Upcoming survival horror game from Indonesian developer Digital Happiness wants players to feel afraid. Armed only with a smartphone, players explore an abandoned town, overcoming ghosts and solving puzzles as they try to escape the horrors hidden within.
The ghosts are based on South-East Asian legends, largely unfamiliar in the west, but I assure you they are very creepy. Many horror fans have embraced Japanese and Korean horror franchises since the Ring scared movie-goers everywhere. Further south, in Indonesia, the take on horror is similar but different enough that many of the ghosts won’t be recognised.
The main gameplay is similar to the Fatal Frame series. To escape the horrors within the abandoned town players must take photos of the various ghouls that would otherwise scare them to death. Most of the game is played through an over-the-shoulder perspective. The screen is close to player-character Linda throughout. Dark, narrow corridors and blind corners cause tension to build as players simply don’t know what’s ahead of them.
When the player switches to the camera phone the screen changes to first-person perspective. Players look through the camera as if they were Linda, using it to scope out areas and try and identify any ghosts hiding in the shadows. Spot a ghost and they only way to fight it is by taking photos. Run away and they will catch up to you, ignore them and they’ll leap out at you when you’re unaware. You must stand firm, face your fears, and snap photos until the demonic presence disappears. Never let them get too close.
More ways of capturing images of ghastly beings will be included in the full release. The game’s description suggests that digital cameras and video cams will also assist Linda’s attempts to escape the abandoned town. The demo we played only featured the smartphone. One thing that’s for sure, though taking aim and quick reflexes are needed, this isn’t a shooter. At no point will you be firing weapons from behind cover or frantically reloading.
Areas intimidate through prevalent darkness, eerie emptiness and anticipation of the unknown. Fortunately, there’s subtle indications that alert you. As you carefully progress through the eerie abandoned buildings, occasional vignettes creep into the corners of the screen to tell you that something is nearby.
A green tint indicates a puzzle to be solved. In the demo the puzzles were pretty straight forward, though did involve some exploration of the surrounding area. By the time the full game is released, I expect these will be more complicated, and may involve a combination of environment interactions. With each puzzle solved you progress a little further, spurred on by the prospect of escape.
When red creeps into the screen, it’s time to be afraid. The red vignette signals the presence of a dangerous ghost. It doesn’t take many encounters to learn that the red indicator is your cue to take action. With ghosts only visible through the camera lens, and taking pictures the only way to combat them, you frantically switch to camera-mode the moment the indicator appears. A keen eye and sharp reactions are needed. You’ll scour every corner, some ghosts hide in the least obvious places, you know they’re there, you just need to find them before they find you. Spotting the ghost is a race against time, the vignettes become more intense as the danger gets closer. If caught, Linda falls to her knees, seemingly scared to death.
A careless act, such as turning away from a seemingly passive ghost will cause Linda’s demise when it sneaks up from nowhere. Even cautiously peeking through the camera every few steps won’t necessarily prevent a terrifying fate. During a moment in the demo, I was forced to enter a small room, the door swung shut behind me and a ghost materialised. It all happened so fast, I’d barely armed the camera before it was on top of me. It also made me shriek like a baby.
Fortunately, death is not the end. Linda finds her feet and stands up in a dark limbo area. The eerie place will probably become a familiar sight in the full game. After waking-up surrounded by candles, a quick look around reveals a bright light. The smartphone is disabled, Linda can do little apart from head towards the light.
Some creepy phantoms pop-up in the limbo area, though harmless, they do a good job of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Stepping through the light brings Linda back into the game world, progress is remembered and Linda emerges back where she was, so repeating the same content isn’t an issue.
It’s not just ghosts players contend with. While exploring a creepy graveyard, I found myself caught between two enormous, grotesque monsters. Overcoming the monstrous goliaths required a combination of running and snapping. It wasn’t easy, I stumbled into gravestones every time I tried to run, and struggled to focus the camera properly.
Throughout the demo, Dreadout consistently impressed me with its atmosphere. It seems that the Unity engine, the same used in Slender: The Arrival, is an excellent tool for crafting well-rendered, creepy aesthetics. Everything is dark and confusing. Creepy touches like a hanged teddy bear, or mysterious black cat with glowing eyes, add to the immersion. The more affected you are by the surroundings, the creepier the scares become.
Sound is used to great effect. You venture from place to place with a combination of unnerving piano notes, heartbeat thumps, heavy breathing and gentle sobs accompanying you. When an object falls off-screen, or demonic laughter echoes in the darkness, your attention is instantly grabbed. When the action gets going, an unsettling cacophony of distorted sounds falls uneasily on the ears, demanding that action be taken.
Dreadout is worth keeping an eye on. It’s been impressing and collecting awards in Indonesia, and is hoping that the worldwide market pays it some attention. While it’s too early to make a definitive judgement on it’s quality, what’s been offered so far shows the foundations of a terrifying experience. With more refined use of it’s mechanics and greater challenges, there’s a lot of potential for a horrifyingly enjoyable experience.
Recently given the green light, it will be on Steam for players to pick up before the end of 2013.