I've been a firm believer that over the past decade, atmosphere is one of the key components to a good horror game. You could create the most disturbing story on the planet, but unless the sound design, and to a lesser extent, the visuals are there to sell it, you're not going to get very far. Making sure that you give players just enough rope to hang themselves with when it comes to succumbing to their own fear is equally important, and sort of creates the trinity of a good horror game. Zombie Studios starts out with all these things in the right place in Daylight, but by the end, something starts to feel a bit, off.
Daylight does a great job of creating that initial sense of dread. As Sarah you awaken in the front lobby of what looks to be a hospital, a raspy voice welcomes you, your phone and some glow sticks are your only source of light. The hospital is a run-down mess, the world around you has obviously decayed, but what caused you to wake up here, and where exactly is here? Daylight hides these details in Remnants, letters, pictures, and notes, all left by the previous inhabitants of this hospital. With over one hundred pieces to collect, there is definitely a good reason to play through multiple times. You'll also find that this facility is more than it initially appears as your explore its prison, sewers, and the outlying forest. The most impressive aspect of each time you play through this game you'll find that the world is procedurally generated, meaning each playthrough is a bit different from the last, making new mazes out of each area with each new trip through. The only gripe I had is that if you happen to die, the map remains the same, giving you a little bit of an edge as you attempt to escape from the clutches of the cursed apparitions that are out to bring your journey to an end.
Collecting these Remnants is necessary to proceed through the facility, but the cursed aren't just going to let you go around and collect everything you need to get to safety. Once you start to pick up Remnants they'll stir, you'll hear them off in the distance, and by the game's second chapter, they'll be coming after you relentlessly. You never really get to feel like you're safe except through a couple of portions of the game that are meant to move the story along. But the cursed are coming, and the only way you can fend them off is with flares that are scattered about the game. Though you never know what you're going to find in the drawers and lockers that are peppered throughout the game. The glow sticks help to reveal search-able objects, but that means you don't have a flare in your hand to ward of the cursed, so you have to make some conscious decisions while you run around in the dark, although running obscures the map that is displayed on your phone. I think this is a brilliant mechanic, if you panic and try to run away, you're only going to get more lost as the cursed chase you around, but if you stop to look at your map for too long you run the risk of being caught. This ratchets up the tension, and helps create some terrifying moments. And sometimes the worst thing that can happen is you turn around after hearing that static and find nothing there, only to turn back and see a cursed dropped right in your face. The game does quite a good job of instilling fear in you, and it's only made worse by that damn static.
This is where sound design gets to be important for a horror game. If you're not causing players to jump at every little noise then you should just go back to the drawing board. Thankfully that isn't the case with Daylight. A lot of this is due in part to the randomly generated levels, you'll be caught off guard by random objects moving or sounds of people stomping around on floors above you, or just common screams that seem to emanate from nowhere. Topping this all off are the sounds you hear when the cursed are around. The static can slowly creep up, or come on full blast, giving you an idea of how far away they are. The only negative here is the constant repeating of Sarah's lines, she constantly knows someone is there, or just wants it to stop, and it plays from the same bank of audio files that change as you move between area, meaning you'll be hearing Sarah repeat herself quite a bit.
The visuals of Daylight also go a long way in selling how creepy the experience is. The use of Unreal Engine 4 means you're going to need a beefy PC to run this game at max settings, unfortunately my GTX 570 wasn't quite up to the task, even at Medium settings I'd still get framerates in the teens as my card screamed and scorched inside my tower. I went a few generations up with the GTX 760 and now manage a solid 30 with all the effects turned on. These effects include fog and cloth objects that do a great job of obscuring your view, and obscure a little bit of lack-luster texture work on some of the generic objects that litter the hospital. There are spots where this game looks absolutely amazing, but there are some equally ugly moments, and unfortunately the color palette is very drab, so while this game is visually impressive, it's not really a technical showcase for what the engine can do. The other thing I have to be down on Daylight about is its use of objects in the game world. Once you've seen a stack of boxes tumble, or a chair flip to an upright position, you've seen all that object is going to do, and while these object events won't always happen and they can still manage to surprise you in the right moment, it still feels kind of weak to see the same object behave the same way each time it is triggered.
In fact, repetition winds up being the biggest negative to Daylight. After you've played through the game once, you've seen a lot of what this game has to offer and the only thing you're going to find your next time through is Remnants that you missed the first time around. Your subsequent playthroughs will take you through the same locales, with some minor changes in the paths to get to the six core areas (though the six core areas never change). What this also means is that once you figure out the rules to this game, it becomes a lot less terrifying, which is the most disappointing aspect of the whole game. Once you figure out the rules, this game loses a lot of its luster. That first time through, it's absolutely terrifying, after that, you're just going to be caught off guard by jump scares like a cheesy haunted house, and while your first playthrough might take somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours, subsequent playthroughs can be completed in less than a half hour. Granted those first three hours are excellent, your decision to see all of the elements of the story will be predicated on whether or not you actually want to bother.
Daylight started off a rather frightening experience and it felt like it was just what I needed after feeling the burn of the latest Silent Hill, and lack of updates regarding the Fatal Frame series. Daylight gave me just a taste of what I wanted and I was fiending for more, then I figured out how this game really operates, and it kind of soured me to the whole experience. While the procedural generation of the game world is an interesting mechanic, it unfortunately just gives you a different maze to run each time to the same exit. That said, that first playthrough alone is worth the price of admission, and if you've got the nerve, grab a good pair of headphones, and start exploring.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers. Now I'm working for a record label, a small arm of casual games in a media company along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.