Review: Daylight

Daylight

Carrying only a cell phone (which doubles as a flashlight and map) and a pocketful of glowsticks and flares looted from the environment, Daylight casts you in the role of a female protagonist named Sarah, who wakes up from a blackout on the floor of a dilapidated hospital with no memory of where she is or how she got there. A creepy-sounding doctor begins talking to her over the phone, urging her to rise up and search her surroundings for the memories contained within. These memories, or remnants, take the form of collectible notes, pictures, newspaper clippings, reports and sigils (a ratty old teddy bear, a bible, a pair of scissors, etc.) that can be found pinned to walls, tucked inside lockers and desk drawers, or otherwise hidden away.

There isn’t a whole lot to Daylight to be perfectly honest. Sarah is a human rat trapped in a haunted maze, and as the player your job is simply to help her escape from the labyrinthine hospital, prison, sewer, and forest environments that make up the game. This consists of running through each area in linear succession, collecting the required number of remnants to activate a sigil located in a specially marked room hidden somewhere in the maze of hallways. Once the sigil has been activated, it must then be taken to the exit gate to remove the barrier blocking access to the next area in a flash of blinding light. Interacting with the environment never gets any more complex than pushing a box to create a stepping stool or flipping a switch/crank to turn on the power or shut off hot steam spewing from a busted valve. Beyond that the game involves walking forward (or running more often than not), opening doors and receptacles, clicking on remnants, reading notes and occasionally sparking up a glowstick for light or a flare to scare off pursuing poltergeists.

What it lacks in puzzle solving and extensive exploration, Daylight counters with its haunting atmosphere and a subtle narrative approach which delivers the story through collectible notes, allowing you to unravel the dark history of what’s going on at your own pace, piece by piece. By the end, the story reminded me somewhat of the Leonardo DiCaprio flick, Shutter Island. This story is not as memorable or powerfully acted, of course, but some of the themes and twists are similar. I was hoping to be a little more impressed by the Unreal Engine 4 visuals — the level of detail doesn’t top Outlast standards, which I believe used Unreal Engine 3 — but that’s simply a product of higher expectations that come with new technology. On its own merits, Daylight looks phenomenal, with all the ambient special effects a good horror game needs to be effective at unsettling your nerves. On my system, the game ran at a smooth clip at max graphics settings. I did encounter a couple dips in frame rate, but at those times I had other programs running in the background that probably knocked the performance.

Initially, the scares are relatively harmless. You will hear creaks, screams, ghostly whispers, knocks on the wall, buzzers and other strange things that go bump in the night. You will see things move in your peripheral vision and then vanish as soon as you turn to see what it was. You will see doors suddenly slam shut or barely crack open as you approach, filling you with dread at the thought of what might be on the other side. Desk and cabinet drawers will fly out of their tracks. Stacks of boxes will fall over in an avalanche of cardboard as if force pushed by some unseen entity from the other side. Wheels on overturned wheelchairs will begin to spin on their own. But before long things turn deadly as shadowy witches begin to stalk you in the dark and pop up when you least expect it like Alma from the F.E.A.R. games. Most of the time you will know when they are lurking, cued by your cell phone signal turning all staticy coupled with the spine-tingling, hair-raising sounds of groaning and shuffling footsteps in pursuit, but sometimes they will just appear without a sound as soon as you turn around and literally scare the daylights out of you.

Little details add to the frightening ambiance, such as the way Sarah’s hand can be seen visibly shaking while holding glowsticks and flares. And I can’t tell you how many times I flinched at the startling buzz of the cell phone’s vibration when the doctor calls in with a message. That’s how unnerving this game can be at the peak of its terror. Unfortunately, the scares lose their potency far too quickly due to the way Zombie Studios decided to structure the game.

All the hype surrounding Daylight has been about its claims of being procedurally generated to offer a completely different experience every single time, but it turns out that such claims are only partially accurate. It is true that the level layouts change slightly, like a maze rewriting itself again and again each time it is replayed. Certain notes and secrets will also only be found over multiple playthroughs. However, it also is true that, like a lot of games with procedurally generated content, the randomized maps recycle the same basic room and corridor templates, cutting and pasting them into a different order each time which ultimately doesn’t change the way the game unfolds. While there might be a new scare event that didn’t happen the last time, by the time the game has been completed twice the “Boo!” moments and scripted hallucinations will have lost their impact, and as such the game will have lost some of its sense of fear and danger. Think of it like going through the same haunted house over and over again. It’s scary the first time, a couple of the tricks may still make you jump a second time around, but after that the experience becomes predictable and the crucial element of spontaneity is gone. Adding to the sameness, only certain parts of the game are procedurally generated. Each maze environment is followed by a safe zone that provides a few moments to take a breather and gather optional remnants before heading to the next maze, and these intermission areas are exactly the same every time. So, contrary to the developers’ intentions, the game does not change in a truly meaningful way.

Playing the game multiple times revealed other holes in the design that probably would have gone unnoticed had I only played through once. For example, once you realize that the shades chasing you only inflict damage if you look at them the AI becomes easy to trick. At first they are an unknown so you are frightened to turn around and there’s a feeling of empowerment when you pull out a flare and cause the witches to spontaneously combust. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that when you hear one coming, walking sideways or looking at the ground when turning around allows you to avoid visual contact. Or, since they rarely just appear directly in front of you, you can just book it in the direction you are facing until they disappear, then head back in the other direction.

The engine shows itself to be fairly rigid as well. Doors between areas are blocked off with long loading screens that aren’t encountered the first time through, when you are playing more cautiously and taking the time to collect and read every note. However, once you know what you’re doing it’s almost as if you are able to move through the levels faster than the design of the game intended. It becomes fairly common to reach a doorway and be forced to stand around, twiddling your thumbs while watching a loading indicator glow until the door finally opens.

The emphasis on replaying multiple times also means that the game is a short one. The average player can expect the first playthrough to last around two hours (maybe three at most), while subsequent replays will only take as long as an hour and as short as 30 to 40 minutes. This brevity of play is both good and bad — good from the standpoint that re-running the game to get all remnants and achievements isn’t a slog, but bad in that you’ll have to replay five or six times to feel like you are getting full value for your money. In this day and age when most gamers barely finish games one time (sad, but true), it’s hard to imagine that players will put the necessary effort into Daylight to get the most out of the experience. Having multiple difficulty options helps somewhat. While the game doesn’t become harder in a tangible sense, setting the game to easy, normal, or hard alters the number of remnants you must find in each area to access the sigil. Which means on easy, where only four remnants are required in each area, the game flies by in a flash, while on hard, where the remnant requirement is eight, you are forced to search every nook and cranny before being able to proceed. Spending more time in a maze means more opportunities for the witches to get you, which means a greater chance of dying and having to restart the entire level over.

Thanks to its immersive atmosphere, some spooky audiovisual trickery, and a few genuine surprises, Daylight is a good psychological horror experience the first time through and has enough supplementary story content to make a second or third dash to awakening potentially worthwhile for completionists. But unfortunately the thrill fades all too quickly. I have played the story to completion six times (in only seven hours), trying desperately to discover some greater purpose to it all (and for achievement hunting, I won’t lie), but with each replay I have only grown more disappointed by the fact that the main selling point — the procedurally generated design specifically meant to encourage repeat play — is actually the main flaw that prevents the game from maximizing its full potential. Late at night with the lights off and a pair of headphones on, Daylight works well as a single-sitting haunted house ride you can enjoy for an hour or two from the relative comfort of your PC or PS4. If you have expectations for it to be anything more than that, it will only let you down.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Intriguing storyline to slowly unravel
+ Spooky audio design will give you goose bumps
+ Plenty of fun jump-out scares
+ Notes and achievements give completionists reason enough to replay multiple times

Cons:
– Fails to deliver on its procedurally generated design ambitions
– Dependent on multiple replays to a fault
– Sense of fear and danger begins to fade too quickly
– Unreal Engine 4 graphics look great but don’t seem to bring any advancement from Unreal Engine 3

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC via Steam, also available for PlayStation 4
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Zombie Studios
Release Date: 4/29/2014
Genre: Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!