Zombie Studios’ procedurally generated horror game is flawed from its concept up. The best horror relies on a combination of dread and surprise, tension and jumpy release – elements that are carefully authored. Handing responsibility over to an algorithm might seem like an intriguing technical exercise, but proves a poor alternative to craftsmanship.
It might not have been so bad if the building blocks Zombie has designed were put together in interesting ways. Daylight, however, assaults you with stretch after stretch of indistinct corridor and repeated room layouts. In one playthrough, we navigate a section of prison that contains four canteens and three information desks. Procedural issues aren’t limited to architectural doldrums, either: protagonist Sarah’s exclamations often don’t tally with what you’re seeing. At one point she asks, “Is anyone there?” as we stare at a ghostly apparition standing right in front of us, wailing.
That’s not to say you won’t jump a couple of times. There are plenty of potential scares: a stack of boxes collapsing loudly; a drip pole skating across your path; one of the game’s screaming women materialising right behind you. But their effect is dulled through repetition, only the latter retaining any ability to give you the willies – and then simply because staring too long at the ghosts will kill you, meaning you have to restart the section from scratch thanks to brutal checkpointing.
In fact, the scariest thing about Daylight is that it’s running in Unreal Engine 4. It’s artistically and technically impoverished even on a powerful PC. By the time you’ve reached the sewers, having trekked through a samey hospital and canteen-riddled prison, your patience will be wearing thin.
Each new area is accessed via a magically sealed door that’s unlocked with a Sigil. These only appear once you’ve collected a certain number of notes from each area. As you hunt, you can light glowsticks to highlight clues and use flares to banish the more aggressive spirits in a shower of sparks. Come across a cabinet containing a stash of either when your inventory’s full, however, and the items disappear, meaning you can’t return to then later – a problem compounded by the fact that cabinets can also contain notes.
Exploration sections are interspersed with rigidly designed puzzle areas, but these, damningly, are little better than the randomly assembled segments. Baffling design decisions and over-reliance on the same tricks further mar this already unpleasant journey. In the right hands, procedural generation can provide reasons to return to familiar haunts, but Daylight offers little motivation to make it to the end even once.