Review: Daylight suffers from shallow and repetitive gameplay
Spoiler status: This review contains very minor setting discussion for Daylight, but no significant plot or story details.
Platform: PC, PS4
Daylight is a new horror game developed by Zombie Studios, available on the PC and the PlayStation 4. It has enjoyed a high profile throughout its development, despite being crafted by only a small crew, thanks to its position as the first game to take advantage of the Unreal Engine 4 and its partnership with NVIDIA, which has seen the game offered in package deals with graphics cards and featured in demo form on NVIDIA-powered PCs at events such as PAX East 2014.
Daylight has attracted a lot of attention because of its use of procedural generation. The maps of the different levels and the exact placement of both clues and enemies are generated anew each time you play. You'll never know exactly where to find what you need when you play Daylight, no matter how many times you've played it. In theory this element of unpredictability could be a huge step forward for the horror genre, which depends so much on surprises in order to be effective. In practice though, Daylight just doesn't have much to offer outside of the novelty of its procedural generation, and even that special feature is hampered by the repetitiveness of the core gameplay.
Seek, Find, Run, Rinse, Repeat
If you're familiar with the free downloadable game Slender: The Eight Pages, then you already know the basics of the gameplay in Daylight. Where Slender has you wandering a forest collecting notes while being stalked by the supernatural Slender Man, Daylight places you in an abandoned hospital and tasks you with rounding up "remnants of the past" in order to access a "sigil" and progress past a "gate." Stripped of the game's jargon, this means you're going to be searching a series of spooky rooms and hallways for notes which give glimpses into the hospital's tragic past, eventually grabbing a doll or a teddy bear or a book from one part of the level, bringing that item to another part of the level to "unlock" the magical barrier...and then you'll follow that same pattern a few more times in some slightly different areas. Along the way you'll use glowsticks to help you find notes and flares to grant you temporary invincibility when you're attacked by ghosts. And that's it, really.
This summary may sound a bit simplistic, but that's the core gameplay of Daylight in a nutshell. Whether or not the game succeeds for you will likely have a lot to do with how well the game's atmosphere, story, and procedurally-generated maps obscure the fact that the base gameplay is extremely limited. When starting a new game you're presented with a screen outlining the controls, some of which (such as the glowstick and sprint buttons) you'll use constantly and others (climb and throw, for example) you'll use so rarely you'll wonder why they even exist in the game at all.
Seriously, you have to climb something roughly three times in a typical playthrough of Daylight. And I never once threw or dropped one of glowsticks or flares on purpose -- though it did happen a few times by accident when something jumped out at me and I got scared.
Procedurally generated horror
The most unique feature of Daylight is, of course, its procedurally-generated nature. Though a single game of Daylight will typically take between two and four hours (my first two playthroughs combined came in at under four), replays are encouraged by the fact that the individual notes you find and the composition of the map is randomly determined, and promises a different experience every time. As a big fan of horror in just about every medium, I was interested to see how successful Daylight was going to be at crafting scares in a random environment. Unfortunately, Daylight stumbles in some key ways that prevent the random factors from being allowed to flourish or shine.
The fact of the matter is that there just isn't enough to do or to see in the world of Daylight to motivate the multiple playthroughs that procedurally generated content allows (and really demands). The game draws from a limited pool of different notes for the player to collect as remnants, and so many of them cling closely to established cliches of the "haunted hospital" that the game failed to inspire me to seek out and collect all the different variants; it quickly became clear that I wasn't going to find anything truly surprising in subsequent playthroughs. Far too often, in fact, I found myself running across copies of the same note several times during a single game.
The enemies you encounter in Daylight suffer from the same problem, to an even greater extent. There is really only one type of enemy that you encounter in Daylight, and while it's frightening at first it quickly loses its impact as you become more familiar with it. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft famously said "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Conversely, once something frightening becomes repetitive and predictable it becomes much less frightening -- and that's very much the case with the enemies in Daylight.
This repetitiveness is exacerbated as the game's later levels become more difficult not because of more challenging adversaries or puzzles, but simply because the enemies show up more often and in greater numbers. To the game's credit, the impressive sound design does do a good job of eliciting some goosebumps during moments of anticipation even once you've become inured to the actual appearance of the enemies. But unlike in games such as Amnesia or Silent Hill, which offer enemies that are varied, disturbing, and present a real threat, Daylight's foes become more of a hassle than a terror once they show up. Add in the fact that you're invincible as long as you're holding a flare (and those aren't terribly rare on the game's normal difficulty) and much of the potential horror is lost.
Though the enemies are predictable and flares are common in most areas, it's still possible to die. When that happens you're dropped back at the beginning of whichever gameplay section you were currently exploring, stripped off all your remnants and faced with a map that has now rearranged itself. As should be clear by now, the potentially awesome idea of a level that re-generates on player death falls flat in Daylight because you know that you'll be doing the same tasks and seeing the same sights over and over again. The novelty of rooms and hallways moving into different configurations is not nearly enough to encourage repeat playthroughs.
Sights and Sounds
The graphics in Daylight are uneven and unimpressive for the most part. I found much of the game to be a bit blurry and indistinct, which was probably a stylistic choice in part but which I mostly found irritating. The lighting in the game, however, is top-notch. Whether you're exploring with nothing but the small light on your phone, a glowstick, or a flare, Daylight does some solid work with illumination, color, and shadows. Games like the aforementioned Slender have proven that horror games don't need to be dependent on cutting edge graphics in order to inspire fear, but it's always nice to play game with some visual polish.
A major strike against Daylight in the visual department is that you spend so much of the time looking at the same stuff. It will only take you a few short playthroughs before you're extremely familiar with the different levels - the hospital, the cells, the sewer, the docks, and the forest -- and the different kinds of rooms you'll see along the way. The impressive lighting effects that I enjoyed so much actually work against Daylight on this front too, since you spend so much of the game looking at a world painted green by your clue-finding glowstick that the visual variety becomes even more limited. And since as I previously mentioned there is really only one kind of enemy in Daylight, you'll soon know just about every detail of its appearance too.
The sounds in Daylight are probably its biggest triumph, since they continue to drive the tension even when you basically know exactly what is going to happen. The disembodied voices, the creaks and bangs and footsteps that follow you, and the spiking crescendo when an enemy draws near all work exactly as they should. Some horror games make you want to cover your eyes in fear, but Daylight is definitely one that will have you turning down the volume just for a break from the tension.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Daylight:
#1 Scares -- 7/10
If you're a huge fan of horror games then Daylight is worth playing through once just for the tense atmosphere it creates, but the scares don't hold up on repeat playthroughs.
#2 Gameplay -- 5/10
The basic gameplay of Daylight is fine, but it's just the same thing over and over again.
#3 Presentation -- 8/10
The graphics aren't impressive but they're not bad enough to negatively impact gameplay. The lighting effects are outstanding and the use of sound is the highlight of the entire game.
#4 Replay Value -- 4/10
The only reason I can really imagine playing Daylight over and over again would be to gather all of the game's achievements or to attempt speed runs on the randomly generated maps...but there are other games out there that offer similar goals with vastly more entertaining gameplay.
Overall score: 6.0
At full price Daylight is only $15, so some of its shortcomings can be forgiven. Unfortunately, it can't be denied that after the first short playthrough the game can quickly devolve into tense tedium. There isn't enough in the game to encourage the repeated visits that would allow the procedural generation to shine.
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