A GEARVR GAME RETRO REVIEW
DREADHALLS is the scariest game I’ve ever played. And judging from the shrieking, hysterical reactions of the many many uploaders of reaction videos on YouTube, they apparently think so too. This is a game that sets a grand and menacing tone right from the opening scene, with chilling music and visuals, that capture a feeling of intense dread that quite literally IS its namesake like no other game before it.
Created by developers White Door Games, DREADHALLS is a game that has grown over time into something quite unique. That is, into a VR experience that delivers on its promise to scare you silly by incorporating an arsenal of NLP (Neural-Linguistic Programming) techniques, even if there aren’t any linguistics actually being employed. I will explain more on this and justify this claim in the Audio portion below.
The graphics are good overall, but fairly sparse. Honestly, there isn’t much time to notice the graphics when your heart is pounding up in your throat as you scan for monsters that most certainly will appear when you least expect them. The object meshes could be a bit rounder and prettier (as you can judge in the photo below) but the new PC version coming out today has solved these issues. The new Oculus Rift Version (you can read the my announcement bulletin here:) has amazingly clean, updated meshes and higher resolution texturing throughout. It also sports a full real-time lighting engine that makes the shadows even more creepy than the GearVR version. And another improvement on the PC version is that there is a newly-designed spatial audio engine that works even better than the one in GearVR. But for all of that, the GearVR version is nothing to sneeze at, having delighted half a million people at the very least already .
I suppose it would be possible for an “S7 version” to offer a bit higher graphics quality once the optimizations that the GearVR community are clamoring for finally get worked into the much-needed patch. The update is required to address an issue on new S7’s using the Snapdragon 820 (the American model which covers the smallest portion of GearVR users, Samsung believes). It turns out the S7 was rushed out the door by Samsung months before its code was ready for GearVR, so most games can’t use the speedy new CPU and GPU and Marshmallow’s additional VR-related optimizations.
Whether DREADHALLS for GearVR will get an S7 optimization update provided by White Door Games is anyone’s guess at this point. But … as I do count as “anyone” [and now that the PC version has all the bells and whistled added back in from the developer’s original vision (before whittling it down for GearVR),] it IS my guess that a “S7-optimized version” of GearVR DREADHALLS will be available within the next 6 months. That’s just how cool I think White Door Games is, and is merely a guess based on my gut feeling.
The next graphical point of interest is the lantern situation. The lantern you carry slowly begins to fail soon after lighting it. As you progress, the lantern begins to flicker and fade out, then it dies completely if you don’t use another bottle of oil from your inventory. So far, I’ve never ran out of oil in my inventory, so other than just for effect, I don’t know what the point of the lantern is. Some monsters can see your light and will give you chase until you extinguish it. So I think it’s more of a prop that can offer some game challenges and surprises associated with the fear of being alone in the dark. And as the lighting begins to fail, these dark halls of dread … become all the more dreadful.
(!SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS PARAGRAPH!) —> There is a particular floating-eye monster similar to a “Beholder” from D&D to be found about 30 minutes into this game. I think it’s one of the most terrifying monsters ever put into a game. The Beholder can only see things in motion. So if you freeze, it might not see you, but you can never really be sure, because the music alerts you when the creature looks your way, as if to say “Ha! Not even this rule is sacrosanct,” not entirely. It’s like the developers only set up these rules … so they can break them at the perfect time to lean harshly against your comfort zone. And break you, a little. <– (SPOILERS OVER!)
It’s easy to see (ehem, um, HEAR) why this game won The Proto Awards as shown above. The sound effects and audio combine to tell a narrative which starts shortly upon loading the game initially. Your first visceral rush of adrenaline begins as soon as the opening screen is revealed. The massive onslaught of well-constructed dissonance erupting into your head is so dark and terrible with its horns and wailing pitches that you are instantly put into a state of shock.
It’s hard to recover from that initial opening, you will be shaken and exceedingly primed to be afraid of everything that comes next. It is a merciless and well-planned frontal assault on your mind which sets the stage for the actual dread you will feel later. I couldn’t be prouder that a company did their job so well. The first time I played this game almost a year ago, I was totally terrified of every shadow for the whole opening act, even though the next actual scare wouldn’t occur for almost 20 minutes.
NLP-LEVEL AUDIO TACTICS:
Everyone knows that during a long silence, any sudden musical swell or noise must be an indicator of a monster being around the next bend. This kind of meta knowledge is so thick in our culture, that White Door Games have decided to use that meta knowledge as a kind of reverse psychology, using what I would describe is a kind of gaming NLP, or neural-linguistic programming. Since linguistics really isn’t part of the equation, I guess we could call it neural-lobotomy protocol, hahaha.
For example, the music swells suddenly, without warning, and then … nothing happens. Then well after the music dies down and returns to blissful silence, you turn around and the monster is there, right in your face, looking at you as it coalesces out of an alternate dimension. Only when you spot it does that loud trumpet note strike you in the spine, literally, like a knife. The note is so harsh and visceral, it hits your ears and immediately taps your spine. I have felt a sharp pain in my spine so deeply, I sometimes feel like I’ve been spinal tapped. Not even joking.
One of the cool things about this game is that it doesn’t just provide jump scares as its only vehicle for terror. One of the biggest thrills in the game is hearing the inner workings of the dungeon you’re trapped in. Behind the walls, there are any number of spooky things going on, from machines that click-clack their way inside the very wall you’re walking next to, with clacks so loud you feel the tones are being generated by some invisible mallet being struck painfully across your own teeth! Sometimes you hear someone walking loudly, their shoes echoing off the floor for hundreds of yards. Or you’ll hear the whispers of frantic, terrified people you never see. Or hear the cries of someone being tortured way off where you’ll never find them.
Sometimes when you see a monster that is particularly feral evil, your own throat betrays you. You hear yourself shivering and moaning under your breath, as you behold the creature. The sound coming from your own mouth is so abhorrent, it might be even more immersive and frightening than the creature which is causing your reaction! (These are in-game vocals, apart from what you may or may not be doing with your own real voice!)
It’s touches like this that make White Door Games a force to be reckoned with. They truly know their craft. There just hasn’t ever been a game on this level of fear before.
Sometimes when a monster comes, the soundtrack changes to something reminiscent of a chase scene, which actually inspires you to run for your life. Some monsters don’t run all that fast, but you aren’t taking any chances! You’ll run until the music dies down and you feel confident you got away. After this event, you’ll be left a trembling mess, visibly shaken to your core. The game’s sense of Presence is really that deep and engaging. Even with graphics that aren’t as good as they could be for the GearVR version, the sense of Presence here really shines through in this title, carrying the load for that part of the game so you won’t even notice the deformed-looking meshes all that much. You’re just too busy surviving and having a blast doing so. Despite the fear, and in fact because of it, the game is truly fun, especially after you’ve quit and are thinking back on the emotions you felt.
One of the reasons the Presence is so good is that the game is designed to fence in the player with all of the rooms being small and manageable on the device. There is rarely any visual that will require more than 50 meters to see it. As such, all of the game’s visuals are well within the required distance for the current GearVR’s pixel density for stereoscopy. That means everything is deeply stereoscopic 3D, and some of the locations will tend to hug tightly around you, giving you even more Presence. Some of those times are when monsters are going to pop up at you from out of nowhere, leaving you with barely any room to run for it. It’s not all scares here, you can die. I have died so many times in this game, and it’s not fun to hear the horrible wail that comes up when you die, either.
All of these audio-visual tools play well to the strategy of this title to scare you in other ways besides only jump scares, although a good portion of their true scares do come from jump scares. If the developers truly had such a hard time naming this title before finding DREADHALLS (from a suggestion on the forums in the early days when it was still being called “Prison Thief”) they might have just called it what it’s primary scare tactic comes from: JumpScares. That sounds like a pretty decent title for a horror game. Maybe one about a clown, hahaha.
There is a lot of variety in how you’ll be scared, too. (!SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS PARAGRAPH!) —> Some monsters appear around the corner from where you’re walking, in full view, ready to chase you. They are usually big and menacing, big enough to swallow you whole. Some monsters are evil old witches that the game tells you directly “never to look at” … and some monsters react to your lantern light. Some monsters presence will cause your lantern to go out, plunging you into total darkness. Some monsters are in the room when you arrive and are frozen stiff. But when you turn away from them, and look back over your shoulder, suddenly, they’re right behind you. That’s really freaking scary, I hate that one! <– (SPOILERS OVER!)
I also tried loading this game for some of the children at my school who claim they can’t be scared and have never played a game that scared them. Yeah, right. Right? But I gave a few the chance who I felt could handle it for the most part. I had to stand very close and keep my arm out because I knew what was coming even if they didn’t. That inevitable scare so terrible it would cause them to throw the GearVR on the floor trying to get away from it. And I was right, too. I had to catch my device from being dropped a few times already. I really knew better than to let them try this game, but they kept on insisting “I like scary games”. And then when they screamed in abject horror, that would just make everyone else who played “uninterested” suddenly swarm me wanting see it for themselves. Because terror is that universally-strange thing that we are drawn to, even when we don’t always really want it.
This game will live on in my memory forever as the first game that overwhelmed me with actual dread in VR. It was scary enough to make me put off playing it again initially due to getting sick early on, when the first demo came out. In the early days, the game was unplayable due to some issues with its motion-control scheme, but those were later fixed and the game no longer caused any serious motion sickness.
Once that occurred, I was happy to spend a lot more time trolling the halls trying to keep from quitting every time a sudden intense fright caused my guts to fill with adrenaline. Or every time my spine would almost twist in on itself in a way nothing I’ve ever played has ever done to me before. But I love the rush of adrenaline, especially when I can get it in an actually-safe manner, playing a VR game in my home, rather than riding too fast in the streets on a motorcycle or something.
Adrenaline can be its own kind of drug. One time this game scared me so bad, I got physically ill just from the fear and adrenaline and ended up vomiting. But that was only once. After that, I knew what to expect and was able to overcome my fears and progress beyond that point. Adrenaline: that’s what this game helps to deliver like no other. I just hope that in the long run, I’m not blowing out my liver or other organs in some way producing that much adrenaline for no actual reason. Fight or flight reactions are stressful on the body, but that’s why fear feels good, too. At least I don’t have to take any actual risks to feel like that.
For those with weak stomachs, let me be clear: THIS GAME IS DAMNED SCARY AND WILL INDEED FILL YOU WITH DREAD!! Let the buyer be warned … but for a solidly good reason other than the normal meaning of “being ripped off.” This is certainly money well spent and will give you exactly what you came here for. Caveat Emptor in this case, means “Don’t buy this if you don’t want to feel your heart in your throat or have a spinal tap on occasion, or feel sick from a rush of adrenaline you can’t handle.”
Because this game really can bring it!
You’ve been warned…
Categories: Retro Reviews