Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
The hook for DreadOut is that it is Indonesian-developed. We don’t see many games out of Indonesia or the neighboring countries, so it should be a welcome change, a fresh take on survival horror from a part of the world with a storied and complex history. Even Japanese-developed games often play to an American audience, and so a push for different stories to be told is well beyond welcome.
This game’s problem is that it doesn’t feel fresh or new or even particularly tied to the region’s cultural folk legends. DreadOut is a kind of one-note mixture of Outlast and Fatal Frame, with simplistic mechanics, outdated design, and an anemic storyline that give the impression that the game is incomplete.
In DreadOut you play as teen Linda, who gets separated from her classmates in the school of an abandoned town. Inside are ghosts representative of Indonesian folklore that stalk the dark corners of the building, just waiting to torment the protagonist. Linda can sense them and, using her smartphone, battle it out with the supernatural beings by taking pictures.
If she waits until they get close enough, she can injure them and make them disappear or run away so she can explore various parts of the school. The purpose seems to be to find the building’s exit, but a clear goal is never really expressed. Also, her friends disappear within the first few minutes, never to reappear or impact the story in any way, so let’s hope that they return in some form in the second act. It is the weird solitude and lack of meaningful storytelling that give it a humdrum, rather than horrific, tone.
If it sounds familiar, it should. DreadOut has the basic game mechanic of the Fatal Frame series, kind of mashed together with Outlast’s approach to first-person camera work. I can’t mention those games enough, and though it undoubtedly sounds like a cool mixture of two seminal games from the genre, a lack of complexity, mechanical or otherwise, prevents DreadOut from being something singular and interesting. It feels like a spiritual contemporary to other PS2-era survival horror games, without adding anything to an already rich tradition.
In addition to the rudimentary battle mechanic, Linda will collect a few items – mostly notes and posters – in order to solve some basic puzzles. It was like I played an early build of the game, one without all the fighting and combat. Beyond the handful of enemies and puzzles, there’s just not much to do in DreadOut, and the overwhelming monotony is probably the most severe criticism I can level at the game. There isn’t enough fighting for the mechanics to change, and the game isn’t long enough to establish interesting puzzles.
Oh, and speaking of mundane, there’s also Limbo. Dying in-game sees the player transported to a dark, candle-lit purgatory, from which she must emerge by running toward a distant ball of light. That’s it. Also, each time you die, you are placed farther and farther from the light, and so, at one point, I clocked myself and found that I was running for nearly two minutes to get back to a boss battle. Such an odd design choice ruins any sense of rhythm the game builds, especially in the more difficult, tense scenarios later on. This purgatorial walk of shame only highlights the game’s monotony.
I get it. DreadOut is a survival horror title, so it shouldn’t be about all the fighting. It should be about the world and the environment and the sense of fear. Okay. Fair enough. In that case, there just needs to be more of the game. A fleshed-out story. More enemies. Longer sequences. Better puzzles. Mechanical variety. DreadOut has none of that.
For the record, the game looks okay, but it has a samey-ness that pervades all of the hallways, both upstairs and downstairs. The perfunctory collectibles highlight some historical aspects about the building, but a sense of place never descends upon the player the way it does in games that consider the environment more closely. A really cool and unsettling story could have emerged from the setting but it never does. There’s plenty to work with here, but the circumstances of the ghost encounters appear to be merely coincidental, and out-of-context of the world that’s been built here.
The last third of the game does some things that would otherwise be worth checking out. (Scissor Lady, for example, is one of the creepier things I’ve seen in video games this year.) Not only that, but the ghosts are well-designed and interesting to look at, and the sound effects that accompany each are equally disturbing. In that way, DreadOut comes close to redeeming itself, if not for the lack of storytelling.
If only the reasons for all of these weird obstacles had been relayed to the player, perhaps the game would make for a worthwhile few hours of gameplay. The problem is that the whole thing is over before its best argument for itself can take place.
Play the Fatal Frame games. Play Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower and Amnesia and Depths of Fear::Knossos before you play DreadOut. It just isn’t a very full or satisfying experience, and I’m a fan of this genre. I even like short games. For me, a good five or six hour experience is well worth its price tag, if the game is fun, the story compellingly told, and the horror elements interesting or new. DreadOut unfortunately, feels dated and not in a hip, retro-y sort of way.
The good news is that the developers are actively working on the game, so perhaps they will make some interesting design choices in the run-up to the release of the second part of the game. Adding more combat, enemy types, and collectible lore would be a step in the right direction, I’m convinced.
My final take on DreadOut is that it has some interesting ideas but never quite builds the narrative up enough in the first act to warrant anybody care about it. The second act will be released at some point in the future, and so part of me thinks this review might be premature, but unless some major changes happen, I’d say pass on DreadOut.