Fallen by the wayside not so long ago, the survival horror genre is now stronger than ever thanks to indie studios taking up the mantle. Following in the footsteps of games such as Slender, Outlast, and the Amnesia titles comes Zombie Studios Daylight, the first game running on Unreal Engine 4, with an interesting new twist on the genre in the form of a fully procedural experience. If you want to see a little more be sure to click below for our usual smattering of high quality HD videos, if you have the courage of course. Note: Most of the videos were captured from the beta version with shadows set to medium except for the video "First Door - Alternative" which we recorded after the patch (with high shadows on). Configuration used for the test: i5 firstname.lastname@example.org GHz, 8gb RAM, Win 7 x64, nVidia GeForce GTX780 OC MSI.
Chill of Light
The game opens with a somewhat unoriginal premise starting with the young woman embodied by the player waking up with amnesia in an abandoned asylum with only a mysterious voice piped in through her cell phone guiding you forward on the slow descent into hell. With the proper setting accounted for, the game gets on its way although, lamentably, it does initially seem to lack its own personality. This is somewhat offset by its most unique feature; the reliance on procedurally generated level design. While a single run through the game is quite short (no more than two to three hours), the game is clearly designed to be replayed with the careful harvesting of notes and other bits filling in additional details as you play. With just your phone acting as a light source, you advance into the darkness in search of new pages of history to fill in the story.
These writings that you find, however, are fully tied into the progression system. With each new area blocked off by a strange magic seal, the player must first uncover a number of remnants before the key needed to open the door is made clear. Called a sigil, it will only appear in a random room you may even discover before it is made accessible. With its maze-like design we found that even the map permanently displayed on your phone wasn't always enough to prevent us from getting a bit turned around, especially when danger lurked around the corner. The game also offers glow sticks as an additional resource available to aid in discovery. Not only do these sticks act as a secondary light source, they also help reveal hidden points and foot prints of interaction that might otherwise be invisible for the player. Thankfully, the letters placed throughout the world shine clearly in a blue or red hue, unless they are hidden in a file cabinet or a desk.
Of course, Daylight could hardly be called survival horror without the constant threat of danger lurking in the shadows. In a fashion similar to Slender, Daylight places the player in a distinct position of weakness. Between fleeting apparitions and objects suddenly springing to life, the first few minutes of play certainly suggest something unnerving if a bit conventional, but as you progress the threats became a bit less straightforward and more prevalent. When these moments arrive, you're left with little choice but to run and hide. There are flares available which help keep spirits away, of course, but their limited number forces you to save them for the moments when you need them most. As you collect the texts, the threat meter continues to rise which forces you to move faster and faster through the world in an effort to find everything in time. This, of course, encourages you to take your time and scout out the location before beginning the collection process. While it is a very efficient way to guarantee you won't be bothered while discovering the new level, it also takes away the fear of being attacked. That being said, you should be aware that the evil spirit that is after you can appear right after discovering the very first remnant of the area you're in.
Unreal 4 Angina
As the first game developed using Unreal Engine 4 it must be said that Daylight fails to stand out as any sort of technological showpiece for the new engine. Of course, when you take into account the small size of the studio, just 8 to 15 people, it starts to make a bit more sense. It's a shame the PC version of the game doesn't receive any preferential treatment in regards to its textures which often are a bit on the blurry side. There's still some nice usage of lighting and shadow alongside some nVidia specific effects (if the options menu is to be believed) such as HBAO+, volumetric smoke, and cloth simulation. Still, as a whole, it remains decidedly less impressive than Outlast - running on Unreal Engine 3 -, no doubt thanks to its increased variety of environments and superior animation. Considering Daylight's reliance on procedural level design, however, it's fairly easy to understand just why things turned out this way. Within one environment, for instance, we find many props and objects repeated several times over creating the effect of running around an endless maze. Of course, to its credit, this type of limited environment DOES actually contribute to a sense of madness and confusion when fumbling through the dark. Even once you've finally found your way outside, the feeling of claustrophobia and tension never leaves you, mainly because the rules you thought were set in stone basically disappear when you get to the forest. Too bad that change only happens in the end.
On the performance side, Daylight seems to run without much issue generally holding the desired 60 frames per second in most cases. However, some of the better lit passages do seem to drop into the 40s at a couple of points and it's quite hard to figure out why. Dropping shadow quality to medium helped a bit to restore higher performance in those sequences with little visible loss in quality. We can imagine, then, that a lesser PC may struggle a bit more with some of these sequences but it's not clear yet just how well optimized the game is with this being the first UE4 game on the market. Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to play the game on PS4, but hopefully we'll be able to spill the details shortly enough. On the audio side, very important for the genre, Daylight manages to put in a solid if unremarkable performance. Creaking doors creak, footsteps echo realistically, and phone interference in line with Silent Hill radio static all work well enough. Sound effects are effective and set an appropriate sound scape especially when putting headphones on to completely isolate oneself from external sound. Zombie Studios also saw fit to include an option for 3D lovers with full support for the Oculus Rift. We didn't have a chance to test this feature, but we can imagine it has to take the experience to another dimension.
Short and redundant in its structure, Daylight hasn't fully convinced us with its very Slender-like concepts which can sometimes feel more annoying than scary. Jump scares are in alongside moments of tension building, but the underlying game design is probably a bit too conventional for enthusiasts of the genre. Procedural level generation is certainly interesting and does allow for some replayability, but the mechanics are too simple and the level design often suffers as a result of this design. We have no doubt that certain players will get more out of the experience than we did, but as it stands, we feel it lacks a certain memorable quality that ultimately prevents it from claiming a place in the sun...not that such a dark game has any business in such places. The bottom line is, Daylight is quite a big disappointment in the end, and that's a shame.
Since our review isn't procedural at all, there won't be any different versions of it, but as we wouldn't want you to be disappointed, here is one last video showing a third playthrough of the "first door" so you can see the changes yourself: