Demo Driver 8: DreadOut
I’ve long had massive reservations regarding the whole concept behind Steam’s Greenlight service, but another one popped into my head as I played this game. I’ve seen plenty of games flooded with negative user reviews over trivial technical issues or the usual impotent gamer publisher rage (Ubisoft, EA, Activision, pick your villain of the week), but pretty much any greenlighted game is filled with positive reviews. Because of course it is, because there’s a built-in pile of players who wanted to play the game and now they can. Regardless of whether it’s very good or not.
DreadOut is not actively a bad game from the demo, at least, but neither is it a tremendously good one. It’s got visual character for miles, and it’s the sort of thing that draws you in quickly, but actually playing the game falls victim to all of the tired tropes of survival horror without adding anything of interest besides. Or to put it a bit more bluntly, it’s the sort of game that’s only going to appeal to fans who will buy almost anything that has a horror tag attached to it.
Let me say, though, that the demo starts out with a somewhat cliche but remarkably effective opening. The protagonist, Linda, wakes up in an old rocking chair to the sound of a phone buzzing, a very familiar noise if you’ve ever had a phone on vibrate in another room. You’re in a room, it’s clearly not meant for regular habitation, you pick up the phone… and someone picks up on the other end, bubbly and full of energy, then oddly repeating and distorted…
There’s a moment during that phone call where the image of the person on the other hand cuts away for a fraction of a second to the face of a screaming, long-haired ghost, not as a jump scare but simply as a sign that something isn’t right. But it’s not a complete picture, either, just a glimpse. That is effective pacing, allowing you to catch a glimpse of what’s stalking you without letting you turn a light on it, keeping the vagueness to cover what’s going on. I was in for the ride, without a doubt.
A shame, then, that the rest of the ride didn’t live up to that promise. Take two steps outside of the building, and yes, it’s Fatal Frame with a different cultural backdrop; a friend in the region informs me that the game is so dedicated to Indonesian horror tropes that it probably has a shrine to them in its bedroom.
The area you walk into is a series of narrow walkways, and by “a series” I of course mean “two of them with a single connector.” Everything else is blocked off by that greatest of obstacles, the waist-high fence with an apparently unlocked gate. What is our protagonist to do? Well, hold her smartphone up and take a picture of a ghost. There’s a ghost somewhere in the area, you see. Take a picture of it, otherwise it sneaks up and kills you a la the sudden deaths in Slender, albeit without the free-roaming exploration wherein you’re trying to find something before your inevitable demise.
Why does the smartphone do anything to the ghost? Who knows? But then a section of the wall disappears and you can move on, so that’s… good, I guess?
In fairness, I do like how the game has a small edge-of-the-screen effect and a building soundtrack to let you know that a ghost is nearby. That’s clever. I am less fond of the idea that you’re using your camera as a weapon against the ghosts, or the fact that the gameplay feels like a shoved-in afterthought. It’s also remarkably easy to die, seeing as how there are virtually no UI elements on the screen whatsoever and little way of knowing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s like someone read one of the many old-man-yells-at-cloud articles asking why games need a user interface and agreed with it, neglecting that the reason for those overlays is that they let you know what is actually happening in the game.
A bit more stumbling about reveals a few click-through answers, what seems to be an unavoidable death, and spooky foreshadowing. You leave through the main door of a building, and then – flash! You’re in a water-filled graveyard. Atmospheric as hell, let me tell you.
Running forward, you see a massive, inhuman thing hanging overhead and wrapped in a burial shroud, at which point two shambling undead show up and start chasing you. Again, your camera hurts them. If you take a picture at the right angle, anyway, otherwise they just appear impossible to harm.
Without pride, I freely admit that this is where I hit a roadblock, because I had no idea what the game wanted me to do here. There’s no reason why your camera would hurt them, but I tried snapping a few shots without any effect, and when they didn’t work I assumed that there was something else I was supposed to do. No hints, no guides, no explanation, nothing but trying to interact with the world in what turns into a weak first-person shooter with slow enemies and lackluster play.
It also undercut the atmosphere that had been established up to this point. Instead of facing something terrifying where the logical course of action was flight, I just had to stand there and pump photographs into a pair of enemies that did nothing else of interest. Once I had dispatched them, I took one more photo of an otherwise decorative doodad, the hanging thing in a burial shroud fell to the ground, then it grabbed at me – and Linda wakes up in a car with her school mates, leaving the whole thing as a weird premonition dream before the main event.
There’s so much potential promised in the beginning of DreadOut, and nearly every sliver of it goes unrealized by the ending of the demo, opting for more bog-standard options instead of showing me anything unique and shocking. You can get a few scares from it, but the general awkwardness makes it feel far less interesting than it otherwise would. Considering that the actual game at this point ends on a “to be continued” note, I can’t even recommend giving the demo a try. There are better experiences out there, and this one clocks in as a lot of wasted potential.