Horror and anthology mix really well. I suppose it has something to do with the idea that a lot of short stories don't go on long enough to ruin themselves with bad ideas. That is never more true than with video games. Horror video games are massively popular in the indie sphere, and it's possible to find some real gems by plumbing the depths of Itch.io or Steam. One of the biggest anthological horror collection in recent memory was Dread X Collection, a collection of 10 games from 10 developers produced over only seven days. Now the sequel, Dread X Collection II, ups the ante with 12 games made over 10 days. It's time once again to dive face-first into the trough of human rage and bewilderment that is indie horror gaming.
Dread X Collection II - Sucker for Love
My first step on this horror adventure is Sucker for Love, an eldritch-inspired dating sim game. You become obsessed with an eldritch god and perform a ritual to summon her so that you can, in the game's own words, "smooch" her. The presentation of the game is very bright and colorful, something you probably don't expect out of a horror game. You spend most of your time having to follow instructions in a spellbook to perform various rituals to make your love happy, and if you make her happy enough you get to smooch her.
While you may think that the bright color palette and dating-sim-esque gameplay doesn't lend itself well to horror, you'd be wrong. Without overusing jump scares, Sucker for Love manages to be downright creepy a lot of the time. The eldritch god's bubbly personality and the general happy colors of the game are juxtaposed against other, more creepy factors. If that sounds a little vague, it's because I don't want to give away those factors. Once you know about them, the game stops being as effective. In short though, this game can get under your skin by having horrific things happening in a bright and colorful setting. Combine that with the really well-done graphics and the excellent voice acting and, Sucker for Love ended up being one of the best parts of Dread X Collection II.
Dread X Collection II - Touched By An Outer God
It's sort of inevitable that in a game collection like this, one of the games will end up standing out. For me, that game is Touched By An Outer God. It's a first-person shooter with a strong narrative that sees you trying to find your badass father during a post-apocalypse filled with otherworldly horrors. It was developed by Wither Studios, a team who also created Immure, a narrative horror game about a man escaping an evil manor. While Touched by an Outer God is a bit of a departure from their previous work, Wither took to it with aplomb.
Part of the reason that Touched By An Outer God is so good is that it not only managed to tell an interesting story, but it also has really excellent gameplay. More than any other first-person shooter in this collection, it feels great to play. As you go, you shoot down enemies and collect their body parts to upgrade your abilities. This means that the more you play, the easier moving and shooting becomes, and this ramps up well with the enemy difficulty. Without wishing to sound like a tosspot (which is impossible), there's also a lot of ludo-narrative synchronicity.
As you progress through the game and get stronger, your character's personality starts to change, leading to quite an ending. It's rare that a game made in only 10 days can be this fun to play without sacrificing story. Honestly, Touched By An Outer God makes the Dread X Collection II worth getting on its own, and I wouldn't be unhappy to hear that the developer expanded the game into a full, stand-alone title. This is 100% my star pick from the collection, and I encourage everyone to try it out immediately.
Dread X Collection II - The Toy Shop
In a game like Dread X Collection II, it's a bad sign when you have to defend a game by saying, "Well, I can see what they were going for," and, "Well, they did only have 10 days." That sort of gives away my opinion of The Toy Shop I suppose. The Toy Shop was developed by Mahelyk, the creator behind SCP: Blackout, a VR horror title based on the famous SCP Wiki. The Toy Shop is a first-person horror adventure in which you have to explore the titular toy shop to discover why you wake up there with no memory.
The major issues with The Toy Shop are spread pretty evenly between the gameplay and story. The jumping, looking, and interacting with the world is functional, if a little janky. The exploration at the start of the game is fine, but later on there are 2D platforming and first-person shooter sections that just feel awful to play. During the 2D platformer segments it's possible to get knocked out of the 2D plane you're supposed to be on by enemy attacks. During the shooting, it's pretty easy to aim and fire, but enemies don't make any noise half the time. Noticing when you're being attacked is difficult, and the later half of these sections turn into trial and error as you run down blind corridors.
Then there's the story. Without spoiling anything it's hard to be specific, but there's supposed to be a twist at the at end of the plot. However, the game has been telling you about this twist pretty much from the start, so it's just really underwhelming. Perhaps most baffling is the fact that this is the only game in Dread x Collection II that ends with a "to be continued" message. Honestly, with a story this underwhelming and gameplay this unpleasant, it just doesn't feel like the sort of game that really needs a sequel.
Dread X Collection II - Arcadletra
Well, we've certainly found the game with the most awkward title. Arcadletra is another first-person exploration horror game, in which you awake in the basement of an abandoned arcade/game shop and hear the voice of a mysterious woman begging you for help. As you explore the arcade, you solve puzzles to try and help the owner of the mysterious voice and come face-to-face with a grotesque creature. If there's one major issue with Arcadletra it's that it doesn't seem to understand a very basic principle of horror.
The monster that you're supposed to be scared of is put front and center on numerous occasions, not really allowing for much pace building. The second you get a good look at the monster, it stops being scary, so the game ends up being a proto-puzzle game (and a pretty short one at that). You basically have to keep attaching different things to this magic Christmas present and messing around with a VCR in the basement. Arcadletra isn't particularly scary and is very linear, but it is at least playable.
It's not difficult to get through, and the puzzles aren't particularly challenging either. Since it can be finished in 20 minutes, it doesn't really leave much of an impression, and having multiple endings for the sort of "nothing" story feels a little bit overly ambitious. On the plus side, there is at least a clear vision of what the creator wanted to make, and it doesn't feel like a project that has no effort put into it.
Dread X Collection II - To The End Of Days
To The End of Days is a first-person shooter from Scythe Dev Team, a group of developers focused on crafting horror experiences set in the Scythe Saga. What is the Scythe Saga you might ask? That is not immediately clear, but it seems to be a narrative universe combining video games, concept albums, and various other pieces of media to tell a story. That's not terrible important; what is important is that To The End Of Days is a first-person shooter set during a time when a comet is heading towards Earth. You play a father stuck in a motel who must escape the city to try and get back to his family.
The first thing I noticed about To The End Of Days is that it was the game that felt the most like an actual game so far, or at least the most like an action game at any rate. You have a weird shotgun/axe combo weapon that you can use, but honestly most of the time I stuck to the shotgun part. You basically run around four levels, shooting at cultists with guns and weird glowing alien creatures that explode once you kill them. As you explore you have to keep picking up ammo and health packs to keep yourself kicking, just like an old-school FPS.
To The End OF Days has a lot going for it. While it's nowhere near scary, it uses horror aesthetics well, and in particular the effects used on the alien-husk enemies really make them pop. Literally. There is a little bit of engaging with tropes going on as well, such as the screen getting smeared with raspberry jam to signify that you've taken damage. Regardless of the tropes, the strong visuals and engaging gameplay make To The End Of Days one of the more interesting entries in the collection so far. Plus, it includes the option of turning on a grindhouse filter, which is always fun.
Dread X Collection II - The Thing In The Lake
The first think you'll probably notice about The Thing In The Lake is its graphical style. It's an adventure game from Panstasz, the solo developer behind World of Horror, and similarly, The Thing in The Lake intentionally mimics an earlier time in graphics technology. It also apes an earlier time in narrative storytelling as well. The setting is your slasher-movie style story at a lake retreat that also somehow featured a graveyard, a witch's house, and a circus; it was completely believable and acceptable.
So The Thing In The Lake is going the "obvious homage" route of using tropes from '70s- and '80s-era horror movies. Combined with the graphics that look somehow even worse than an Apple II and the world retro doesn't even begin to cover how far in the past the game is. On the plus side, the gameplay is actually pretty fun. You play as various characters through the game's four chapters and have to uncover the secrets of the abandoned lake retreat by finding items and using them to complete puzzles while avoiding hazards.
The two major hazards in The Thing In The Lake are an escaped ape who wants to rip you into pieces and a deranged murder with a chainsaw who hears any movement you make in long grass and immediately kills you. These two characters are the downfall of The Thing In The Lake's gameplay. While the chainsaw murderer is fine and can be avoided by walking carefully around long grass, the ape spawns at complete random, and you can easily become trapped by him with no hope of escaping. Every time you die, other than when you're supposed to die in the narrative, you have to start the chapter over again which turns the game into a bit of a slog. None of this is helped by the graphics not always being 100% clear, meaning you can miss an exit or entrance or not see some long grass hidden by murky graphics.
Dread X Collection II - The Diving Bell
The deep sea is a criminally underused setting for horror games. Not only is it filled with horrific-looking creatures, but the thought of being trapped under billions of tons of water is enough to scare even the most stoic person to death. Enter The Diving Bell, a first-person narrative puzzle game from Bathysfear Labs. The Diving Bell is set at the bottom of the ocean in a research facility, days after an accident has wiped out all but one of the crew members, leaving them isolated at the bottom of the sea floor.
The Diving Bell is split into days, and each day you must type up a report on your workstation by randomly tapping the keyboard as fast as you can. As you type you occasionally need to hide beneath your desk to prevent yourself from seeing things that will have an adverse effect on your anxiety levels, and every so often something will go wrong in the base, forcing to you to go and fix it. Exploring the base will also bring you face-to-face with various sanity-draining creatures through portholes, which you must avoid looking at if you want to stay sane.
The really impressive part of The Diving Bell is the atmosphere. Ambient audio makes you really feel like you're at the bottom of the ocean, and at times that can be pretty harrowing, especially when your sanity starts draining and you have to go and hide in a corner to weep. While you do have pills that restore your sanity meter, there's never so many that the obstacles become trivial. All in all, The Diving Bell is a creepy, claustrophobic experience that will have you on edge the entire time and loving every minute of it.
Dread X Collection II - Undiscovered
Found footage is a pretty well-known genre of horror movie, but it rarely finds its way into video games, at least not in its purest form. Often horror games, like Outlast or Blair Witch, will use elements of found footage or ape the style, but in my mind there has never been a horror game that is entirely presented in a found-footage style. Undiscovered is a game that not only managed to be purely found footage, but it's also one of the few examples of second-person perspective gameplay in the world.
Undiscovered is a second-person, exploration-based horror game, in which you play either one of a husband/wife archaeologist team. Whichever character you don't pick controls the camera, in this case a 1940s scratchy film camera which bobs realistically around as you move through the world. Other than walking around, there are basically no mechanics. You get a torch and a pickaxe, which might make you think there are mechanics, but realistically these both end up being contextual button presses you need to do to continue playing.
The real appeal of Undiscovered lies in the unique style and the narrative. You and your partner are exploring a previously undiscovered (and there's your title) civilizations, and as you go you piece together a series of events that happened before you arrived. Being a horror game, the narrative gets progressively more harrowing and weird as things go on, but it's tough to talk about since the narrative is pretty much all there is. Undiscovered ends up being interesting for the new things it tried to do, but the short length and slightly derivative story don't make it any more than a micro experience.
Dread X Collection II - Squirrel Stapler
Squirrel Stapler is a retro first-person shooter with horror themes from David Szymanski, the developer behind Dusk, another retro first-person shooter with horror elements. Despite sounding like he has stuck to what he knows quite rigidly, Squirrel Stapler is actually very different from Dusk. The main difference on a superficial level is that you're hunting squirrels rather than eldritch horrors. The other main difference is that in Dusk, if you go without shooting something for 20 minutes you're playing it wrong, whereas that's sort of the whole point of Squirrel Stapler.
The main plot puts you in the shoes of a loner living in a hut in the wood. Your other half is a skinned corpse that you keep attached to your wall, and when they start to smell a little, you decide to hunt squirrel's to staple to the corpse to make them look better. Most of your time in Squirrel Stapler is spent crawling around the woods at a snails pace, trying to find squirrels to kill. It's incredibly slow. At times I was struggling to stay awake for a lot of it, especially over the first two days when all you're doing is finding small, cute squirrels to heartlessly murder.
Things get switched up a bit from day three onwards as enemies suddenly start appearing, but honestly this just makes things worse. They can hear everything you do unless you creep as slowly as possible, and if there's an enemy nearby when you spot a squirrel, then you're completely screwed. The worst part is that if you get killed, you have to redo the entire day. I lost count of the number times that I got four out of five squirrels hunted, then was murdered by a ghost squirrel and had to do it all again. I did eventually get to the end, but the payoff was pretty weak. I felt like I'd wasted my time.
Dread X Collection II - Charlotte's Exile
It's an interesting concept, trying to make an entire game where you basically don't move from a single spot. Somehow, Charlotte's Exile manages to do it, without being incredibly dull. Charlotte's Exile is a puzzle game from John Szymanski, the developer of Kyle is Famous, a comedic narrative adventure. You are the partner of a missing woman, and you must try your best to save her from the horrible eldritch forces that seem to have her ensnared. You are given a basic setup and then let loose on a table with a book, some notes, and few puzzle objects. Right off the bat, Charlotte's Exile gets points for not giving anything away. You're given a code to try and decipher which will explain what you must do, but then you're on your own. You must use the clues left in the book and on the table to try and decipher the code. Not only is solving the puzzle a lot of fun, but doing it makes you feel smart, especially since there are two endings. The only way to get the second ending is by figuring out a really tough, optional puzzle. While Charlotte's Exile is very short in the end, it's also a great gameplay experience, and due to the settings of an eerie library, it also manages to be quite creepy. The jump scare was a bit unnecessary though.
Dread X Collection II - Solipsis
Space, the final frontier—and about as scary as the bottom of the sea is. Solipsis is a top-down narrative-adventure game in which you play an astronaut who is taking gravity readings on the moon. As you take your readings, things start to go very wrong, and before long you're trapped on the moon with no hope of escape. You begin to explore the lunar surface and discover a variety of strange things that make you question your own sanity. In this case, questioning your sanity forces you to rationalize what you've seen by choosing an explanation that fits.
Solipsis is an incredibly creepy game, thanks partially to the sound design. As you walk along on the moon the ambient sounds are very, very eerie, and as you explore various locations, the only other sounds you hear are the reverberation of your own footsteps. The other factor that helps Solipsis be creepy is the use of actual photographs in the game, which adds an uncanny-valley-esque element to the visuals. If you fancy questioning your own sanity in real life, then you can't go too wrong with this one.
Dread X Collection II - Another Late Night
It's odd when a game on a computer emulates a computer. What's odder is how common that particular style has become in recent years. Another Late Night is a computer simulation that tasks you with uncovering what happened to a bunch of missing game developers. You do this by exploring the simulated desktop and interacting with the various icons and windows that pop up. You'll have to read articles, visit chatrooms and even deal with a mysterious bug that makes the computer seem like it's either crashing or being hacked.
Speaking of crashing, Another Late Night did crash for me, luckily only once. I can't tell if it was immersion breaking or made the simulator more immersive. Either way, Another Late Night is incredibly short and doesn't really do anything particularly interesting. You basically click around until you find the thing that will make the game continue. It's probably trying to be a little clever with a weird, meta-narrative where the developer of the game is the developer who's gone missing, but it doesn't really pull it off unfortunately. Looking back on it now, I barely remember my time with the game, which is really not a good sign.
Dread X Collection II - Narrative Framing
As well as the various anthology games, you also have a narrative framing game that you must complete to unlock the other 12 games. This all takes place in a blocky 3D haunted house where you have to solve puzzles to gain keys. These keys unlock boxes which contain the VHS tapes that have the games on them. The puzzles are pretty varied actually, ranging from playing a particular song using body parts to a painting scavenger hunt. Overall, I found the puzzles pretty satisfying to solve and a great way to frame the other games.
There's also a narrative which is quite interesting, involving a mysterious disease or virus that the main character is suffering from. A voice over the speakers tells you that you need to play the 12 tapes to cure yourself. As you complete each tape, the voice comes back to tell you more about the story and hint at the wider world. Unfortunately, the house is a little buggy, and occasionally it didn't register that I had completed a tape at all, including the time where I didn't get the final bit of narrative dialogue. In the end, I managed to trigger the dialogue, but then I wished I hadn't. The ending is incredibly vague and provided no closure or payoff at all.
All-in-all the quality of Dread X Collection II is a bit inconsistent. Some of the games are worth your time, but others really aren't. Having said that, it's clear that some of these games were experiments, and even if they didn't work out, it was worthwhile pursuing these ideas. Despite the issues I had with the game, I would still highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good horror game. Just don't get invested in the overarching plot, because it's really not worth putting all that much effort into discovering.
Disclaimer: Our reviews editor, Samuel Guglielmo, works with the publisher of Dread X Collection II. He was not involved with this article.