Horror is quite possibly my favorite genre of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest to get right. It’s easy to make mediocre horror games full of forgettable jump scares; but bad horror, while retaining the ability to be interesting, simply doesn’t scare. To make true horror, not only do you have to create something that makes you jump, but the uneasy feeling that comes with needs to stick around. Once you turn the game off or finish the flick, the true horror still lingers, twisting those irrational fears into something that seems somewhat possible. Daylight wants to be firmly cemented in the latter camp and ride the resurfacing wave of horror titles that the Steam indie scene has brought forth.
Oddly enough, for a studio with “zombie” in the title, Zombie Studios has not only created games that are free from the shambling horde, but they made a name for themselves with the Blacklight series of team-based competitive first-person shooters. Horror is not something we associate with Zombie Studios, so when they announced that they were creating a horror game and that it would be procedurally generated, eyebrows were raised and they absolutely had to prove that this was territory they had the right to play in. I’m sure they did themselves no favors by signing on Jessica Chobot of IGN fame as the writer, but I found that to be a minor note in a much more important picture.
Daylight [PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4]
Developer: Zombie Studios
Publisher: Zombie Studios
Released: April 29, 2014
For every Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you will get two or three Resident Evil 6‘s, Silent Hill: Downpour’s, or Dead Space 3‘s. With the exception of RE6, they aren’t terrible games in their own right, but they don’t get what makes the horror genre great. You can feel Zombie Studios reaching for the core of the horror genre in every grimy corner of Daylight. So much so that during my first session, which I was playing in a brightly lit office, it actually managed to creep me out. I figured that had to be a good sign, but this wouldn’t have been the first time something in the horror genre started strong and then completely fell apart. You can never be too careful when it comes to getting scared.
Daylight is such a fascinating game. You wouldn’t think that a game could attempt to scare you while being procedurally generated. Sure, it’s not hard to get scared by a creeper in Minecraft, but that’s because they are an enemy that comes out of the darkness and explodes. Not only will they try and kill you and mess up what you are working on, but they have a creepy sound effect while doing it. The difference there is, Minecraft isn’t about fighting creepers, it’s about building and creating. A horror game is meant to keep you uneasy throughout, you would think that a procedural one would just be dingy hallways and lots of jump scares. Daylight actually manages to avoid relying on it.
While you will wander around some dingy hallways and experience a few jump scares, Daylight actually uses the procedurally generated levels to its advantage. Instead of dropping you into a random world, Daylight stitches together a series of ‘set pieces’ together with procedurally generated puzzle levels. Each of these levels involves finding a certain number of what are essentially logs while avoiding the phantoms that hunt you. Once you gather enough ‘remnants,’ which is a much smaller number than what is scattered around, you are tasked with finding the key item that unlocks the seal on the next area.
What could have easily been a monotonous break between story beats is easily the best part of the game. These connecting areas are where so many of the great scares come into play. Zombie Studios achieved something great with their enemy design. The phantoms that haunt you can kill you, but it is also possible to encounter them and successfully flee in terror or even keep them at bay with your scant supply of flares. Even though you can push the ghosts back, you can never rid yourself of them, making them a constant and challenging threat. The greatest scare I had, which got me good enough make me take a moment to collect myself, came from a phantom in one of these areas.
Easily the biggest surprise of the game was halfway through when the environment changed. Without any spoilers, I found myself in a much different environment that was much more open than what came before. It also proved that Zombie Studios can do horror without being confined to a hallway. Managing my flares and glowsticks, which reveal hidden items, there’s an adequate amount of tension without throwing stalking enemies and confusing halls into the mix. It also helps that Daylight doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Daylight isn’t a terribly long game, with my first playthrough clocking in at around three hours. While some would be appalled at the length, I found Daylight to be an incredibly tense experience that didn’t let me down like most other horror titles have. Just a few months ago we had Outlast, which while good, ended up disappointing when it fell apart at the end. Daylight’s narrative, which is cryptic and expressed through the notes you collect and the man talking to you through your phone, which you use as a lightsource. While I couldn’t say I completely grasped what was going on with the plot, I gathered enough to find it interesting and it compelled to go back and play again. Couple that with the more manageable length and levels that won’t be the same the second time around and you have yourself a game that you can happily play multiple times.
While Daylight may have ended before I would have figured, it did something that no other horror game has done in years, it left me feeling uneasy and completely satisfied with the time I spent with it. As good as Blacklight: Retribution is, I want nothing more than Zombie Studios to devote their efforts to the horror genre and take their rightful place alongside Frictional Games. The video game market has shifted and the horror genre is once again flourishing. Daylight is a prime example of why this is such a great thing.