Horror games have seen a resurgence in the past few years on the PC. Whereas the prior generation of consoles saw a decline in quality and numbers and a shift to more action-oriented fare, the PC had games like Outlast and Amnesia to show that you can still scare gamers without the aid of firearms. Riding that wave of resurgence in the genre is Daylight, a new game from Zombie Studios, who's known for military-style shooters like Blacklight and the old Spec Ops titles but have dabbled in the genre with the last two Saw titles.
In Daylight, you play as Sarah, a girl who has woken up in an abandoned facility. You have no knowledge of how you got here, and you only have your cell phone. Guided by the mysterious voice on the phone, you must try to find your way out before the place consumes you.
Daylight plays like a mix of some recently released PC horror games. For starters, you are completely dependent on technology to help you navigate the facility. Your cell phone acts as both a decent flashlight and a map; it constantly updates as you open doorways and discover new paths. Your goal in each area is to find key artifacts marked with small red flames that allow you to unlock a sigil. Once you obtain the sigil, whether it's a bible or teddy bear, you can use it as a key to unlock the final gate of the area. Then you can reach the next spot to repeat the process. Along the way, you can find ancillary artifacts to flesh out the story. You can also find glow sticks to highlight objects of interest that may or may not contain helpful items. Finally, you can find flares that help ward off spirits; it's a useful technique since you can't fight.
The inability to attack certainly heightens the tension since you must always be aware of your surroundings so you're not caught unawares by malevolent forces. You can't necessarily hide in spots to avoid detection by spirits, and you can't always rely on the glow sticks or flares to get you out of a jam since you can only hold about four of each at a time. The game also uses procedural generation techniques to change the map and the location of every artifact each time you die. No matter how much progress you've made in an area, if you get caught by a spirit and lose your life, then you have to start over with a new map.
A good horror game needs at least two things to make it a worthwhile experience: an interesting story and gameplay that allows one to enjoy being scared. In both aspects, Daylight fails miserably. The story starts on the right foot by letting you begin with no backstory and no objective other than to escape. The mystery of who's on the other end of the phone works as a driving force to uncover the story, and the same can be said for the hunt for artifacts. The problem is that the procedural generation techniques, which change up the gameplay and encourage multiple playthroughs, significantly hurt the story. The scraps of information you find — staff notes, newspaper clippings and nonsensical photos — are randomized enough that the story becomes too disjointed to follow. There's no way to view these pieces after they've been collected, so once you stop reading them, the information might as well be forgotten since you can't access them again. For a game so dependent on story, this is a painfully bad oversight. Sarah and the mystery man on the phone spout off dialogue that tries to sound insightful but offer nothing that's contextually relevant. This occurs with great frequency, causing you to ignore the dialogue altogether instead of paying attention to it for story details.
It also doesn't help that the story isn't very good. If you find the time to piece everything together, you'll realize the story follows every single trope in the genre without altering it in any way. It also doesn't bother to try anything new, so the revelation of the hospital being used as an insane asylum is highly expected instead of surprising. The big twist at the end is done for shock value, and the sudden ending to the game seems to have the same intent. By the time the credits roll, the short journey simply affirms that the whole tale was a waste of time.
In some cases, good gameplay can salvage a bad story, but the game design seems to have the same philosophy as the story in that it throws everything at the player in hopes that something will stick. Dust will always get kicked up into a cloud when you open any squeaky door. Furniture suddenly moves of its own accord when you enter a room. Mice and bugs litter a few sections, and the constant dark shadows are highlighted in very narrow corridors. Falling objects are accompanied by random shrieks and wails. There are many hallucinations that plague you, and those who choose to broadcast via Twitch open themselves up to having the community trigger scares of their own.
Unless this is your first foray into the horror genre, though, you expect all of this. There's something of an expectation for these events to occur, and the game is all too glad to meet those expectations. The randomization of each level also means you'll see the same scare tactics more often than usual, further diminishing their value as the game progresses. Only one thing in the game can actually hurt you, so things like fires and other apparitions feel rather harmless. By the time you throw in Twitch interactivity, their participation just becomes more noise to deal with instead of something that viewers can use to really affect the player.
The one thing that can hurt you is the evil spirit of a woman whose eyes and mouth glow white. She provides some genuine scares. You may hear some wailing to mark her presence, but her sudden appearance makes one jump in shock the first few times, causing you to fumble for the flare before succumbing to death. Running becomes a viable option and is actually preferred, especially when holding a sigil since that prevents you from pulling out a flare to ward off the killer ghost. The spirit becomes absolutely harmless when you discover that the only way you can die is by looking at her. She can be right beside you, but her touch doesn't harm you. This flaw makes each encounter laughable enough that the one constant threat in the game is nullified, turning what should be a harrowing experience into something of a walking simulator.
If you can ignore the frequency and nonsensical content of the dialogue, you'll notice that the quality is decent. There are only two voices in the game, and while their performances can easily qualify as being hammy, they fit in well enough. The sound effects carry the expected creepy qualities and are done with clarity. The musical score is minimal but is used effectively to ratchet up the tension by being persistent in tone instead of constantly building to a conclusion.
Graphically, Daylight is significant in that it is the first publicly released title to use the new Unreal Engine 4. If you never saw the opening credits that reveal this fact, you'd be hard-pressed to believe that this is the result of such a high-profile game engine. The textures look like they could've been ripped from a current Unreal Engine 3 game, with some items having quite a low polygon count. On the bright side, there isn't a sign of texture pop anywhere, including when you load into a level. There also seems to be a lack of optimization since the game chugs along on a fairly powerful PC, especially in areas with an abundant amount of fire or water. If there is one thing the game does well in this department, it would be in regard to light and shadow, which are cast nicely on the environment, sometimes catching some nice light refractions from dust on the screen. It isn't perfect, though, since it does nothing when you shine it on broken glass, but overall, it still looks nice.
From top to bottom, Daylight falls short of being a good horror game. The gameplay is bare bones, and the attempts at scaring you fall into so many clichés that they're boring. It also becomes downright laughable once you discover how you can safely avoid combat with the main villain in a ridiculous manner. The story makes no sense, and it doesn't get any better after multiple playthroughs. Only the presentation can be called decent, and even that is questionable at times. Even if one were to consider this just for the sake of bechmarking their system against Unreal Engine 4, this is a very difficult title to recommend to anyone, horror fan or otherwise.
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