Daylight review: Whistling in the dark

Daylight is a procedurally generated horror game, promising players a new spooky environment and a new experience every time they play. That's the game's big selling point, or so developer Zombie Studios would have you believe. The truth is that procedural generation is one of Daylight's least interesting features, doing little to either heighten the tension or encourage multiple plays.

Unfortunately, apart from a handful of heart-pounding frights, the rest of Daylight isn't much better.
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Daylight (12/12/13)

Daylight casts you in the role of Sarah, a young woman who awakens in an abandoned hospital lobby and – stop me if you've heard this one – has no memory of how she got there. Your only clue to what's going on is a smartphone on the ground in front of you, out of which spouts a man's voice, directing Sarah to explore the hospital. You search the hospital's twisting hallways, uncovering scraps of its past – your usual horror game detritus: newspaper clippings, journal pages, letters. Green glow sticks help light the way, highlighting these collectibles (called "remnants") with an eerie white sheen.

Of course, this is no ordinary hospital, and you'll stumble across plenty of creepy events as you poke around its rooms and corridors. Doors creak open or slam shut by themselves. Strange shapes dart through the dark. Whispers cloud the air. This is where the procedural generation comes in, treating you to a different set of scares with each new game of Daylight. Some are better than others, like phantom footfalls right behind you. Others, like a drawer falling out of a desk, are duds. In later levels, the number of procedural shocks seems to diminish, so much so that they aren't even noticeable by the end. Furthermore, Daylight's best moments are tied to the story, meaning you'll see them in every playthrough anyway.

You'll occasionally have to face off with Daylight's single enemy, a disheveled, ghoulish and admittedly terrifying witch. Dispatching her, however, is as easy as whipping out a road flare and watching her burn. Why a hospital that closed in the 1980s is littered with glow sticks and road flares is up for debate – presumably it's a local rave spot – but the gameplay loop of looking for remnants and fending off witches works well enough. (You might as well ask why Raccoon City is chock-full of lovingly potted miracle herbs.)

Once you find enough remnants, Sarah can claim "the sigil" – an everyday object like a teddy bear or a pair of scissors – and open the level's exit, which is sealed by an arcane symbol. Daylight never really explains any of this, mind you. The mysterious man on the phone simply informs you that "the sigil" has appeared and that you should probably go get it. It's not hard to figure out – the sigil room always shares the same symbol as the sealed door – but it's easy to be confused the first time, especially given the random nature of the environments and the poor mapping system.

The sealed door and sigil room are clearly marked on the map, which is conveniently displayed on Sarah's smartphone, but the map makes no distinction between doorways and dead ends. When you're hunting down the last remnant and there's a witch on your tail, the inability to distinguish between the two can get very annoying.

The reward for all of this, the dangling carrot that drives you through Daylight's environments, is the story revealed by your collected remnants. You can't find all the remnants in one game, encouraging multiple plays if you want to piece together the whole plot. Of 104 remnants, I managed to find all but six after playing through the whole game twice (you can complete a run in around two to three hours).

Sadly, the history Sarah unearths is illogical at best and nonsensical at worst. The horror genre is fraught with tales of sinister hospitals and abusive prisons, but Daylight tries unsuccessfully to mash the two together, throwing in a gloomy sewer and a creepy forest to boot. Sarah uncovers a mountain of horror cliches as she digs into local history – buried bodies, perverse experiments, small town persecution – but the timeline of these events is bizarre. Assuming the dates on the news clippings, journal entries and memos are all correct, the following events – in order – took place between 1850 and the 1980s:
  • The hospital opened its doors for the first time
  • The hospital became a penitentiary
  • The penitentiary became a hospital again
  • The hospital became a penitentiary again
  • The penitentiary became a hospital again
  • The hospital closed for over 20 years
  • The hospital reopened again
In fact, two separate memos, one from the penitentiary and one from the hospital, are dated February 16, 1936, suggesting that, for at least one day, the building was simultaneously both. You'd have to think that would make patients a little nervous. Goofy timeline aside – whether it was intentional or not – the trite story being told isn't worth much.

The PC version of Daylight also suffers from some technical issues (I haven't tested the PS4 version). Alt-tabbing Daylight during a loading screen consistently breaks the game, and backing out of the remnants menu while playing with a controller results in a pause menu that can't be closed.

It's a shame, because there are moments when Daylight's ominous ambience is pitch perfect, but ultimately it's undone by ho-hum gameplay and a dull story. The witches are truly unnerving, but they're never a real threat, and the reward for your survival is disappointing. Daylight is good for a few well-executed scares, but it won't leave you sleeping with the lights on.

This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Daylight, provided by Atlus. Daylight is also available on PS4. Images: Atlus

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