It’s true that the gaming industry is overrun a thousand times more than, say, a decade ago. These days, it’s pretty difficult to invent something we haven’t seen before. And so, developers turn to the greatest titles of all time within their intended genre to draw inspiration from and attempt to tweak some of their gameplay to satisfy new cravings. It's indeed a tricky venture to balance risk and familiarity. And it can, frankly, go either way.
Daymare is an example of that delicate dance between originality and the familiar. In their first title, Invader Studios attempted to pay tribute to the mighty Resident Evil by releasing their fanmade Resident Evil 2: Reborn. Capcom quickly stopped them in their tracks with a cease-and-desist order, and some future tweaks later, Daymare: 1998 was born. Despite the name change, spotting the cloning of Resident Evil’s design and gameplay was overwhelmingly clear. Yet even with all the similarities, it brought about both comforting and unsettling feelings that horror enthusiasts couldn’t pass up.
Now, Invader Studios is back with its second entry in the Daymare franchise, which is more of a prequel called Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle. And all of the same questions we pondered over return: Will the game offer a unique experience? Does it scratch the itch for survival horror? Or is the similarity to Resident Evil too much to bear? Tag along with me as we explore these and more in our Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle review.
In a world similar to Daymare: 1998 – unapologetically eerie, dimly lit rooms, and dark, shadowy corridors – Invader Studios takes us back in time from 1998 to the happenings of 1994. Stranger things slowly unravel in a bowl of yarn. A school bus carrying 40 students overturns. Two are presumed dead, while the search for the missing continues. Apparently, a series of mysterious tremors had been rampaging the area, calling on Dalia Reyes (you) to investigate.
As a special agent of Hexacore Advanced Division for Extraction and Search (H.A.D.E.S.), a private military company working for a large Biotechnology company, you’re asked to head into Area 51 on a routine mission. But, of course, nothing goes as planned. You find yourself stuck in an underground maze and fighting neck-to-neck with deadly monsters. Thankfully, you have access to a newly introduced gameplay element that, it turns out, is pretty fun to use.
Soon, you run into Daymare’s second new feature: fierce and deadly enemies roaming about every corner of Area 51. It gives off the vibe of an experiment gone wrong and is definitely the kind to keep under wraps, away from prying eyes. Unfortunately, you have no time to go out there and warn the others, as these creatures are persistent in sending you off the face of the earth. And so, you master all courage, and the action-packed section of the story begins.
Daymare’s new gameplay element is a freeze gauntlet, which is handy when killing the “red” monsters. Those will release a ball of electricity when they die, which moves into a nearby corpse to revive them. And so, freezing them before blowing their heads off or punching them into pieces, Sub Zero style, is the way to ensure permanent death. Alternatively, you can use the Frost Grip to stop the revival process in its tracks before the ball of electricity reaches its destination. But that requires you to stay on high alert and react at a moment’s notice, which is pretty intense when hordes of the undead chase you far and wide.
The other enemy types (though note that both are similar in appearance) are the “blue” ones, which can go down easily with gunfire. You can switch between the machine gun and the shotgun. And proceed to upgrade each weapon’s damage output or round capacity. Each shot packs a crunch. It’s quick and responsive. The shotgun, particularly, blasts off the zombie-like creatures in one-shot kills. It saves you ammo because resource management is key here, and wasteful shootouts can come back to bite you.
More is More
But beyond the surface-level thrills, it quickly dawns on you that there isn’t enough variety to make you want to stick around. Less is more doesn’t apply to survival horror, especially in those tense moments when you fumble around with weapons. Here, there’s no fumbling around at all. That's because there are only two options to choose from, and they work in the same way. The ice cannon on your hand refills every so often, so you know there’s no need to worry about it. It’ll always be there.
At some point, the monsters, too, adopt a similar pattern. So much so that you can anticipate their jump scares and “boo hoos”. It doesn’t help that there isn’t variety in the enemy types either. So much of Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle’s gameplay revolves around killing monsters. But you play it for so long that the flow of switching between your weapons on time and swinging out your frosty hand when you need to becomes second nature. So much of the panic and “fumbling about before the enemy attacks” is lacking here, which is ultimately what is likely to happen in real life and what would make a survival horror feel authentic.
At least the medical kits are few and far between. So you’re motivated to act fast before the monsters latch onto you. If they do, your health will take a massive hit. And lastly, perhaps the janky and slow pacing of your movement and reactions can come in handy here, especially when you’re fighting off a horde. It’s that continuous spraying of the monsters, even as they stagger toward you until they stop barely a few inches from you before blasting their heads off with your shotgun or performing a special melee finisher, that gets me every time.
You can get ready to pick your jaw off the ground – not in a breathtaking, groundbreaking entry sort of way, but in the eerily atmospheric tone of the visuals. The game takes full advantage of dimly lit pathways to create dreadful sequences of fear of the unknown. That, coupled with a bone-chilling soundtrack, does manage to uphold a psychological dread that never gets old.
Additionally, the voice acting is much better, and the character models did receive a face beat. Listening to the H.A.D.E.S. team banter, sometimes delightfully nonsensical and other times, building on its fun, pulpy story, does, in the long run, keep you invested through to the end. Technically, the game does have its moments, maintaining a steady 60 fps and looking smooth and fluid on 4K visuals. However, there are glitches here and there, albeit easy to pass up.
As for historical appropriateness, there are efforts to replicate 1994’s technology. I loved the GameBoy collectible or the interior of the classified military base building. Perhaps the only somewhat modern technology is the futuristic PDA called the D.I.D. It allows you to manage your inventory and hack into classified documents stored on computers. The computers, by the way, do have the massive keys and CRT monitors of old-school computers. I would have loved to see more, though.
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle feels like a game that constantly is walking on eggshells, trying to hold it together so you don’t quit in the middle of your two-hour-in playthrough. In the beginning, the pacing of the story is slow, likely because it’s a familiar tale told one too many times. Up until you run into your first deadly horror, you’re saying a silent prayer for things to get better – fast.
Thankfully, it does. It quickly delivers a competent combat system that feels fluid and responsive. Each encounter plays up close and personal and almost always feels like the end. It encourages you to stay on high alert, especially with the monsters being able to revive one another. Therein comes the constant need to use your freeze hand cannon, which plays excellently well and brings back Sub Zero’s best moments.
But ever so often, you constantly remember how the gameplay plays a little too much in the vein of some of Resident Evil’s entries. And, in some ways, it can pique survival horror fans’ interest to have something to keep them busy and remind them of what makes Resident Evil great. But in other ways, you can’t quite pinpoint what makes Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle different.
That’s a very tricky spot to be in because, ultimately, what makes a game different is what will make you return for multiple playthroughs. There’s also the aspect of constantly dancing at the edge of monotony. Yet, even with the summation of all that doesn’t work here, you can still see Invader Studios’ passion and vision. Hopefully, the next one isn’t afraid to take risks. Only then can Daymare stand proudly on its own two feet and consequently rack up a solid following.
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle Review (PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Switch, & PC)
A Bone-Chilling Throwback in Time
Ready to trek spooky pathways and fight off deadly monsters? Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is the rendition of how far survival horror has come, with tense, heart-pounding moments reminiscent of Resident Evil and others where it truly shines.