We have undoubtedly reached a new renaissance of Survival Horror – at least as far as smaller-scale videogames go.
While triple-A publishers like Capcom and EA persist with action-focussed “horror” titles, the most celebrated releases task players with evading the hordes of inhuman abominations rather than mowing them all down. An enemy that cannot be defeated is infinitely more terrifying than one that can be brought down with a well-timed headshot, which is why titles like Amnesia receive far greater recognition than the latest Resident Evil. Even Sega is presumably learning this lesson with the upcoming Alien: Isolation, which has generated enough positive buzz and interest to almost make fans forget about the absolutely dreadful Alien: Colonial Marines. Almost.
But like with all breakthrough horror trends, the concept is now at risk of growing overused and overplayed. This is especially apparent with Daylight, a game by Zombie Studios (who ironically enough have not dabbled in the horror genre until now… unless you’re one of those misguided folks who consider the Saw film franchise “horror”) which takes concepts and settings already utilised ad nauseam by its predecessors but without the scare factor to back them up.
Daylight takes place in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, which has officially become the Hoth/Omaha Beach/Mario Desert of worn-out videogame locations in a horror setting. Players assume the role of Sarah, an amnesiac (which has officially become the… amnesiac, of worn-out videogame plot points) with nothing but a cell phone and a creepy voice instructing her where to go. In order to escape the hospital, Sarah must collect a certain amount of arbitrary items that serve as “keys” to unlocking mysterious portals to send her to the next spooky dream sequence and further inside the labyrinthine building. Naturally, there are supernatural horrors lurking in the shadows seeking to do harm to the player. Well, presumably.
From a presentation standpoint, Daylight has all the ingredients of a proper “run or die” horror game. The sound design is appropriately spooky and filled with sudden surround sound points to keep players on edge. The lighting keeps corridors dark and obscure, the only available light sources serving to illuminate only the smallest of perspectives. The game’s physics engine also facilitates turned-over furniture, flowing drapes and organic shadows, all indicating an unseen presence ready to pounce on players at any moment.
Unfortunately, said moments are few and far between, and the real struggle for players will be to keep their eyes open after hours of tedious wandering. For want of a better word, Daylight is boring; while some games have succeeded in keeping its jump scares to a minimum while utilizing the atmosphere to keep players at a never-ending state of unease (most famously the PS1-to-PS2 era of Silent Hill), Daylight’s dreadfully long build-up quickly loses effect once it becomes apparent that it has run out of tricks to spook players. The game is billed as having procedurally-generated content, a concept that sounds terrific on paper but has yet to be convincingly utilised in any horror game. In Daylight’s case, it means revisiting the exact same rooms over and over (down to their placement of items) and watching the same table flip out of position several times more.
And once players finally come across a deadly poltergeist longing to suck out their souls, the resulting encounter is quickly rectified by lighting up a flare and watching it go poof! – it is the equivalent of a gun that can kill anything in one shot. Even if you don’t have any available flares, it takes little effort to outrun the unenthusiastic enemies. If anything, the haunted horrors are seen more as occasional nuisances than something to be actively fear; this is largely due to the annoyingly large areas with endless corridors and rooms that stretch on for miles. Thanks once again to the procedurally generated content, players will be forced to inspect every inch of the psychiatric hospital in the hopes of finding the right path that will lead to another series of rooms leading to the key so that they can then backtrack all the way to the portal. What’s worse is that the on-screen map is one of the tiniest and most illegible seen in any game, with no way to zoom in and see what areas remain unexplored. It also doesn’t help that every couple of minutes you are disturbed by a poor man’s Vincent Price who spams you with boring, vague dialogue.
About the only distinction Daylight can attest to is that it holds the honour of being the first game to run on Unreal 4. The price for this prestige are ludicrous required PC specs just to be able to run it; when everything is dark, the game runs well enough, but during any moment where the lights come on, however dim, the framerate takes a huge beating as a result. Otherwise the textures and effects look very nice, though nothing that couldn’t have been achieved with the tried-and-true Unreal 3 engine. On the plus side, Daylight also features RealD, resulting in some admittedly inspiring stereoscopic 3D visuals for anyone with a 3D-enabled monitor. The downside is that now you’ll be bored, lost, and nauseous, as prolonged exposure to 3D in a dark environment can cause quite the headache.
At best you can appreciate Daylight as a tech demo that shows the potential of a new engine and the effects it can bring to a proper horror setting. At worst you will be wasting time and money on a snoozer of a spooky title when you could nab superior offerings like Outlast and Slender at less than half the price.