Indonesian horror game Dreadout took the longest time to review because its launch was one of the most spread out events in video game history. Digital Happiness’ horror title first appeared on my radar last year when I received an early access demo. There was a lost and confused schoolgirl being terrorized by supernatural forces in a dilapidated rural village. Armed with only a camera and a spritely gait, the unfortunately named Linda Melinda does battle with some of the most terrifying beasts Asia has to offer.

The game ticked so many of my boxes it was unbelievable: unfamiliar monsters, disturbing setting, excellent sound, and the photograph-based combat that worked so well in Fatal Frame. The demo horrified me. The monsters, all based on Indonesian folklore, were both fresh and freaky and the setting was alien enough to remove me from my comfort zone. It was a great experience and had many eagerly awaiting the game’s full-release.

Unimpressive entrance

Dreadout’s first act was released in May 2014 and was extremely underwhelming. It was incredibly short, taking only a couple of hours to complete, and most of that time was spent figuring out what the hell to do next (more on that later). But I think for many of us, the real disappointment came from the setting: an abandoned school.

Wait, You want me to run into the light? Are you sure?
Wait, You want me to run into the light? Are you sure?

Let’s face it, the horror-filled school is a trope that has been done to death and has been a staple of the genre for decades. I was expecting a fresh and unique experience, like what I had seen in the demo, but unfortunately what I got was something tired and old. Sure there were some cool monsters and some tense moments, but in the end that wasn’t enough to keep my attention and I decided not to review Dreadout based on its first act. I needed to wait until it was released in full in February 2015.

By the time Dreadout was finished it had three acts: Act Zero, which was basically a re-release of the demo; Act One, which was disappointing; and Act Two, which comprised the meat of Dreadout’s story and gameplay. Of the three, only Act Two is actually necessary. Act Zero is an optional extra and the first five minutes of Act One are needed simply to understand who is who, but everything else relevant is in Act Two.

This is a strange situation for developers to find themselves in. While I am always sympathetic to small teams on tight budgets, having two-thirds of your game be basically redundant is verging on unforgivable. Act One should have been significantly shorter and attached to the beginning of Act Two, because on its own it adds very little to the story and left many players bewildered when it ended.

Horrible puzzle badness

Dreadout is littered with little puzzles and almost none of them make sense. My first encounter with one of Dreadout’s ludicrous attempts to challenge the player was in Act One. After running around in circles for over an hour, I turned to a friend I knew who had completed that section. My friend knew exactly where I was in the game and summed it up perfectly by saying “That bit made no fucking sense.” He was right. What I had to do was go to specific balcony overlooking the entrance hall of the school, aim my camera at the ceiling and move around until marks on the ceiling looked (vaguely) like hanging schoolgirls, then take a picture.

Why the hell would a confused, frightened child ever think this is a good course of action? And how the hell would it help them progress anyway? This entire section was simply padding coupled with a poorly executed idea that should have been left in a brainstorming session.

Another puzzle that stumped me wasn’t really a puzzle, but a blockage. After finding myself in a sunny garden full of happy nymphs (nothing suspicious there) I found a path blocked by leafy plants. Firstly, this is an annoying addition to any game because most video game plant barriers are pretty crappy obstructions. These in particular wouldn’t have slowed down my eight-year-old brother, let alone a ghostbusting teen. Secondly, I assumed that they would disappear after I accomplished some other task. After all I had nothing that could be used against plants, did I?

After a lot of time searching and with my patience growing thin I checked with the Oracle (a.k.a. YouTube) and discovered that to get past the plants I had to flash them with a camera. Not take a picture, but flash them, a mechanic that is only used in the game once! Once I flashed them the plants immediately wilted and I could pass, because video games.

On to the good stuff

Despite all of these problems I wholeheartedly recommend Dreadout for one very compelling reason: it is really scary. I’ve mentioned before how sick I am of wannabe “horror” titles that are actually just action games with zombies. Dreadout certainly is not that. Everything about Dreadout is designed to scare the player. The game’s music is haunting and grows from subtle, tension-building strings to a terrifying percussion orchestra that mirrors the beating of your own heart. Add in the cacophony of screams, moans, and weeping of unseen entities and you have a game with enough power in its sound alone to set you on edge.

Once you get out of the school the settings improve drastically; abandoned villages, tourist centers, tropical villas, gardens, and even wedding halls become scenes of unimaginable fear. Ghosts and monsters stalk in unexpected locations, hungry creatures appear from nowhere and your only weapons are a mobile phone and an SLR camera. It’s tense, it’s terrifying, and it’s fucking great! It’s exactly what I want from a horror game.

My playthrough of Dreadout contained two high points. The first was being chased by a possessed classmate whose body twisted and contorted as the entity inside him abused him beyond human tolerance. The second was a conversation with Linda’s best friend Ira who, while also possessed, adds some nuance by being at least semi-lucid. The relationship between Ira and her possessor suggests symbiosis, and the idea that Ira would accept or even welcome her possession adds a whole new element of horror to the conversation.

To buy or not to buy

Dreadout’s crippling flaws prevent it from being a truly spectacular game, but that doesn’t stop it from being a generally good and occasionally exceptional work of horror. If you’re a die-hard horror fan then this is almost certainly a must as it will bring you more terror than all of last year’s triple-A horror titles combined!

You can download Dreadout from Steam for S$15.00

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