A game jam for the ages, the Dread X Collection features ten games made in one week by ten different indie developers. The theme was simple — make a P.T.-style teaser for a dream project in the hopes that it will resonate with players, and perhaps someday lead to that project becoming a reality.
Very few of the devs seem to have followed that edict, and many of the games in this collection are more like short stories with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a delightful sample pack offering nearly every kind of horror game there is, so let’s go through the offerings, one by one.
Summer Night is the piece that comes closest to the jam’s P.T. premise, and it’s deviously brilliant in presentation. It starts out as a perfect recreation of an LCD handheld in which a kid has to move between six spaces, grabbing treasure and avoiding enemies. As the game’s battery wears down, it starts to… change. To offer any more information would be to ruin the most delightful surprise in the entire pack, so I’ll just say that I absolutely can’t wait to see the next chapter of this story (if it’s ever produced.)
The Pony Factory is a fist-person shooter that embraces a gritty horror aesthetic with gusto. In a black and white world, a madman has transformed the denizens of a town into ponies in the hopes that would improve their moods. It had the opposite effect, and now the player must blast their way through hordes of truly disturbing creations. TPF is fiendishly difficult unless players choose ‘casual’. This game is so audaciously bizarre that it absolutely demands to be played by anyone who can take the unsettling imagery.
Outsiders is a fairly standard ‘explore an empty house’ sim of the kind that’s so popular in the indie horror scene. It’s got decent atmosphere, but like too many of its ilk, it does a terrible job of communicating what the player is supposed to do. After ten minutes of wandering around a backyard cornfield, I surrendered and moved on.
While I personally hate card-based games, I can see that Don’t Go Out is an interesting one. It’s about surviving a night where each turn takes an hour. In that hour, the player must move a few spaces to avoid monsters, try to keep fires going because darkness is death, and draw cards to obtain perks — some way more useful than others. The art is great and it’s a clever premise, but my fundamental disinterest in a genre where success is based on luck of the draw kept me from getting into it.
Hand of Doom is a tribute to early-’90s first-person adventure games, putting players in the role of a wizard tasked with completing a ritual. This is accomplished via a clever spellcasting system in which four different syllables are clicked on in different sequences to create various effects. I enjoyed the look and appreciate its devotion to the antiquated style, but the developer provides almost zero guidance, and I didn’t find the world compelling enough to spend hours wandering the map until something happened.
The next standout is Mr. Bucket Told Me To, a survival sim parody which is so good that I don’t want to risk spoiling any twists. With just a couple of actions to do each day and an overall playtime of about 20 minutes, it’s amazing that the developer has managed to cram in a thoughtful horror story about isolation, madness, and the dangers of over-anthropomorphizing objects. How many games can claim that most of their worldbuilding is done via the names that come up when the mouse is hovered over an object? I don’t know that there’s any more of this story to tell, but what’s here is a complete must-play.
The Pay is Nice starts with an interesting premise — what’s it like being one of the people who works for Resident Evil‘s Umbrella Corporation? There’s text going into the character’s mindset, fixed-camera screens to amble through, and a sense of rising dread… but absolutely zero payoff. There’s also nearly zero gameplay here — no puzzles, no combat, and few locations. It’s not even really a short story, just the premise of a short story. I’d be interested in this idea being explored further, but there’s not enough here to sink one’s teeth into.
Rotgut. I walked down a subway tunnel until the walls closed in on me and then the game stopped. Was this a glitch? Was it the ending? I have no idea, but I sure wasn’t reloading to find out.
I don’t know what Carthanc is. I mean, I understand the premise — I’m a space-archaeologist exploring a mummy’s tomb. Beyond that, I’m at a loss. After some truly dire first-person platforming in a nearly pitch-black room I was murdered by some wire-frame neon monsters. The whole thing was so blurry and alienating that I couldn’t bring myself to restart.
Finally I arrive at the most impressive game in the collection, Shatter. It succeeds both because its gameplay is solid and because it perfectly serves as a vertical slice of a larger story that must be continued. In a Max Headroom-style future where the singularity seems to have happened in the ’80s, the player must run errands for godlike AIs which take the form of enormous pink insects viewable only by those who are willing to plug their minds into the net. It’s a compelling world, the developer includes a completely satisfying quest as well as an optional sidequest to make things feel robust, and the whole thing ends with a reveal that points to an incredible direction the full game could take the plot. Of all the pieces in this collection, this one is most deserving of being expanded into a full experience.
As experiments go, The Dread X Collection is a complete success. Out of ten games I found four to be legitimately wonderful, and I only regret loading up two. That’s an incredible ratio for a game jam, and the highs more than justify the paltry purchase price. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see expanded versions of any of these works, but I’m happy that I got to see developers going hog-wild and coming up with truly unique experiences.Rating: 8 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Airdorf Games, Mahelyk, oddbreeze, Strange Scaffold, Scythe Dev Team, Secret Cow Level, Snowrunner Games, David Szymanski, Lovely Hellplace, Torple Dookand published by Dread X. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, 7 of the 10 games were completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game was not rated by the ESRB, but it contains Blood and Gore and Violence. Pony Factory is about people being mutilated and reshaped into bloodthirsty, skinless ponies that the player has to shoot with a bolt gun. Do I have to say anything more? No kids. M rating equivalent.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: While most of the games are playable without audio, there are vitally important audio cues in Pony Factory that have no visual counterparts, and you may have trouble beating that game specifically. All of the other games have text-based instructions. You cannot change the size of text in the various games.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls cannot be remapped. All of the games can be controlled with mouse and keyboard, frequently with players moving using the WASD keys and aiming using the mouse. One of the games is point-and-click based.