Ever since the original teaser demo in 2013, I consciously avoided DreadOut. Back then it felt like an unoptimized complete lack of understanding of what actually made Fatal Frame an interesting game, an attempt to cash in with the jump scare linear horror-themed titles that got extremely popular back then due to the scarecam craze. But recently, I decided to give it, and it’s standalone DLC Keepers of the Dark, a try. I mean. What if I was wrong?
DreadOut presents itself like a Fatal Frame clone — a clone of a classic survival horror/horror action adventure game about fighting ghosts with a camera. It boasts several seemingly open environments, optional things, some backtracking and, at least in the second part of the game, even some different camera equipment — a DLSR camera in addition to a smartphone. What it really is, however, is an almost completely linear jumpscare fest with most basic mechanics possible and rare glimpses of actually smart design.
While not as terrible in it’s linearity and in-your-face screaming spoopiness as the original demo could let you believe, the game is still extremely lacking in pretty much everything. It starts with a rather open (although completely linear, since it’s one big open street) part that can be explored for bonus stuff. And, slightly later, even revisited for bonus ghosts and similar unlockable things. But in reality, it’s just a huge level of absolutely nothing. Like some unfinished map from a game, tucked away in the game files, it’s just «there» for no real reason. The second environment, the School, while a bit more complex in how it’s explored, is still mostly empty. Not in the good design «creepy full of dread and tension» empty, but in the «basic level design with next to no detail» empty. And when ghost fights happen another huge issue becomes apparent.
And it’s an issue that is never ever addressed, by the way, nor in main game, nor in the DLC. But, the ghost shooting process is just… «there». There’s no «ammo», there are no critical hits, there are no weak or strong shots. There’s just the distance at which the shot can be taken and the slight (and completely invisible) reload time before the shot can hit again. Some ghosts also have weak points or some creative things attached to their attacks, especially in Keepers, but most of the time it’s just point and shoot when you’re close enough. Meaning that this whole camera thing is there mostly just to put you into first person mode, so the spoopies are more spoopy.
There’s a story. Which is horribly presented and feels like a mix of all the terrible folklore-based horror meets secret society horror cliches. There’s no real punishment for ever dying. There was in the original game, with the «Limbo» distance you need to run after death becoming increasingly longer. Which is, by the way, probably the stupidest death mechanic I’ve ever seen. Punishing players by making them bored, while they hold «forward+run» for several minutes. Yes. Good. However, after several patches that can now be turned off and the DLC doesn’t have this stupidity at all.
I didn’t die that often to feel how horrible this is anyway, however, because there’s not a lot of game. And you die mostly due to either complete bollocks rather than any actual attempts at challenge anyway. While usually it’s just a rather boring and not particularly exciting game. Horribly glitchy too, by the way, to this day. So many things can simply break, it’s hilarious. One of the bosses in the DLC was taking so long, I thought something broke. But no, that wasn’t a glitch. Just an incredibly poorly designed boss.
That said, however, Keepers of the Dark feels like a step in the right direction in most regards. While it mostly reuses environments from the main game, it tries to focus on things that work with those basic crappy mechanics already in place. As such, instead of a linear path of the main game, that does become kind of smart in literally last 10-15 minutes, by the way, although still not worth it. The DLC is instead a series of levels that can be approached in any order from the hub world. Some can be completed in one visit, some require doing things in other levels first, but in general, this structure and it’s focus on very different boss-ghosts in each world is incredibly smart choice. I actually liked some of the bosses a lot, while some were terribly designed, but had a fantastic idea behind them.
In the end, though, I find it hard to recommend anyone play these games. The DLC made me think that maybe someday the developers will actually learn how to make games. But they’re not there yet. And I doubt they will be any time soon.