Zombie Studios have a name that aptly describes its latest entry into the survival horror genre. Nothing in Daylight feels alive. A randomly generated maze is its biggest achievement, but it takes away from what is most important in horror: atmosphere. It will throw jump scares at you left and right, and create a unique playthrough every time, but Daylight suffers from a lack of character in its initial environments and issues in differentiating itself from the crowd.
Daylight starts off weak, as you’re thrown into a world that seems to only want to communicate to you through text, or “remnants of the past” as the ominous figure talking to you describes them as. They have a weird insignia on them that matches the occult symbols that occupy the end of each level. These remnants are crucial to understanding the story, so those who don’t like reading in their video games are out of luck. Daylight is all about reading. The remnants that are important to the actual narrative are marked in red, and you need to pick them up in order to move on to the next chapter. If Gone Home were a horror game, this would be it. Unfortunately, where Gone Home succeeds in telling a story that is filled with emotion and somehow made me intrigued about another character that wasn’t my own, Daylight is all about the mystery. It’s a mystery that players will probably solve extremely quickly, especially if they are reading through every remnant they find. Or at least have the bare bones about who the person is that is talking to you, and who you are controlling.
Daylight‘s narrative is frustrating because there are many elements that are interesting and could make for an exciting horror experience. As Sarah, you awake in an abandoned hospital, haunted by evil spirits. As I said, the game starts off weak and that’s because most survival horror games seem to be starting off in the same setting. Taking heavy influence from games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you are not equipped with any weapons. However, you are able to fight off spirits using flares that can be found in the environment. Flares are sparingly placed through the world on harder difficulties, but even on lower difficulties I found myself more inclined to run from the spirits as opposed to wasting a flare.
The primary objective of each level is to maneuver through a procedurally generated maze and locate the necessary remnants in order to find a “key” to unlocking the exit. If you find the exit before getting the key, the map indicates where it is so you don’t get lost trying to find it again in the labyrinth of a level. Your cell phone maps out the environment, and for some reason has infinite battery life. It has a small amount of light emanating from it, but your reliance is going to be on glowsticks to illuminate the dark corridors and find your way through each maze. It struck me as odd, though, that there was such a low number placed on how many glowsticks you could hold, seeing as how they are not exactly cumbersome, and being able to only carry four seems like an arbitrary restriction. Imagine if the game had batteries for your phone as a limited resource, and not glowsticks. That seems like a more important asset than a glowstick because when is that going to tell me where I am and where I need to go in a game predicated on being trapped in a maze.
Where Daylight shines is in specific moments and locations that are not randomly created. Every dead end seemed identical to the others, but when you ran into an office or an abandoned nursery, the game began coloring the world in distinct and atmospheric ways. There are the ideas of a great horror game cursed by the game’s over-reliance on remnants and frequent ambiguity in dialogue. The voice acting from our ominous leader is good for the most part, and it helps sell the game’s creepy vibe. That being said, Sarah is a nondescript character that hinges entirely on the narrative and other remnants to become a less-hollow entity. Thankfully, the writing is above-average which is a saving grace because there is a lot of it. The music and ambiance also lend to a very eerie presentation that helps the game shake some of its major flaws.
Daylight definitely has severe flaws, which are ironically brought on by some its defining traits. The procedurally generated mazes are only there to make each play through unique, which implies that players will want to experience the game more than once. If more distinctive assets were used, the game would flourish from its ability to create unique environments that make the discovery of the game’s story far more engrossing. The idea is novel, and mazes play a tiny part in the actual narrative of the game (your arm does get a maze burnt into it at the beginning of everything), but something more could be done with the concept to make it feel less forced. Like I previously mentioned, requiring batteries to keep your cellphone powered seems like an obvious inclusion that was not implemented, but would have made the game’s resources feel less forced. Especially when you’re filling a hospital with glowsticks for no obvious reason other than to give the player a light source, when they have a device that can display maps and light up a room already at their disposal.
The other defining trait of Daylight is that it is the first game to use Unreal Engine 4. Graphically, the game looks good, and there is tons of clutter that the game needs to generate, with a ridiculous amount of textures. The fact that the game is able to create random mazes that still hold a high visual fidelity is incredible, but it all comes at a cost. Daylight runs extremely slow on the PS4 at various points in the game, primarily when chapters are first beginning. The framerate would drop significantly and I felt like the game was going to crash because of how choppy it became. We’re talking single digit framerates here. This drop in frames lasted for a good thirty seconds at one point, making me almost quit because it was so unbearable. Add on to that some texture pop-in and you begin to realize why Epic Games is so adamant on being the first to demonstrate its engines. Creating a new save took a while, and I can only imagine it was because of the mazes being created. However, sitting through an almost two-minute load time after dying is enough to push a lot of players away from their controllers, which is unfortunate because I do think Daylight ends in a much stronger place than it begins.
Environments open up later in the game and you’re no longer bound to the corridors of the hospital after a couple chapters in the game, which is a breath of fresh air from most survival horror titles that assume claustrophobia to be the scariest of tactics. Daylight does not waste its time getting beyond the cliché environments, condensing everything in a short two-hour experience which winds up acting as a double-edged sword. On one hand, two hours allows the story to move at a fast pace and several environment changes throughout help make it more compelling. The downside is that two hours is very short to most players, journal and diary entries are at almost every corner because everything is so condensed and there’s too much backstory, and the game never gives a reason to care about Sarah and what she is going through. For a game where plot is bursting from the seams, it is a disservice to have such an underwhelming protagonist, poor storytelling, and a lack of distinction from the rest of the survival horror genre.