When people think of definitive survival horror franchises, many instantly point to Resident Evil and Silent Hill. And to be fair, they aren’t wrong. After all, these two early pioneers paved the way for the genre to continue evolving with ideas that broke new scary ground. In case you missed the title of this article, one such title is none other than Glen Schofield’s intergalactic creep-show Dead Space.
Now, we stand less than a month away from Schofield’s next nightmare in The Callisto Protocol and just a little longer on total remake of the original Dead Space. Therefore, I can’t think of a better time to jump into the classic than now. Did I mention that this is also my very first playthrough? Yup, that means no nostalgia goggles on for me!
Welcome to the USG Ishimura
Led by critically-acclaimed game designer Glen Schofield, along with Michael Condrey and the rest of Visceral Games, Dead Space launched in 2008 to an overwhelmingly positive uproar. Hitting average scores of 88/100 for multiple platforms, the game was also EA’s only title at the time to enter within the top ten sales rankings.
But the question is: How does Dead Space hold up today? Is the praise worth it? Or does the test of time sever the game’s accomplishments faster than those damned Stasis-infused Necromorphs?
Well, immediately upon starting a new game, I would say the answer is it absolutely deserves the fanfare!
The game doesn’t hold back in flashing its somehow equally charming, yet unforgiving, atmosphere as you and your crew soar closer to the infamous USG Ishimura. However, as a horror game, things immediately take a dump for Isaac and his crewmates as they hurdle directly on the gargantuan mining vessel.
From there, the game takes you on a suspenseful trek through the ship, as you await the impending doom you’ll soon face. However, if I said the only emotion you’d feel is dread, I would be lying. As you have a slimmer of time to breathe and take in the surroundings, you’ll find yourself in awe of the ahead-of-its-time visuals, as well as the completely groundbreaking substitute for a standard Heads-Up Display.
HUD? Never heard of ’em
Typically, video games break their immersion with on-screen (non-cannon) meters that display such need-to-knows as health, a map, ammo, etc.. However, that is not the case in Dead Space. As far-fetched as its science-fiction premise is, the game manages to expertly ground itself into realism through incorporating HUD elements into diegetic means.
For example, Isaac’s health bar displays directly on his back. While it starts at a comforting light blue, however, expect your back to ominously flash red, signaling very low health, for the majority of the game. In addition to the health bar, Dead Space also displays all of its inventory items, map and cutscenes through use of an in-game holographic system that projects out of Isaac’s suit.
Finally, like Halo, the amount of ammo you currently have in your weapon at any given time also displays right on the gun. These small details, among the details put into the overall visual and audio aesthetics, truly give Dead Space a uniquely chilling realistic vibe you won’t find in most other titles.
A cryptic tale of intergalactic carnage
Although the actual gameplay and combat encounters are very intense and fast-paced (more on that later), the narrative of Dead Space is a slow burn packed with mystery and dread. What begins with repair missions that see you completing objectives such as fixing the asteroid defense system and restoring air quality slowly intensify into desperate races to send an SOS beacon and find a way off the ship. Additionally, through encounters with your own squad mates, a mysterious cult leader and a scientist who believes he has the only answer to end the carnage, you’ll uncover dark truths of government corruption and religious fanaticism that give the game a deeper message by the end.
While you’ll certainly know a decent amount about the plot simply by playing the game, to truly get a deeper understanding of the lore within Dead Space’s universe, you’ll also need to listen to and read a variety of collectible tapes scattered across the map. In doing so, you’ll gain even more context on everything from the strange religion Unitology to the events that went down on the Ishimura prior to your arrival. With twists, turns and a truly shocking ending, Dead Space more than delivers on providing a rich story, fitting for its intense and macabre gameplay and atmosphere.
It’s time to slice and dice
If someone told me I could only pick one word to sum up the gameplay of Dead Space, I would select, “desperation”. From the beginning to the end, the game places you in situation after situation where you’ll need to make split-second decisions. Most of the time, you’ll need to fight, which means you’ll quickly need to develop precise aiming to target these creatures’ arms, legs and heads.
That’s because dismemberment is the only way to keep these monsters down; body shots are not nearly enough. Apart from providing the game with some truly brutal moments of arms and legs flying across the room, this core combat mechanic also creates a unique challenge. With swarms of Necromorphs charging at you of all shapes, sizes and speeds, you’ll need to be constantly vigilant in order to take them down without getting too overwhelmed or blowing through too much ammo.
Fortunately, the game provides no shortage of unique conventions to dismember your foes. From the plasma cutter and pulse rifle to the flamethrower and remote saw gun, Dead Space has lots of toys to experiment with. To buy new weapons, however, you’ll want to make sure you’re stocked up on the game’s in-game currency “Credits” to purchase them from the store. And once you find something that suits your playstyle, you can then strategically upgrade your weapon with Power Nodes at the game’s skill-tree at the bench.
How many of these guys are there?
Up to now, I haven’t had one bad thing to say about Dead Space. And if I stopped playing the game at the end of Chapter 7, I could have easily given this title a 5/5 score, no debate. However, and this is where my review may get controversial, beginning around Chapter 8, I believe the game’s core mechanics begin to show some cracks.
For me, horror games are at their scariest when the intense, desperate moments build to a climax. The suspense, wondering if something will come out to attack you truly makes a game terrifying. However, in the late chapters of Dead Space, my incessant screaming at the TV changed from that of fear to that of rage and anger.
The early to middle parts of the game felt challenging but fair. I got a good amount of scares, and there were moments where I’d die or barely escape. These moments were satisfying. However, as the game progresses, every room you enter will spam you with what feels like an endless amount of Necromorphs that become increasingly frustrating to battle.
With very little ammo and no health, I would opt to try running. However, this is when I began to realize just how stiff movement feels. This isn’t a big deal at the beginning of the game, but when you are desperately trying to flee a dozen enemies in every single room you enter with stiff running and no ability to dodge or jump, gameplay begins to feel increasingly claustrophobic.
I guess the summed up version of my gripe is: horror games should be able to balance challenge with fun. Making every room impossible to clear or get out of quickly sucks the enjoyment out and made playing the final few chapters a chore.
Just shoot the yellow thingies
On the other hand, I think the boss battles were some of the most rewarding moments in the game. In particular, I really thought the zero-gravity fight with the giant creature in food storage was a fun challenge. While I died a few times, I learned the creature’s pattern pretty quickly and developed a good system to dodge the tentacles and projectiles before landing some shots in the yellow weak parts.
The fight against the hive mind at the end was also a pretty fun boss battle, though it was probably the easiest boss of the whole game. The game surprisingly was very generous with health and ammo leading up to it, and this monster’s pattern was even easier to master than the previous bosses. Ironically, I would argue, however, that the boss fights in the game were easier than facing off against the regular enemies in the latter chapters.
Concluding thoughts on Dead Space
Overall, I think Dead Space rightfully earns its place as one of survival horror’s most iconic games. Everything from the awe-inspiring atmosphere to the brutality of combat make this title truly one of a kind. If you want a game that will leave you in a constant state of panic and desperation, you can’t go wrong here.
Although, I feel like the ridiculous hordes of enemies that the game throws at you constantly in the later chapters hold it back from being perfect, I still think Dead Space is an overall enjoyable experience. If you love survival horror games and haven’t played this classic yet, you definitely need to add it to your list.
What do you think about Dead Space? Do you agree with my take? Or do you think my review misses the mark? As always, let us know what you think down in the comments!
Although later parts of the game feel needlessly difficult with too many swarms of enemies, Dead Space holds up as a classic in survival horror. From the brutal dismemberment to the surreal and haunting cosmic atmosphere, this game is truly ahead of its time in delivering phenomenal horror gameplay.