (sometimes by finding and using inventory items like keys, or by taking pictures of things from the correct angle), and facing a sort of boss encounter at the end of each chapter.

As a low-budget indie game, it definitely looks the part -- low-resolution textures, blocky models, stiff animations, flat voice acting, weird user interface, stiff and sometimes unresponsive controls, random poor design choices, etc -- but it actually works surprisingly well as a horror game, not just aesthetically but mechanically as well. I went into DreadOut with no real expectations, other than my own desire to enjoy it since I like horror games so much and am always looking forward to finding horror games that are actually scary (or at least entertaining), and came away really pleased with the experience. It's not perfect, mind you -- even in terms of its horror elements, it has some rough spots -- but if you like horror games then this is one I can absolutely recommend.

Arriving on the outskirts of the ghost town.

Despite its obviously low-budget jankiness, DreadOut manages to pull off a pretty convincing atmosphere and proved quite immersive for me, which is probably the most important thing a horror game has to do because if it doesn't make you feel immersed then it's probably not going to do a very good job of scaring you. The graphics obviously look pretty dated, even for 2014 standards, but the style is effective at making the environments feel dead and lifeless, and they actually have an uncanny effect of making things look slightly weird and creepy (this is especially true of facial animations when people get possessed by ghosts, though this is likely an intentional effect). The soundtrack, meanwhile, has enough thick and heavy ambiance to really set the mood and bring the scene to life, even when the visuals are making everything look dead and lifeless.

The ghost town vibe comes across really strong in this game, and I think it does a good job of balancing a realistic interpretation of the real world with the fantastical elements of ghosts. It starts very grounded in reality, with the school characters (your player-character Linda, plus a few other students and their teacher) driving somewhere on a field trip, perhaps a little lost, when they come to a ruined bridge and decide to go exploring on foot in search of a way around it. From there the group wanders into the ghost town, which is completely deserted and feels strongly reminiscent of Silent Hill with its muted colors and light fog. This section is pretty drawn out, with no action or confrontation as you simply wander around exploring the town in broad daylight, until the sun sets and you wind up trapped in the school, representing a sort of gradual descent into the hellish madness you'll soon encounter. The rest of the game shows a steady escalation of the tension as your classmates go insane, get possessed, and get killed off by the ghosts.

A dialogue sequence with Ira, who's been possessed. 

This is the part in the review where, with most horror games, I'd start complaining about how ineffective the horror is, how it's not scary, or how it's not tense or stressful, because I'm so desensitized to horror games that most of them barely do anything for me when it comes to evoking feelings of actual horror in me (or because they're just bad, boring games where you basically just walk around while scary things happen at you), but DreadOut does some pretty interesting things in this department. Some of its scares are actually pretty creative and effective, which is surprising to me because it doesn't have any sort of survival systems or inventory management -- two mechanics that usually make you feel vulnerable and thus scared of dying or getting hurt by encounters.

Your cameras (one is a smart phone, the other is a DSLR camera) have seemingly infinite battery life, so you never have to worry about being out of "ammunition" for your "weapon" or being unable to power your phone's flashlight to see in the darkness, and you don't need to use film rolls to limit the amount of pictures you can take. There's no need for healing items since you have regenerating health, and there really isn't any consequence for dying, except that you have to spend 10-15 seconds in Limbo running towards the light so that you can jump right back into the game where you left off, which is more of a minor inconvenience than anything adverse. The save system is based entirely on auto-saves, too, so you don't get the stress of having to choose when to use your ink ribbons (or some other limited item used to save your progress), and since there's no setback for dying, making it to the next checkpoint isn't something you have to worry about, either.

Encountering a corpse monster outside. 

Despite these mechanical shortcomings, which I'd normally consider essential for creating tension in a survival-horror game, DreadOut still manages to instill a sense of horror into its gameplay through actual mechanical gameplay elements. The game is weirdly manipulative, obscure, and obtuse about its gameplay systems, with the rules sometimes changing from situation to situation so that you don't always understand what's going on or why things aren't working the way you'd expect. For instance, the game trains you to think that when you take a picture of a ghost and see a special effect, followed by it disappearing from the screen, that it's been vanquished, but then it later tricks you by doing that same pattern and having the ghost respawn behind you, which is then pretty startling when it attacks you. One of the boss encounters switches the inputs on your control stick by 90-degrees so that "right" is now "forward," and you have to run around dodging attacks with screwed-up controls; it's not really scary, but it's mechanically disorienting and makes the situation a little terrifying. At other times it places you in no-win situations where you're expected to die, or "fail" the scenario, and it's legitimately stressful trying to figure out what you have to do to "win" while running for your life and everything you try seems futile.

That aspect of things can be a little frustrating, awkward, and annoying, however. Picture a scenario where you're supposed to die, and so you're just awkwardly getting hit by enemies, unable to do anything about it, and you're just kind of confused by the whole situation. Sometimes the scenario works out effectively and you're genuinely scared of what's going on, but other times it's deflating and anticlimactic. The vague instructions about how to fight ghosts, likewise, can have a similar effect -- sometimes taking their picture works, but when it doesn't you're just like "Well, what do I do," and then it becomes awkward and the game doesn't always give you good feedback or hints about what you actually have to do.

Taking a photograph from the right perspective to form the complete picture.

The "puzzles" tend to suffer even worse from this because there's even less feedback about what you're doing right or wrong in any given scenario. Most of the puzzles require you to take pictures of something in the environment, usually from a very specific angle, but it's incredibly finicky about what constitutes the exact perfect angle, and so when you try to take the picture two or three times and nothing happens, you have no idea if that's because you're just not getting the correct angle, or if it's because you're not actually supposed to be taking a picture there at all. Sometimes you take a picture of something and the scene changes for just a brief moment and then immediately resets, and you have absolutely no way of knowing that you're supposed to turn around and backtrack all the way to the beginning of the area just to fight a couple random back-spawning enemies, until you give up in frustration and decide to just start wandering around.

The camera acts as lens through which you can view the spirit world, and so some of the puzzles require you to pull out your camera and look through it to see something you couldn't have seen otherwise, like an invisible door or ghostly apparitions. This is kind of a cool concept, but it's not a very prominent gameplay mechanism, and so it can make it a little harder to remember that you have this ability when you need it, because the game doesn't do much to reinforce the fact that you even have this ability. I was completely stumped by one puzzle early on because I hadn't yet made the mental connection that, if I'm stuck somewhere, I should be looking around with the camera, or perhaps because I just coindicentally never used the camera to look at this one specific thing while wandering around a fairly large and spread out area. 

The game's horror atmosphere and scares, however, make up for its shortcomings; I play a horror game to be spooked out and scared by things, not necessarily to solve puzzles or to marvel at great graphics or localization efforts, and it succeeds pretty well when it comes to horror. As I've said repeatedly (in this review and others) I'm so desensitized to horror that nothing ever really scares me in these kinds of games, but DreadOut managed to both startle and creep me out, while also maintaining a level of mechanical tension mixed with an immersive atmosphere. 

Spying a creepy ghost around the corner.

These scares range from subtle moments of creepiness where you hear a noise off-screen and spin the camera around to find a ghost standing in a corner (who wasn't there before) staring straight down at the floor, or walking down an infinitely repeating hallway and then turning around to find a giant spider-like woman with a face the size of your entire body taking up the entire hallway steadily crawling its way towards you, to more frantic moments where you're being chased by a ghost through an invisible maze that you can only see by bringing up your camera view, which slows your movement speed to a slow walk, and so you can't really tell where you're going and it feels like the ghost is always right about to get you because it looks like it's right next to you, even when it's on the other side of an invisible spirit wall. Some moments of horror can feel a little marred by the game's sometimes obtuse logic or just generally poor design choices (like an enemy who can effectively chain-stun you to death before you can even get a chance to do anything about it), but these instances are few in number and generally pretty minor. 

I, for one, felt like DreadOut did some things I haven't seen before in a horror game, or at least, that I'm not used to seeing in horror games, and that, combined with its Indonesian development roots and its emphasis on Indonesian culture and folklore (for instance, at one point you actually get attacked by Penanggalan -- decapitated heads with all of their guts and entrails dangling out from their neck) made DreadOut feel like a unique and refreshing experience for me. It's obviously a very low-budget, janky-looking and janky-playing game, but the atmosphere and horror elements are both pretty good in this game, and that makes it easy to recommend if you're looking for a good horror game. Plus, it's relatively short, with a total playtime clocking in around five or six hours, which I actually consider a good thing, since it cuts right to the chase and doesn't waste your time with a bunch of tedious filler content. It's pretty rough around the edges, but I seriously admire its horror content and might consider putting it in my list of top 10 favorite horror games. I guess we'll see how well it holds up in my memory as time goes by. 

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