Tiptoeing Through the Darkness in Dreadout [Preview]
I loved the look of Dreadout when I first saw the trailer. It seemed like someone was finally going to be filling the void that has been left since the Fatal Frame games stopped getting made (or getting released in North America). Now, I got pretty annoyed the first time I tried the demo. I kept dying for nebulous reasons, and whenever I wasn’t, I was lost. If you find yourself having those feelings, I want you to try to power through them. The demo needs to do a lot of work to explain itself better, but once you understand a couple of things the game gets good in a hurry.
I died twice while walking around the first couple of areas. I’d be walking around minding my own business, trying to make my way through the absolute darkness all around me, when all of a sudden I’d get this face freaking out in front of me and I’d be dead. I got really aggravated at it, but that’s because I hadn’t been paying complete attention. The game warned me that the ghost of the woman was invisible unless I was looking at her through the camera during the first cutscene, but I’d been too careless to notice.
When she’s around, the game starts to make some weird noises and a red light fills in around your screen. That’s your cue to start running or checking in front and behind you with your camera. You move slower in first person view, but considering the area is better lit when you look through it and you can only see the female ghost with the camera. Then again, you’ll be lucky to turn around fast enough to catch her unless you put the camera down, so you need to take quick peeks if you want to catch the ghost before she catches you. If she does latch onto you it’s back to your last checkpoint, so you’d better hope you see her first.
I was surprised at how much damage she did, and I wondered if this was some sort of Contra-style survival horror game since she kills you on contact, but there are enemies that come later on in the demo that need to hit you three times to kill you. Accordingly, you only need to hit the ghost that can one-shot you a single time, but the ghosts that take a few hits to kill you also need to be damaged several times to get rid of them. It felt fair, and it also made for some really hairy moments against the female ghost. It really came down to who could find who first, and it scared me half to death when she got the drop on me.
I was a little disappointed that the invisible ghost stuck to main pathways, though. One thing I liked about the Fatal Frame games was that the walls weren’t safe, as the ghosts could move through them at will. Then again, since the ghosts are visible all the time in that game and only do damage instead of causing instant death, I can see why the folks at Digital Happiness (Great name for a horror game company) decided to keep their ghost to the paths the player can use. It’s also a demo, though, so who knows what might happen later.
Death in the game is starting to look a little too much like death in Bioshock for my tastes. Later on in the demo I had to kill two creatures at once, and I managed to down one of the things before the other finished me off. When I respawned there was still only one creature left, and it also had the same amount of health I’d left it with. Now, each time I spawned I would wake up in this dark room and have to walk toward a light, and that light got farther away each time, so I’m hoping that means you can only drop so many times before it’s a permanent loss or something. Barring that, I think a system with more health would be a better idea. As it stands, if I can just respawn with no downfall, then it’s really going to take a lot of my fear away. Death has to mean something in a horror game, or else what do you have to be afraid of?
Screw dying, though; let’s fight back. Like Fatal Frame, you have a handy cell phone camera to get rid of ghosts (it’s not like that idea makes less sense than using a vacuum cleaner to do it). The kicker here is that there’s no real indicator of when the camera is gearing up to do damage, so trial and error is necessary. I didn’t think that was very fair given that the first ghost can one-shot you, so it felt a little bit like a beginners trap and it really got me off on the wrong foot with the game. As you play, you’ll probably notice that only head shots do damage, and even then the ghost or creature has to be reasonably close. It may not make the game look realistic to have an on-screen indicator when you’re within range, but it would make the gameplay feel a lot more fair. Right now, I’m stuck guessing when I can actually hit something, so it means I can’t create a strategy against the creatures as much as I’d like.
The combat may have me griping, but the atmosphere doesn’t. The game is pitch black most of the time, but you can use that same cell phone as a flashlight. Apparently the heroine couldn’t be bothered to download a flashlight app, since your phone gives off about as much light as it would if you just turned the screen on. Beyond that, it’s complete darkness unless you’re looking through the camera. It made me not want to run for fear of what I’d stumble into, but the constant presence of an invisible ghost made me want to run screaming into the countryside. It made the whole journey through the game extremely nerve-wracking, as I was in constant conflict with myself over what I wanted to do.
There isn’t a lot of music in the game yet, just a lot of odd sounds in the background. I’m not familiar with Indonesia (where the game takes place AND where it’s being developed), but there seemed to be a lot of weird animal calls coming from the distance. I don’t know how normal these calls might be, but to me they set me right off. There’s one in particular that cried out near the end of the demo, and the sound of it just kept rising along with my tension. It was unfamiliar, and it helped make the game feel more unsafe.
One thing I had a serious problem with was the ‘puzzles’. The game outlines your screen in red when a ghost is around, but it’ll outline it in blue when an important object or puzzle is close. I found the solution to the first puzzle by looking though my camera for a bit, but the second time I spent over a half an hour trying to figure out what the game wanted me to do. I pored over every bit of the area that was lit up blue, but couldn’t find anything. It turned out that I was supposed to walk all the way back the way I’d come and that I would find something along the path, but that blue glow convinced me that what I needed to do was nearby. If nothing had been there I would have broken down and turned back on my own. I know I don’t like heavy-handed instruction in my games, but I really needed a clue there or even some indication like nearby movement to indicate that I should turn around. I’m hoping a bit more thought about the player’s mindset goes into the puzzles while the game is still in development.
The problems I had really bugged me, but there is still a really good game behind those points. It could use some more refining as it heads toward becoming a finished product, but I think the atmosphere and unique enemies are going to make it into a really scary game.