The opening moments of DreadOut set the bar pretty low for what was to come. The visual quality varies wildly. The main character, Linda, looks and animates decent enough, but the other characters all look incredibly stiff and robotic. And they sound almost as stiff and robotic. I'm not sure if it's a matter of poor translation, cultural disconnects, or if it's a deliberate attempt by the developers at camp, but the dialogue and voice acting is cringe-worthy. It wasn't even laughably bad. It was just bad. Don't worry though, you won't have to put up with them for long. They'll disappear for the majority of act 1, rendering the game's futile attempts at early character-building moot, and likely leading to you forgetting that they ever existed until they reappear later. The ghosts and monsters themselves actually get better development and depth, as each one is given a thematic backstory, and its aesthetic design attempts to represent that theme - with varying degrees of success.
Dialogue and voice-acting might have been going for deliberate camp, but ends up just being bad.
It's an indie game, so I don't expect its graphics to impress on any technical level. But what's presented on screen is often only passable for a PS2-era game, and there's very little artistry or detail in the majority of environments. Some of the environments are decent, and there's the occasional well-placed lighting or particle effect that helps to set a mood. That mood rarely lasts though, because you'll turn a corner and find repetitive environments and flat textures. It is very easy to get lost in a few areas of this game because so much of the environment looks the same. The school building was particularly bad, as all the classrooms had the same desks, chairs, and backpacks sitting around. Only two rooms in the entire building had unique decorations (a teacher's office and what appeared to be a biology lab). The difficult-to-read signposts and lack of any sort of in-game map just exacerbates the sameness of the game's environmental design.
"Aw, hello Mr. Kitty!"
Oh, you're a black cat and are
supposed to be scary. My bad..
Gameplay is less a mixed-bag, and is more universally terrible. Movement is very clunky. The camera loves to pivot around when you go through doors, leading to temporary disorientation as you try to figure out which direction the character is facing. It doesn't help that so much of the game looks the same, so it's easy to get turned around and confused (or outright lost) when the camera wigs out on you.
There's a blue vignette effect that indicates a nearby item that is designed to work as a player aid, but sometimes it can be a hindrance. It works through walls, which I guess is fine since it can let you know that you need to go into a nearby room. What isn't fine is that it also seems to work through floors and ceilings. So the game will nag you that a useful item or clue is nearby, but it might be on a different floor of the building. So you end up wandering back and forth trying to find it - which you never will because it's not there.
This compounds the problems associated with the game's asinine puzzles, most of which require you to use your camera phone to take a picture of something in the environment in order to trigger a cutscene, unlock a door, or receive a clue to another puzzle. It's not that these puzzles are necessarily hard to figure it out; it's just hard to get them to work. Often, you'll have to position the camera to line up objects in the viewfinder to create shapes or patterns that turn into objects when you actually snap the photo. It's not always clear what you're supposed to do for many of these puzzles, or even what you're supposed to be looking for. So if you take a picture that you think will provide a clue or puzzle solution, but nothing happens, you're left clueless as to whether you need to re-align yourself and try again, or if you're just mistaken about needing to take the picture to begin with.
Successfully triggering a puzzle solution can be a tedious exercise in pixel-perfect positioning.
Even if you know you're supposed to take pictures of something, you still have to deal with the game occasionally deciding whether or not it will actually trigger the solution, because it sometimes glitches and doesn't recognize that you should have solved the puzzle. In some cases, the game requires you to trigger some event or cutscene before a puzzle solution or clue will be given to you, and sometimes these triggers simply don't happen. Even the very first puzzle in the opening act (and in the game's demo) can get players hopelessly stuck! It took me almost twenty minutes to find the right trigger and angle to get the game to actually recognize that I took the photo that I needed to take. Later in the school level, I spent almost an hour walking back and forth around a few classrooms looking for a key that was supposed to be hidden under a desk. I checked every desk, fought a giant pig monster multiple times, tried using the camera to maybe reveal some ghostly clue, and the damned key wasn't anywhere to be found. Then, just as I was about to give up and shut down the game, a cutscene played of a pig monster running past me into a pile of desks, and suddenly the key showed up in another desk next to where Linda was standing - a desk that I had already checked at least three times.
Combat isn't any better. You have to hurt ghosts by taking pictures of them with your camera phone. Sometimes, they die after a certain number of pictures are taken, other times you have to "stun" them with the camera and then run around behind them to snap a picture of a weak spot in order to finally kill them. Good luck pulling that off. The ghost lady in the school took me almost an hour across three play sessions to finally defeat because it was just too damned difficult to run around behind her in time to get the necessary photo. You not only have to compete with the ghost enemy itself, but also with the aforementioned clumsy controls and camera that make it difficult to perform any kind of quick maneuvers with the character.
The core mechanic of photographing ghosts is a clumsy, frustrating mess.
And that's assuming that the camera phone even works to begin with. There's a bug in which reloading the game after dying and saving in Limbo makes the camera phone stop working completely, which of course makes the game impossible to play. And Limbo is the only place where you can effectively manually save. You'd think that the one tool that the game provides (and the one around which the entire game is based) would be functional and free of crippling glitches - but no. And it doesn't end there. Other times, you can line up the phone perfectly with a ghost, only to have it walk up to you and attack you without your phone ever giving you the static cue that tells you the ghost can take damage from a photo. You stand there patiently waiting for your window to attack, but that window never comes - for no apparent reason. This was a consistent problem for me in the first boss fight (which I'll discuss later).
This is the sort of stuff that really kills the game's horror atmosphere. I spent so long just trying to figure out and overcome the game's technical shortcomings and design flaws, that I become completely desensitized to its dilapidated environments and its predictable jump scares. And that happened before leaving the prologue act!
There's also a lot of little nagging issues that betray the game's indie origins and lack of proper quality control. There are some doors that say they are locked, and others that you simply can't interact with. Even some of the ones that say they're locked can never be opened. Subtitles are displayed in white font, which makes them practically invisible against the white shirt of a character you're talking to in a key dialogue sequence. There's lots of animation hiccups, such as Linda's model freezing and hovering around after taking damage or returning from Limbo, or Linda opening a door from the hinges instead of the handle.
Deaths come very cheaply. Each time you damage a ghost by taking its picture, it disappears or teleports. Often, they teleport right behind you and get a free attack in before you can do anything about it. What's worse, the phone sometimes doesn't even work. I click the mouse button, and the phone just doesn't come up. Other times, it does come up, but I never get the static effect that indicates that the ghost can be damaged. Yet other times, the character can become trapped in a corner or stun-locked such that the recovery animation that you must complete before being able to move or use your phone takes as long or longer than the enemy's attack reset animation. This means the enemy gets to repeatedly attack you until it kills you, and you literally can't do anything about it! If you're especially unlucky, you'll respawn in the same place, with the enemy already there waiting to hit you before the game even gives you back control of the character. All this leads to cheap damage, cheap deaths, and endless frustration. It's not even like there's a lot of combat. Any given zone only has two - maybe three - enemies. But each of those encounters is so bad that it feels like an endless onslaught of ghost-ladies screaming obnoxiously in your face and giant pig monsters pinning you in corners. It's a borderline unplayable mess.
The camera phone refused to hit this boss, resulting in numerous trips to Limbo.
I came very close to giving up during the Scissor Ghost boss fight. You are stuck in a dark, undersized room with a mostly-invisible ghost that teleports around each time he's damaged. The first phase of the fight is easy enough, but after you hit him four times, he goes into the second phase. During the second phase, he sprints at you and flails wildly when hit. It's random which corner of the room he teleports to, and the room is barely big enough for you to fit enough of him into the camera's viewfinder to snap a picture. If you have to move at all, he moves fast enough that he'll close the distance and be too close to photograph. And then you'll get hit. That's assuming that he doesn't literally teleport right on top of you and get a free, unavoidable hit in. I cannot convey how absolutely, unbelievably, unforgivably terrible this boss is! After something on the order of 40 or 50 attempts, I finally got lucky. I parked myself in a corner, and during his berserk phase, he happened to randomly teleport right in front of my viewfinder four consecutive times, allowing me to get the photos that I needed to beat him. But after this fight, there was no saving DreadOut in my mind.
As if the annoyance at having died weren't bad enough, every time you die, you have to walk through Limbo. Each time you have to walk through Limbo, the distance you have to walk gets longer. This is an absolutely indefensible design decision, and I don't understand the purpose of this. I started using ctrl+alt+delete to force exit the game whenever I died because it was faster to reboot the game and reload than it was to walk through Limbo. Even the developers apparently realized the indefensibility of this feature, as they patched in an option for an unchanging Limbo distance. Too bad they didn't offer options to fix any of the game's other myriad problems. During the time in Limbo, the developers display hints and other messages to you, but none of them are useful, and some feel downright insulting. One such message thanks the player for "purchasing a legit copy of the game". Thanks for repeatedly reminding me that I threw away my money on this awful game. Games like this make me wish I weren't a blogger, because I feel compelled to subject myself to garbage like this. I only spent $5, but if I could take that $5 away from Digital Happiness, then I would.
Ugh. And thanks for reminding me that I threw away good money on this awful game.