Escape a derelict space vessel teeming with undead creatures.
PC Release: October 14, 2008
By Ian Coppock
My introduction to horror gaming was not dissimilar to most people’s, I would think. Trembling in fear, too scared to push that control stick forward, or backing off the couch entirely but hanging in the doorway to watch your roommate go on, because you’re still interested. Before Amnesia and the denizens of Short Horror Week, Dead Space was my introduction to the concept of fear and terror in a video game. It wasn’t a bad starting point, and I intend to demonstrate that in this review.
Dead Space‘s futuristic setting means that the game can appeal to adventurous nerds as well as horror fans. I started the game on a cold October evening and assumed the role of Isaac Clarke, a 26th-century spaceship engineer, en route to a gigantic mining vessel putting out a weak distress call.
After the landing gear loses its s—, Isaac and his team find themselves in a vast hangar, with no one to greet them. The group is soon attacked by snorting, slashing creatures resembling cadavers with scythes for arms.
It’s at this point in Dead Space that things take an interesting twist. With no guns or gun experience, Isaac picks up the nearest cutting tool and starts hacking away at the monstrosities. Players must rely on Isaac’s skills as an engineer to build and modify tools into killing machines. This immediately made the game more than a zombie shootfest.
The game threw a second punch my way when I set to carving the nearest space-zombie to ribbons- only for them to keep coming after direct shots in the heart. Awesomely, disgustingly, the creatures can only be killed by dismemberment. Isaac has to shoot, cut, and tear the limbs off of the creatures in order to subdue them.
With the shuttle shithoused and communications out, Isaac and his few non-butchered teammates must find another way out. Even if there weren’t hundreds of snarly, hungry mutants to worry about, the Ishimura is falling apart. To make matters worse, Isaac’s two surviving chums don’t trust each other, each thinking that the other knows more about the disaster than they’re letting on. Naturally, the player is supposed to wonder at this divide, and boy did I.
With great trepidation, I descended into the dark bowels of the Ishimura. Isaac’s skill with cutting tools and his engineering know-how made him the obvious choice to traverse the giant ship, fixing systems and destroying monsters. Fixing machinery takes the form of puzzles, none of which are too taxing. I learned that the creatures plaguing the ship are called Necromorphs, but their origins are tied up in the deaths of the crew and the vessel’s current state.
As Isaac hurries about the ship fixing everything from engine rockets to oxygen tanks, he begins to unravel the great, bloody mystery. Dead Space takes a Valve-esque approach in that it shows rather than tells, with wall graffiti and vague crew logs from which I, the player, was to infer much of the information. As the game progresses, though, your teammates start presenting you with more concrete findings.
Isaac is also hounded by more sinister antagonists, including deranged survivors and a massive Necromorph that hunts him throughout the ship. Bosses and minibosses create further complications in what are supposed to be simple repairs, and when Isaac discovers a mysterious artifact in the cargo hold, he begins to have second thoughts about his mission.
So, the question must be asked, is Dead Space scary? The answer is yes*. The asterisk denotes a footnote, and in that footnote I intend to document a few issues, looking at the game from the prospective of a psychotic horror fan.
The first problem I saw after revisiting the game was an absolute lack of pacing. Isaac is beset by screaming hordes of Necromorphs from the very beginning, dashing a chance to let fear simmer up for a while. In Amnesia I didn’t see a monster for almost an hour, but by that point I was so terrified that I nearly wet myself upon seeing it. Dead Space‘s initial monster attack is certainly startling, but not disarming as with games that build up their atmospheres. The monsters pull the same tricks, like playing dead, over and over to the point where you’ll be able to see one faking it within the first hour of play.
The absolute biggest problem I have with Isaac, and information I’ve been deliberately withholding until now, is that he is a silent protagonist. Kind of surprising, right? You’d think designers wouldn’t miss a more obvious opportunity to project fear and terror than through the player character. Aside from a few grunts, Isaac gives no reactions or emotions in response to the trauma he endures, which is a shame. Yeah, the total silence makes the atmosphere murkier, but more could have been done with emoting. The only perspective we get on this guy is the over-the-shoulder camera.
It gets better; Isaac’s girlfriend Nicole is a medical officer aboard the ship, and he searches for her during missions. In that vacuous personality could have existed potential for conflict with the other teammates over mission priorities, or little side missions investigating clues. I learned that Nicole was on the ship but Isaac’s silence caused me to forget it for much of the game. Wasted chance, Visceral.
Gameplay in Dead Space is manageable. It’s fine. It’s alright. Isaac trudges through the ship as if he’s deep-sea diving, but can run and apply medkits on the fly when the need arises.
The game shakes things up with cool zero-G sections in which Isaac must hop from surface to surface. You also occasionally get to pilot a few machines, including space turrets. Neato.
Though Dead Space suffers narrative and pacing pitfalls, the game achieves additional eeriness through its artwork and atmosphere. The Ishimura is a cold metal thing, floating adrift in space, and this is made extremely evident in the environments. Scariness can be achieved through effective level design, and I found this to be true as Isaac crept through claustrophobic corridors and cramped holds. Many of the ship’s areas have suffered a blackout, forcing players to rely on Isaac’s flashlight and their own reflexes to survive.
As Isaac goes deeper, the signs of disaster become more evident. Certain parts of the ship are coated with a slimy residue, and others tell whispers of a story through blocked-off doors, toppled furniture and scattered gore. The hospital wing in particular is not for the faint of heart.
Dead Space‘s score was composed by Jason Graves. Get it? But seriously, that’s his real last name. Graves did better with the unsettling atmospheric music, which mostly comprised monotonous human voices giving a steadily building “eeeeeeeeee”. Violins throw porcupine quills at you most times a monster shows up, especially at the beginning. A lot of the game is left in silence, with only distant creaks and crashes to keep Isaac company. Also scratchy vents and not-so-distant creaks and crashes.
The atmosphere remains clingy, like a corpse in rigor mortis. It’s occasionally marred by pacing and narrative problems, but Isaac’s quest remains haunting. In a way, the pacing issue could be seen as a plus, helping prospective horror fans make an easier transfer from more common shooter and action games. See? I’m not so proud that I’m a horror purist. CTHULHU REIGNS! (ahem).
For those of you who do tend to side with the pure horror, you may not find Dead Space to be super-scary, but it’s certainly worth your time. I personally think it’s also the scariest of the Dead Space series, but that’s a conversation for another time, another review.
I said up top that Dead Space is a good starting place for budding horror fans, and I stand by that. Unlike in many other horror games, Isaac can defend himself, and the game welcomes a lot of crossover from shooter, action and even puzzle games. As an engineer, Isaac must employ many different skills in order to survive on the Ishimura, so anyone with some gaming experience shouldn’t have too much trouble. But, being a horror game, Dead Space has a lot of unsettling content, including but not limited to blood, gore, dismemberment, dead babies, and insane survivors conducting rituals. You have been warned.
You can buy Dead Space here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.