A Light So Dim.
Zombie Studios’ long-awaited horror is finally here. First debuted by the Blacklight: Retribution developer at last year’s DICE Summit, Daylight is the first game to be released utilizing the power of Epic’s new Unreal 4 Engine. With an emphasis on flight over fight and built upon a procedurally generated world full of supernatural terrors that changes every time you play, Daylight hopes to bring horror to the next generation. Does this new nightmare hold its own against the likes of the reigning survival horror titans, or does Zombies Studios’ horror debut amount to little more than a boardwalk haunted house attraction? Read on and find out.
Daylight is a supernatural survival horror title that puts you in the (likely laceless) shoes of Sarah Gwynn, a young woman who has just awoken in the derelict lobby of Mid Island Hospital, a long-since shuttered place with a tragic past. Sarah has no recollection of how or why she has ended up in the dark and dilapidated hospital, which seems to be occupied by nothing more than cockroaches and cobwebs. Armed with nothing but her smartphone, which acts as both your flashlight and a trusty map-charting tool, it’s up to the player to explore the dimly-lit halls of this long-forgotten facility in search of answers. Of course, things are never quite that simple, as a host of supernatural entities known as Shadows makes their presence known almost immediately, and they’re not too happy to see our young protagonist traipsing around their old haunt.
The use of Sarah’s phone serves as a clever way to eliminate the need for a HUD, while simultaneously functioning as a believable tool for exploration and constant communications with Sarah’s mysterious benefactor who helps guide her through the ghostly halls of the rundown facility.
The core gameplay mechanics of Daylight closely resemble those of indie developer Parsec’s Slender: The Eight Pages. While exploring the game’s abandoned institution players must collect all of the remnants-see Slender’s notes- that have hidden throughout the area in order to unlock the each area’s hidden sigil. These relics act as a key to the next area, and are typically a random heirloom connected to the game’s restless spirit’s past. While each floor is initially fairly easy to navigate, the shadows become more and more agitated as you collect each subsequent remnant. By the time you finally have unlocked an area’s sigil, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself sprinting to the exit as the air fills with the sound of the Shadow’s telltale chattering as Daylight’s spectral adversaries begin to murderously bearing down all around you.
It’s moments like this when Daylight shines the brightest, as a single Shadow’s stare is enough to send Sarah to an early grave, making even the simple act of turning to face your pursuer a paranormal game of Russian roulette. Failure to escape the clutches of these phantoms results in almost instantaneous death, and you’ll be forced to restart at the beginning of the area with your collected remnants scattered to new hiding places. On top of that, the area will change slightly, making it hard to to keep your bearings. Unfortunately, while this is initially entertaining, Daylight never does anything to deviate from this formula and begins to feel like little more than a macabre Easter egg hunt. This would be less of an issue if the remnants themselves were especially well-hidden or offered more than a simple Tweet’s-worth of dialog, but this sadly isn’t the case. Daylight’s all-important remnants are seldom hard to spot, and are usually simply nailed to a wall, glowing like a supernova in the otherwise darkened hallways, or tucked into a desk drawer just off the beaten path. For the most part, you’ll simply find yourself walking from room to room, clicking every nondescript crate and wall-mounted fixture until the next telltale flicker of your cell phone’s screen indicates another phantom has the drop on you.
Thankfully, y0u’re not entirely unarmed in Daylight. While you won’t be toting any proton packs or crucifixes on your quest for identity, you’ll still find a few items that manage to work as an equalizer to help balance the scales between you and your undead pursuers. Namely, glow sticks and flares. While we may have missed the part about Mid Island Hospital serving as a popular rave venue when skimming through the clinic’s convoluted history, the building is awash in more glow sticks than your average Burning Man festival, which serves to illuminate item caches which can contain valuable remnants and your only offensive option- flares. These flaming beacons of banishment are typically very limited and are best used as a last-ditch effort when dealing with shadows as their searing light keeps the murderous specters at bay, their glow instantly reducing the undead into piles of ash.
One of Daylight’s features that developer Zombie Studios has touted the most is the game’s procedurally-generated environments, which offer a unique layout every time you play. While the concept itself isn’t new, with titles like Blizzard’s iconic hack-and-slash RPG Diablo using the technique for the better part of two decades now, Daylight marks the first time this technique has been applied to a survival horror game. This level of unpredictability is a welcome addition for the genre, as the usual scare cues are virtually impossible to detect, making the player fair game for Daylight’s mischievous poltergeists, who toss furniture, rattle pipes, and slam doors to great effect, barraging your nerves and senses as you delve deeper and deeper into the darkened corridors.
Unfortunately, the technique that keeps the game’s scares so fresh is also one of Daylight’s greatest hindrances, as the game’s environments are often a schizophrenic hodgepodge of corridors, nooks, and oddly-placed recesses. While they work well to craft a labyrinthine environment that keeps you on your toes, their blatantly artificial structure underscores a lack of weight and history that makes it hard to appreciate Mid Island Hospital’s tragic past, which is disappointing as it plays such a huge part in the Daylight’s largely fragmented story.
About two thirds through Daylight’s roughly five hour story this repetition begins to give way as some of the game’s more interesting areas are revealed, like a cavernous sewer that’s been relegated to a watery makeshift tomb for decades, and an eerie forest on the outskirts of the hospital, covered in dense swathes of foliage that plays hell on your nerves as you try to hunt down remnants as shadows chase you through the choking overgrowth. At this point Daylight largely sidesteps the pitfalls that plague the early parts of the game and really begins to take shape and come into its own. Unfortunately, it’s just then that the credits roll and the nightmare comes to a jarringly abrupt stop, just as things are starting to pick up and the Zombie Studios’ ambitions begin to be realized.
Daylight’s procedurally generated nightmare has been designed from the ground up as a game built upon replay value, as even all of the notes and bits of story littered throughout the game’s scattered pieces of parchment won’t be revealed to you in a single playthrough. Though, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling really compelled to admit themselves into Mid Island Hospital for a second dose of intensive survival horror therapy unless you’ve got a nagging itch to scour the shadows for bits and pieces of an ultimately unsatisfying tale.
It’s easy to commend Zombie Studios for attempting to create a truly new and dynamic horror title with Daylight. It’s just a shame as much effort wasn’t spent on crafting a compelling and engaging interactive experience. Daylight’s formulaic gameplay mechanics and repetitive design all but shatter any opportunity to be immersed in the experience far too early in the game’s brief story, unmasking what potentially could have been a superb entry in the over-saturated survival horror genre for the threadbare scavenger hunt it is. Daylight may work its way into your nightmares, but there’s too little meat on these cadaverous bones to capture the heart of all but the most ardent horror aficionados.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PS4 ; Publisher: ATLUS; Developer: Zombie Studios; Players: 1; Released: April 29th, 2014; ESRB: M; MSRP: $14.99
This review was based on PC review code provided by Daylight’s publisher, Atlus.