(Originally published on MyIGN on May 6th, 2014)
(Reviewed on PS4)
Darkness. Darkness. Inky black darkness blanketing everything. Reaching out, clutching at the unending void before you, your hand brushes against something. Something cold and plastic. It’s your smartphone – you might just have a chance yet. Clambering unsteadily to your feet, you turn on the inbuilt torch and survey your surroundings; a decaying hospital lobby, complete with jars of formaldehyde, decaying mouldy books and the rotting stench of damp wood hanging in the air like a greasy, dank miasma. A thin, reedy voice crackles out of your phone “Ah, good, you’ve arrived…”.
Daylight is the latest game by Zombie Studios, which places you in the shoes of Sarah, a young woman who awakens in an abandoned, rundown hospital. You have a smartphone to guide you through the dark decrepit environments ahead, and you are guided by a mysterious voice that sporadically calls you to give advice. It’s a great premise, and it feels like a welcome addition to the current library of horror games that prominently feature an unarmed protagonist.
I suppose the first question that comes to mind is; is it scary? Well…yes and no. Daylight to me is a very entertaining and atmospheric horror game in the style of Amnesia, Outlast and Slender, which delivers some fantastic scares but it is severely crippled by its randomised level-generation, over reliance and over use of cheap jump scares and its often frustrating core gameplay mechanic of item fetch quests.
The gameplay mechanics are simple. Much like Slender: The Eight Pages, which Daylight (not to mention lots of other horror games) no doubt takes a lot of inspiration from, the aim of the game is to progress through each area looking for a set number of pages, known as remnants. These remnants are documents that make up the game’s backstory, filling in details and setting a genuinely creepy and flesh-crawling atmosphere which gets more unsettling the more of them you read. Once you’ve got the set number of remnants you need (this is determined by difficulty), then a ‘sigil’ appears somewhere in the level; you need to then take this sigil to the ‘seal of shadows’ (read: exit) to move onto the next area. This sounds quite simple on paper. However, it’s not. Like Slender, while you’re searching for the remnants, you can be attacked by a spectral ghostly figure, which is the main antagonist of the game of sorts while you stumble through four main areas; a hospital, prison, sewer and finally a forest.
Having to search an area carefully for small scraps of paper leads to fantastic scares. Normally in a horror game, you’re generally scanning your environment for movement; you’re switched on, your nerves are high and your eyes are peeled and constantly analysing what’s around you. Was that shadow in the corner of your peripheral vision a monster, or just a piece of furniture? Is that something there behind the curtain, or just a lamp? Daylight’s strength lies in micro rather than macro detail. You’re too busy searching drawers and looking for items stashed in cupboards or pinned to the walls to notice that shadow just out of sight. You need to check the map frequently to find your way and may not see something unsightly in the background. The tension that comes from forcing yourself to look for hidden items in the twisting pitch-black catacombs keeps terror and suspense high; knowing that in this focused state of concentration you’re deeply vulnerable and open for a horrible scare. Your nerves become extremely frayed and it’s in these moments that, ironically for a game named Daylight, it really shines!
Each level is randomly generated, meaning that no two playthroughs are exactly alike. While this is true, the randomised nature of the levels actually works against and not in its favour. The start and end of each section is the same each time, it’s the maze of corridors that are generated in between which are random. Naturally, with the main playspace being a maze of corridors, you need a suitable map to find your way through the darkness – this is performed by the contemporary use of a smartphone.
You access the map by pressing the touch pad. This brings the smartphone held out in front of you as a torch up to your face so that you can scrutinize your whereabouts in more detail. However, I feel that the developers missed a beat here by making it a rather tedious and clunky interface – much unlike a real smartphone. Once you’ve brought it up, you can only zoom in and out by small single increments at a time using the d-pad; as the PS4 touchpad is capable of reading the smooth directional swipes that you would commonly use to operate a real smartphone, it feels like a wasted opportunity to make the map easier to use with the added benefit of increased immersion. The game sometimes plays some particularly effective scares in the early levels if you spend time consulting your map; apparitions can appear over the top of your phone whilst you’re checking it, causing you to quickly back out of the map screen, only to see that there’s nobody there. The game makes you feel extremely vulnerable and constantly tense and afraid to let your guard down for even just a second.
As the game progresses however, you’ll find yourself tapping the touch pad and then frantically mashing the d-pad to zoom out/in before getting attacked. Once you’ve got a couple of notes and you’re trying to check where you need to go next, you’ll get attacked so frequently that it’s not worthwhile to check the map up close as the game doesn’t pause while you’re looking at it. You’ll have to settle for reading the display held at arms length, swinging about from side to side as you run like the wind, as any pause to stop and look at it becomes nigh impossible. This is especially true once you’ve picked up the sigil. You’re a sitting duck for the ghostly poltergeists and it becomes a frantic dash through the darkness to escape; you’d better know the map by memory because you’ll have no chance to stop and look, and one wrong move into a dead end and it’s most likely game over. At this point it may have been nice to have had the option to display the map on the separate second screen of a real life smartphone or tablet, so you can clearly see the map and quickly swipe, pinch and pull the display about to see what you need, rather than frantically tap the zoom in/out buttons to perform ineffective miniscule micro-adjustments to the display. But then again, this would be taking your eyes off the screen and onto your lap – not the best thing to do when you’re needing to run for your life!
Jump scares are generally varied and well-used in the very early stages of the game; due to the randomised design of the levels, it’s the smaller tricks that make use of the environments that often catch you off guard and make you jump the most. Drawers banging open noisily, telephones ringing loudly off the hook, wheelchairs eerily squeaking by as you pass and thudding footsteps can quickly make you leap out of your skin! One particularly good scare that I remember vividly was walking into an empty cell in the prison only for it to supernaturally shut behind me…not nice! The sound design is excellent; whilst you’re moving around you’re likely to hear all manner of footsteps, bangs, whispered voices, screams, creaking doors and floorboards, the works. The voice acting is good too; Sarah’s voice actor (Khahn Doan) lends a convincing realism to the character, which serves to keep you tense and uncomfortable. Throughout the game she provides believable emotive reactions to the horrifying disturbances going on around her, and it’s this quality of emotion that makes her character and story arc satisfying and relatable.
Speaking of jump scares, Daylight has some baked-in Twitch features which present some additional and creative scare opportunities. For those with a particularly sadistic side, or if you’re a glutton for punishment in the form of other people scaring you senseless, Twitch offers some novel ways for both player and viewers to interact in the experience. In a similar vein to ‘Twitch plays Pokemon‘, viewers can type commands into the chat box, such as ‘scream’ to trigger a blood-curdling scream to frighten the player, or ‘meow’ to play an eerie cat meow to make the hairs on the back of the player’s neck stand up! Each sound effect is controlled by set timers to prevent viewers spamming the same one over and over. From watching a few Twitch streams of Daylight, I have to say the feature is well designed and well implemented; the sound effects viewers can trigger for the ghost’s screams and the warble it makes as it approaches are identical to the sound effects of the real ghost, which can confuse and terrify an unsuspecting player to a high degree!
Music is used to great effect throughout the game. With a suitable musical palette of eerie strings, ghostly effects pads, clanging, warbling and scraping tones, punctuated with rolling waves of crackling static, all the elements contribute to building atonal crescendos that ramp up tension to unbearable levels. When playing in optimal horror game conditions (headphones turned up loud, curtains drawn, lights out), just hearing the music start to build, in addition to all the creepy sound effects going on can really, REALLY freak you out!
The main flaw I found that impinged upon my experience with Daylight the most was the nature of the randomly generated environments. Rather than enhancing the scares and replayablilty of the game, I found that the randomly-generated Unreal 4 environments served to increase my frustrations with the game. As it’s easy to get lost in the repeating identical corridors of the early stages, this is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it really increases your discomfort; you’re lost and can’t recognise where you are or where you need to go, and you can’t tell whether this office/cell/room you’ve just walked past is a new one, or just the same one you previously passed 5 minutes ago. You get more and more paranoid that you’re running in circles, and that the game’s playing tricks on you (which it sometimes does). But, after the initial few times you get lost, it becomes overwhelmingly a bad thing. You need to get all the remnants to get the sigil, you then need to find the sigil, and then find the exit. If you can’t find that last remnant, it’s incredibly hard to establish which areas you’ve already searched, so you need to go back and tediously search the same repeating identical locations again for a tiny piece of paper…and this is where the ghost becomes a major pain rather than a scare.
Even on medium difficulty, from the second stage on you are pelted with incessant ghost attacks. Rather than get more frightened with each new ghostly advance, the frequency with which they bombard you completely erodes their effectiveness as scares – which, in a game about ghosts, is not at all what you want. In my own playthrough, during the prison area – only the second area in the game, and again only on medium difficulty as well – you can get stuck in a tedious and frustrating loop of fruitlessly dashing away from ghosts, making no progress and simultaneously using up all your supplies.
In Daylight you have no weapons to defend yourself; instead you have glowsticks and flares. Glowsticks are used to reveal which searchable objects in the area contain supplies and those all-important remnants by marking them with ominous glowing green hieroglyphics. Not all objects of the same type are searchable – for example, when you find a row of lockers, you can only open those which have the green markings, so using a glowstick is often essential to finding items. This means that you can’t just run through the level and hope to find what you need by opening just the obvious wall containers, most areas need you to examine desks and less obviously searchable items with a glowstick in hand.
Flares are used to drive back the ghosts haunting you, but when a flare is active you can’t search for items that have green markings. You can drop a flare, and stay close to it in order to get a glowstick out and remain protected by it’s light, but you can’t swap them around or pick up a dropped flare once it’s on the ground, so you have to try and use them tactically when you’re cornered.
The sheer frequency of ghosts attacking you means that in the more claustrophobic areas such as the prison and hospital it can quickly become gruellingly repetitive – and like a classic horror film vampire draining it’s victim of their lifeblood, it totally sucked all the carefully built up horror right out of the game for me. You crack a glowstick on, begin to search, a ghost leaps out, you pull out a flare, run away, begin to search again, ghost attacks, light a flare…you get the picture. If the ghost scares were less frequent then they would hold much more of their scare factor and they would retain their ghoulish horror. The ghost is well designed visually, with startlingly bright eyes and bright mouth, which when you catch sight of it in the pitch blackness it, even now, still makes me shudder – but then that feeling of horror is quickly replaced with feelings of frustration and boredom. Oh dear, the ghost is attacking for 100th time this level, better go light a flare or dash off.
Of course, if you die, then you go back to the start of the section again. The maze is different and you have to go remnant searching all over again. I found that whether I got all the remnants depended on a great deal of luck rather than skill on my part. This may well be what the game’s going for, but it makes you feel like an idiot when you can’t find what you need to find, where you need to go next or where you’ve been before. A more generous checkpoint system may have helped alleviate some of the frustration here by saving your remnant progress, but then again this would render the randomly generated maze element redundant. Regardless, taking the time to get your bearings in a level feels fruitless, as you only have to learn a new layout, and find new remnants when you die – which happened a lot during the prison level for me. Again, without trying to beat the same drum too much here, seeing the same repeated sequences and hearing the same dialogue over and over again just drains them of their original quality and leaves you impatient to race through and see something new.
I personally found that the exploratory-focused linking passages between the more gamey ‘find the notes, avoid the ghosts’ sections were much more interesting. Once you’ve got through one of the seal of shadows, you get to breathe a quick sigh of relief and explore at a bit more (only a bit…things are still lurking in the darkness) of a leisurely pace, and you have time to take in the genuinely creepy and unsettling ancillary notes you find. The scares the game throws at you in these sections are much more surprising and unpredictable, and at times I found myself getting more spooked in these exploratory stages than in the race to find the remnants sections where you’re pelted with ghost attacks. This is a shame as it shows that the developers had some good alternative ways to scare the player through apparitions, hallucination/flashback sequences etc. but instead focused the majority of the scares on a single one-trick pony. A good and scary one-trick pony I might add, but there are only so many one-trick ponies you can get repeatedly flung at yourself before you get tired of them.
The later stages of the game, the sewer and the forest, felt like (ironically for the sewer section at least) a breath of fresh air from the generic repeating corridors of the hospital and prison. Remnants in these stages were hidden in more logical locations due to their unconventional design; they tended to be more clearly in view, and usually hidden in an obvious or prominent structure rather than in countless auxiliary objects. This made progression through these areas quicker, but more memorable and more enjoyable as a result. The forest area is particularly chilling for any player who has experienced Slender: The Eight Pages, or any of the copycat games for that matter, as you can’t help but expect to see the eponymous blank-faced creature staring back at you from between the gnarled tree trunks, watching and waiting…
Throughout my time with the game, a couple of glitches did crop up, but nothing too major. Towards the end of the game, my character would sometimes clip on top of nearby tall objects (it happened on a tree and a post in the forest section) which was startling and quite scary before I realised what had happened! I could just move off the object and drop back to the ground so it wasn’t a game breaking one thankfully. Sometimes I got sound glitches where audio files won’t play, or cut short before they are meant to – which again aren’t big deals but they are noticeable when they happen. When you enter a new area, the game slows to a crawl as it loads a new maze, which although it’s not often and only momentary, it still feels frustrating and awkward. Though I’m no expert, the frame rate seemed to jump all over the place at times. Surprisingly, when running with a lit flare the game appeared to run smoothest, which is strange as you’d think that the extra lighting effects and running through the environments would strain the frame rate more! When walking and searching, the game runs smoothly enough though and feels polished.
One of the best depictions of just how terrifying an environment can be made to feel can be found in Silent Hill 2. Although it’s going for a different type of horror, Silent Hill 2 arguably has one of the best horror game stories told, and a large part of the delivery of that fantastic story is done through the incredibly moody and horrific mist-drenched locales of Silent Hill itself – Brookhaven Hospital being a particular favourite and a relevant comparison for this review piece. If Daylight had gone for a similar approach, where you have time to soak up the area’s mood without being bombarded with spectral attackers, I think it would have benefited greatly, and intensified the scares as a by-product. As it stands, the industrial/corridor sections towards the start of the game have the effect of feeling like funnel sections to get through as quickly as possible without being caught by yet another ghost, with little time to soak up the atmosphere along the way.
The ending just feels plain woolly – and not in a thoughtful, teasingly ambiguous way, but more of a jumbled confusion. This was a shame, as the game felt like it was building to a promising conclusion and reveal. Several questions are left unanswered, and my initial thoughts upon completion were just what does it all mean? Having said that, having played through a second time, consulting Wikipedia and the Daylight wiki and thinking through the main plot junctions again, there are some subtle and clever hints as to what the story and events of the game actually mean when considered with the full backstory. However, if I hadn’t been curious enough to look into things more and start playing through again, I would no doubt be still scratching my head now and be none the wiser.
The trophies up for grabs are varied, and offer those who want second helpings of Daylight increasingly difficult conditions to play the game under. However, despite the game’s prominent goal of being very replayable due to the random maze generator, you feel like you’ve seen everything there is to see after one playthrough and aside from trophies there’s not much compulsion to go back and do it all again.
Overall, Daylight is an atmospheric horror game that provides some great nerve-shredding action, a believable and convincingly scared female protagonist trying to escape from complex and terrifying areas, with an eerie and unsettling story running through it. Unfortunately, it’s the revolutionary aspects of its design – the random level generator – and the over-use of the same Slender style jump scares that leave the player feeling mired in frustration rather than immersed in the creepy environments and atmospheric storytelling the game has to offer.
(Daylight is out now on PC and PS4)