Daylight is a Horror Experience to Treasure.
Daylight is the newest horror experience from developer Zombie Studios, published by Atlus. It follows the protagonist, Sarah Gwynn, on her journey to discover the history of Mid-Island Hospital and the tragedies of its past. Daylight is unique in its take on the genre as it incorporates a procedural generation of locations to not only make a refreshing experience each playthrough, but also allow for the plot to be doled out slowly without upsetting the pacing of the game.
I want to talk about Daylight‘s tone-setting first because this is where the game truly trumps many of its competitors. Subtlety seems to have been the mantra for the world and sound designers. Whether this is a hangover from the procedural generation where they could not have grandiose scare tactics or something more deliberate, it has worked wonders.
The test of any horror game is how much emphasis is put on scaring the player versus startling them. The two may seem similar but function very differently. Startling tactics (read: having monsters jump out or doors swing shut and loud noises) really do not appeal to some people. While they may get the blood pumping, ultimately it is lazy game design. Scaring the player by unnerving them and priming them for a possible startle is where the real meat of the genre is.
Daylight has a mixture of both elements but even its startling ones are underplayed. Zombie Studios has really taken the time to put the player in a place where any slight movement can cause tremendous psychology effects.
The game is not without its bombastic startles – such as a witch appearing out of nowhere and screaming – but primarily these are small things: a pipe bursting or a drawer slamming shut. Later stages of the game involve many of the Shadows appearing unexpectedly rather than any environmental startles.
A great deal of time is spent cultivating a sense of dread. The music is unobtrusive but potent. Throughout most of my experience, I noticed an eerie tune of one or two notes being played. It blends perfectly into the background as you run about the levels but it will send a chill down your spine if you stop to listen. When under attack, the music takes on an ominous melody not unlike the song Sharp plays in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask to drain Link’s life force.
Here is another divergence from traditional survival horror titles. Stealth is an element almost completely removed from Daylight. Ordinarily, these sorts of games have your character cowering behind overturned tables or under beds but Daylight offers a consumable management method of dealing with foes. Again, this could be a by-product of the procedural generation but often I found one level offering a mixture of glowsticks and flares and, after dying, had the same level serve up nothing but glowsticks.
The game is primarily a cat-and-mouse adventure through a series of mazes. Finding several pieces of information about the plot will cause the sigil to appear in one location and the player must transport this to the gateway. It’s a simple design and, while it prohibits any meaningful level-based narrative progression, it has allowed Zombie Studios to focus on designing scares.
I like Daylight‘s different take on combat-avoidance but there are a few weaknesses. As noted above, if you fail to find any flares, it’s almost impossible to survive. The player can run away from the Shadows but in your haste you may run into a dead-end (the map is not readable while sprinting).
The HUD also includes a threat gauge that represents frequency of attacks. It’s a nice feature and ties in well with the rationing. A representation of attacks, however, may lend itself to strategic exploit. For example, mapping the current area with a threat level of zero and plotting a course from the gateway, past the requisite number of remnants, to the sigil, and back to the gateway.
Controls are nothing out of the ordinary. Standard WASD setup with the 1 and 2 buttons used to activate glowsticks or flares. Being ready to use a flare (2) while running can be a bit tricky, however. In the absence of any jump or crouch, Sarah can climb only onto specific objects. This can be a bit clumsy at times but does not often come into play.
Dedicated readers will know by now that I like to characterise this genre of games as two major and distinct elements. On one hand, it has to be a good game that people enjoy playing and on the other it has to be scary enough to be a satisfying horror experience. Daylight accomplishes both.
With a playthrough taking only 2-3 hours, Daylight is the sort of game that you can invite friends over after you have finished it in order to watch them squirm the way you did. Unlike longer games, this can be an evening’s plan, not several. With such a short playthrough, however, I would have liked to have seen Zombie Studios do more with the death mechanic. Admittedly having a no-save feature (a la Justine) would be a bit taxing, it might have made the game more challenging. As it stands, feeding yourself to the enemy can really alleviate some fears with no actual consequence.
As I said, subtlety is something that Daylight does very well. The perfect voice acting on the companion. The smartphone’s light is always on because Zombie wants you to see the world around you. It does not have to be shrouded in darkness because such attention has been paid to even the smallest detail.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing Daylight even if (and especially because) it scared the crap out of me. The small delay they took to improve the triggers was well worth it.
Daylight is available now for purchase on PC and Playstation 4. If you’re interested in these kinds of games, you’ll want to read more of Aidan’s articles.