DreadOut review: old ghosts

Game Info
Platform Win
Publisher Digital Happiness
Developer Digital Happiness
Release Date 2014-05-15

Ten years ago, DreadOut would have seemed like a copycat.

It feels like it's been plucked from a different era, a time when consoles were flooded with survival horror games about naïve protagonists wandering into creepy ghost towns. And it's been just long enough since that genre has dried up that DreadOut's adherence to outdated conventions almost comes across as novel.

My nostalgia for that style of game initially pulled me into DreadOut, but it wore thin, even with the game's very short running time. DreadOut builds a great atmosphere on the back of Indonesian ghost stories that haven't been mined to death in a million other games. But its gameplay is old, dusty and eventually just not very good.

DreadOut's adherence to outdated conventions almost comes across as novel
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In its b-movie opening moments, DreadOut follows a group of high school students on a field trip. When they stop at a broken-down bridge and walk around it to explore the abandoned town on the other side, it's obvious that things are going to go bad fast.

The game makes a cursory effort at character-building early on. Players take on the role of Linda, one of the soon-to-be-haunted high school students. As she slowly walks into town with her classmates, they display the faintest outlines of a personality: Here is the perky best friend; here is the goofy hornball who makes all the girls uncomfortable, and so on. But as quickly as these characters are introduced, they vanish.

The setting of DreadOut is similarly limited. Though it opens with a casual stroll through the fairly large abandoned town, the action of the game all takes place within a run-down school. This is a tried-and-true horror setting, and it worked fine here...until I realized just how little space was available to me.

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The school has two floors, each split into four hallways with a big open area in the middle. The hallways are lined with doors leading to tiny classrooms — around a dozen rooms to explore in total...and that's about it. Most of the game's few hours of content is spent running back and forth between these rooms, dodging a few different types of ghosts and trying to figure out how to progress.

Those ghosts look cool, at least. DreadOut isn't a very good-looking game — it seems to take its texture quality from the PlayStation 2-era games it's inspired by — but the evil spirits rightfully got the most attention from a visual standpoint. They're creepy, bizarre and unique, pulling on myths from Indonesia and the surrounding areas.

For example, there's the babi ngepet, the ghost of someone who tried to gain money by using black magic. This sinner is presented in the game as a giant pig that stomps down the halls of the school with a key swinging from its neck. Or there's the Pocong, an animated corpse that squirms across the ground in an Indonesian burial wrap. More traditional spirits float around the school as well, but these stranger enemies unsettled me in exactly the way I'm looking for in a horror game.

I was forced to really spend some time studying them, too, because Linda doesn't have much in the way of defenses. Her only weapon is the camera on her cell phone, and most enemies require several "hits" from the camera on top of other special strategies to be defeated. I struggled a little bit learning the timing of pulling up the camera, switching to first-person mode and snapping some shots before a ghost could injure me, but the combat forced me to confront these horrors directly, and at its best I liked that.

At its worst, I wished I could put some space between us. While DreadOut's recurring enemies were a nice blend of tough and spooky but not frustrating, its pair of boss fights drove me to quit the game and take a break at multiple points. The worst offender is the "scissor phantom," an apparition carrying a sharp pair of scissors. Every time Linda takes a picture of the scissor phantom, it vanishes and then reappears elsewhere in the room to charge at her.

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ghost stories

As you discover each new type of ghost in DreadOut, the game provides entries in a "ghostpedia" revealing their backstories. These add a hint of tragedy to the enemies you're facing, but one stood out to me as particularly questionable. Here's the game's entry for the scissor phantom boss:

"A high school principal and closet transvestite. His suppressed obsession with motherhood pushed him to insanity."

I spoke about this entry with an authority on gender and sexuality during the review process in order to get a better understanding of its potential issues. It's unclear if this character is supposed to be presented as transgender (in which case, "transvestite" is a slur) or as a cross-dresser. It's also difficult to know what cultural framework the Indonesian team is working from, particularly in a scenario drawing on long-standing myths from the region. As such, it's difficult to definitively label the scissor phantom transphobic, but it could have been handled more thoughtfully.

It's astoundingly badly designed

This fight requires perfect accuracy and luck. Every time the scissor phantom hit me, Linda was locked into a stun animation, allowing it to continue pulling off successive hits until I died. Even when I managed to pull away, the phantom moved so fast that I couldn't put enough distance between us to actually raise the camera and take a picture without getting hit first. It's an astoundingly badly designed fight, and the final boss (which I won't ruin) is only marginally better.

You might be tempted to write the bad boss fights off as only a small part of the DreadOut experience. But they ate up approximately one hour of the three or four that it took me to beat the game.

Another fifteen minutes or so on the clock was taken up by running. I'm not even talking about running through the hallways of the haunted school; I mean running down a blank dark passageway toward a light. Every time Linda dies, she wakes up in a black void and has to run to the light to come back to life. And every successive time she dies, the jog becomes longer.

I died six or seven times in DreadOut — primarily in the previously mentioned terrible boss fights — and by the end, it was taking me nearly two minutes to get back into the game after dying. This wasted my time and added nothing to the game's themes or sense of dread. And to add insult to injury, I was barraged with a rotating list of useless and insulting "tips" while I ran, including "You might want to consider switching to casual gaming." Instead I just considered shutting the game off.

Wrap Up:

DreadOut's potential is never realized in its messy first act

If DreadOut's glimmers of potential are enough to push you past the mountains of frustration and poor design, don't expect a lot of reward for your struggles. The game ends with a limp cliffhanger, no narrative closure and an unenthused "To Be Continued" hanging over the credits. Developer Digital Happiness has promised that a proper conclusion as well as a "free roam" mode are on the way as free downloadable content. I'll give those updates a chance, but I'm skeptical that they can salvage what could have been from this messy first act.

DreadOut was reviewed using a Steam code provided by Digital Happiness. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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