Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 4
Lots of things can make a grown man crap his pants – a giant camel spider hidden within a pair of trousers should do the job nicely, or maybe even a coconut crab placed about half-way down the bed under the covers. Another example we could add to our nascent list would be a well-made horror game, something crafted to perfection and intended to be played alone in a dark room. Even the genre name can send a chill creeping down the spine of the unwary gamer, their heart already racing with the anticipation of the scares ahead of it. While horror games, both pure and survival, are still being churned out it’s rare to find one that technically innovates, and yet that’s what we’ve got with Daylight a straight up horror release for the PC and PS4 that has the honour of being the first released game created with the Unreal Engine 4 – no pressure then.
As you start the game you wake up on the floor of an abandoned hospital lobby with only a phone that has a creepy Dr. Mercer chatting to you through it. Using the light of the phone he urges you to explore your surroundings and progress through the hospital, which very quickly becomes even creepier than it initially seems. You’ll guide the protagonist Sarah through five levels over four different areas as she attempts to both survive and learn more about her past; within each area you have to find a certain number of remnants (essentially pieces of background flavour text, four on Easy, six on Medium and eight on Hard) to unlock an item which you then take to a previously locked door to progress to the next area. So far, so MacGuffins, huh? Except here there are horrible nasty things hiding in the dark corners of Daylight, ready to jump out and scream in your face. And then try to kill you as you fumble to find where you dropped the controller.
Being the forerunner for the new Unreal tech isn’t the only innovation made by Daylight however – this one has another twist in its tail. Instead of being meticulously planned with horror and shock scripted down to the last gasp, Daylight procedurally generates the majority of its levels as you enter them, the intention being to keep the shocks as fresh as can be as no two playthroughs of the levels of the game will be the same. No guide or walkthrough will help you here then, as each iteration of the game will be entirely unique.
The problem here however is that the gameplay mechanics don’t really add up to support the fear factor. Let’s look at the items, for instance. You can carry up to four glow sticks and four flares, with the glow sticks helping you find remnants and item containers and the flares acting as a line of defence against the nasties. The potential for elements of survival horror are added by these limits, and you’ll begin with careful item management. And then you’ll progress through the levels and find loads of both items, most of which will be forever wasted as not only can you not carry more than four but open a container with glow sticks or flares in while carrying four of them and the extra ones will be lost forever. No running back for you! Instead of using items selectively it’s almost a given that you’ll pop them whenever you feel like it, safe in the knowledge that you’ll almost certainly find more of them very soon.
Even worse, you have a run button. A run button that has no stamina bar linked to it, no limitation on use or even any negatives – other than the fact that you can’t really see your phone map as you run. Ouch, huh? Anyone with an iota of sense will quickly realise that you can run your way through the entire game, including into and out of danger. Scary things spawn and despawn seemingly based on distance and sight lines, so running randomly away from them usually works fine, and if you do manage to corner yourself in a dead end you can just light one of those flares you’re lugging around. Yey! Got the MacGuffin you need to get out of the level? Just peg it everywhere until you manage to find the magically locked door. It’s not quite an all-powerful IWIN button, but a lot of the time it feels damn close.
But, here’s the real kicker – away from a few genuine shocks there’s nothing particularly terrifying on offer here. As you start Daylight the music will prepare your nerves, figures caught in the corners of your eyes will build your paranoia and frantic checks of the map to try to figure out where the hell you need to go won’t help with the building panic. This groundwork isn’t wasted, and you’ll dive headfirst into some frightful moments that’ll have you yelping at the screen. Fast forward a little more than half an hour, however, and you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer in this department. Technically you may have a few corridor skins that have managed to miss being produced by the procedural generation factory in each environment but there’s nothing new to be found in them anyway. You run, you find things, you open doors and you get caught by the odd ‘Argh!’ moment that gets exponentially less effective each time it pops.
But what of the procedural generation? Surely that adds some value, acts as a differentiator? Conceptually this may sound plausible, the potential being to add replayability to a genre that’s full of once-and-dones. In reality though the pure randomness sees the idea fall flat – our first time around the first hospital level, for example, saw a fairly boring single-level layout with pretty much every route having multiple doors and about one dead end. It acted very much like a safe tutorial level, the tension rising for better things later on. Our second time through the game couldn’t have been more different however – here we had three levels – three! – with a bottom storey corridor full of padded cells linking two distinct parts of the stage. Dead ends abounded and the entire stage was set for fear – although, of course, by now there was nothing left to be scared of and we could race through the stage ignoring Sarah’s constant cries of ‘I know someone’s there!’. So do we Sarah – that’s why we’re using your infinite run button.
The pure randomness of the procedural generation manifests in other ways too – repeated sections (oh, look, another toilet/skull on a gurney/tree root growing through the floor) appear in nonsensical and unrealistic ways and the danger of an entirely dull layout is all too real. There’s nothing smart about the procedural generation, seemingly no rules added to help govern what should appear, or how many of one thing should appear, or even that the same room shouldn’t appear more than once per level. Disturbingly we even found one room that had a clipping error and chucked us out of the game world – while that only happened once, the checkpointing in Daylight is brutal and much eye-rolling commenced. In what is probably the only time you’ll see it used as an example for improvement, the developers of Daylight could have learnt a lesson from Silent Hill: Book of Memories and included set event rooms within the procedural generation, guaranteeing both shared experience and pre-planned set-pieces. Alas, it was not to be.
In the end then, Daylight is neither horrifying in the good way nor in the bad way. Once you’ve managed to become inured to the cheap shock factor Daylight feels like nothing more than a simple tech demo for the Unreal 4 engine, and it’s not even one that manages to present the engine in a good light. Conflicting mechanics, poorly managed procedural generation and the lack of any real hook for replayability mean that this is one that probably needed more time in the oven before seeing the light of day. If you get lucky with the level generation and don’t abuse the mechanics then there’s enough here for a playthrough with a few shocks that will only take a couple of hours – but the risk of an utterly duff experience is too high to recommend.