I should preface this review by pointing out I normally don’t play horror games because I startle easily. Really, really easily. When I was a kid, I couldn’t play the original NES Legend of Zelda for too long without getting scared. Yeah, I’m a total wimp. I admit it. It doesn’t take much to freak me out. Then, I usually end up panicking and dying. Yup.
However, I’m also a sucker for exploration-based games, games in which the primary focus is exploring your environment and looking for clues, experiencing storytelling in a way that only a game can portray it. It’s one reason I adored Gone Home so much. So when the opportunity to review Daylight came up, I decided to risk the fear and the jump scares and give it a try. As terrifying as the prospect was, I was intrigued.
The premise behind Daylight has you playing from the first-person perspective of Sara, a woman who wakes up in a strange place (creepy, long-closed insane asylum/prison) with only your cell phone for guidance, working your way through the grounds to make your escape. Not the most unique concept, I know, but the game is a relatively short, procedurely generated experience intended to be replayed over and over, since each time will be a little different. Kind of like an old dungeon crawler but with a survivor horror bent.
The game is divided into five “levels”: the hospital, the prison, the sewers, the docks, and the forest. Using your phone (which acts as a map and a flashlight), you have to explore each to find a certain number of documents, which will unlock the sigil (think of it as a key), which you need to open the doorway to the next part of the level or to the next area. The catch is that the place is haunted and you can only fend off the ghosts that attack you and drain your sanity/health in two ways: running or using a flare. You can only carry four flares at once, though, so if you run out, you’re dead. Also, you can’t use a flare while you’re carrying the sigil, and if you die, you have to start over from the beginning of the level. This is where the “survivor” part of the horror experience comes into play.
Unfortunately, despite its ambiance, Daylight falls incredibly short of its promise.
At first, the game is creepy, and the window dressing is spot-on. The environments are spooky, and the sound design is perfect, complete with the occasional disembodied voice (perhaps coming through your cell phone?) of a man encouraging you as you go, your personal Vincent Price. Most of the game doesn’t have any music, but rather sound effects, including the occasional voice of the protagonist shouting, “Is anyone there?” or something similar. I liked the way you’d hear a sound and instinctively want to turn and try to discern where it came from, as it immersed me in the character. Jump scares are frequent: whether from objects mysteriously moving, or from the appearance of ghosts, sometimes in flames, precipitated by static on your cell phone’s map screen.
However, the veneer quickly wears thin. For example, what makes an exploration game so fantastic is just that: exploration, and here, there’s simply not much to explore. Partially because of the procedurely generated concept, you’ll find the same rooms–I mean, exactly–over and over again, the only variation the appearance of pick-ups (such as flares, glowsticks, and documents). This would be tolerable if the notes you found (and hence, the story) were engaging and intriguing, but they’re not. I’m the type of person who normally devours story presented like this, too (I made a point to find every note–and read them–in Dragon Age: Origins, for example), but I stopped caring about them in Daylight before I’d even finished the first level. Part of the problem was the notes (and therefore the text) was achingly small on my HDTV (with no way to enlarge them) so that reading the text itself (apart from its meaning) was a chore already. Add to the fact that the story was generic and uninspired (I figured out the twists, for the most part, almost immediately), and I really didn’t bother after awhile. People died in mysterious ways over and over throughout the history of the place. Really, that’s it.
Worse, if you do bother to read through all these little notes (beyond even the main ones you need in order to progress), all you’re left with is a timeline that doesn’t seem to add up. The island was used as an asylum for children? but then it was a prison? but then it was an asylum again? Wait, what? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure the designers even knew what was going on, and the only real, genuine piece of (unique) story doesn’t appear until the end (which, I’ll admit, is presented in a cool way even if I’d already seen it coming from a mile away).
Ultimately, even though the game is procedurely generated, it quickly becomes repetitious and stale, if not within the first level, certainly by the second. Here’s the recipe: explore until you find the gate as you search for the key documents (conveniently highlighted with a red or blue dot) to unlock the sigil (which you also must find), occasionally whipping out your flare to scare off a ghost. Then, activate the sigil and run like hell to the gate before the ghosts kill you. If they do, you start over from the beginning, though the level layout remains the same (so much for procedurely generated, huh?), and repeat until you make it to the next area. That’s it.
Yeah, you can use glowsticks to “find secrets,” but really, all you’re going to find is more glowsticks/flares and the occasional extra document, most of which you can find on your own, without them. Honestly, I used the glowsticks as a way to conserve my flares, since once you light a flare, you can’t put it away again until it burns out unless you switch to a glowstick, in which case, you can. But that does beg the question: what the heck are all these glowsticks (and flares, for that matter) doing lying around this abandoned asylum/prison?
Zombie Studios seems to have forgotten what makes for an interesting exploration experience: actually getting to explore and interact with your environment. It’s not fun if the only things you find are memos and the occasional diary entry, along with basic supplies, and nothing else. What made Gone Home so fantastic (or heck, even Bioshock Infinite in its sense of place) was how you learned so much from exploring the world, from seeing the remnants of people’s lives. The really well done and creepy settings loose their punch when they’re basically just window dressing, a facade that you can’t truly interact with, and that tells you absolutely nothing.
Worse, even the jump scares become rote. After the first level, they came almost on a regular schedule (and even without the warning of static on my phone, I always knew they were coming because I was helpfully reminded I could use my flares to scare them off). The “scares” came with such clockwork precision that even I–as startle-happy as I am–didn’t even react, except to whip out my flare, wait for the ghost to disappear, then go back to my routine.
And yes, Daylight is routine in the worst sense of the word.
Daylight is not fun. It is busywork in game form, and it’s really a shame, because, as I said before, the set pieces and the sound design are all there, they’re just wasted.
Honestly, if I weren’t reviewing the game, I probably would have labeled it a DNF (did not finish) and moved on after the first level. Thankfully, it was a short experience, though how anyone could want to play the game over and over is beyond me. There is no interesting world to discover here, only the same notes, essentially, over and over, and identical ghosts who are more annoying and obnoxious than scary.
Ultimately, if you want a survivor horror or exploration game, you can find much better entertainment elsewhere (like Amnesia or Gone Home). For a game that promises a new, exciting experience every time, even a single playthrough of Daylight quickly becomes stale and uninspired despite its fantastic art and sound design.
|Platform: PC, PS4 (reviewed)|
Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: April 29, 2014
Developer: Zombie Studios
ESRB Rating: M for Mature