Review: Daymare 1994: Sandcastle

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle

Back in 2019, Italian developer Invader Studios released their first game called Daymare 1998, which had a strange story behind its development, since it originally started as a third-person over-the-shoulder remake of Resident Evil 2, before being shut down by a cease and desist order from Capcom. As we all know, Capcom would soon after start working on their own updated remake of RE2, and instead of taking this as a total loss, Invader decided to use the work they had already done on their remake and turn it into its own game, resulting in Daymare 1998.

After a few years, they started work on a follow-up to 1998, which would be built from the ground up as its own game, which brings us to the current topic of Daymare 1994: Sandcastle, a prequel of sorts of the original game. After playing a preview of the game last year, we’ve been anticipating this title for quite a while as we waited for the release, but now we can fully assess how 1994 compares to 1998, and how the game fares in the current market of horror games in 2023.

I’ll preface this review by saying that if you thought Daymare 1998 was heavily influenced by the Resident Evil series, you wouldn’t believe how much Daymare 1994 is influenced by the Resident Evil 2 remake. Some may think this is a positive thing, but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that everything about 1994 carries a been-there-done-that feeling with it, to where nothing has any originality to it. While most can agree that the RE2 remake has a lot of great things about it, this game proves that imitation may not be the highest form of flattery or the best way to make a video game.

Right from the start, things feel similar to RE2 in the way it looks and controls, and it also begins introducing you to what this game presents as a story, though I may reserve that term for something that holds at least a basic level of narrative cohesion, which 1994 absolutely does not. This is one of the biggest disappointments of the game, is that there is absolutely no cohesion of any kind to what’s going on, and it presents absolutely no reason or motivation to be going from one place to another and doing the tasks you’re doing.

It’s a little shocking just how badly Daymare 1994: Sandcastle handles everything related to narrative, dialogue, and pacing in every conceivable way, and I don’t know that I’ve encountered anything that fared so poorly in this regard in the last few years, even from the super indie sphere of horror games. It’s certainly not done to be tongue-in-cheek or facetious, it just comes off as amateur and disorganized in a way that’s hard to explain.

The dialogue consistently feels like hundreds of lines of dialogue from various Resident Evil games thrown into a meat grinder and spat out entirely at random and without context, making for a genuinely perplexing experience. Beyond the actual cutscenes (which are thankfully skippable,) the game’s normal progression and exploration are also constantly interrupted by radio calls or walk-and-talk segments that cannot be skipped and constantly drag the pacing down to an absolute halt on a frequent basis.

This brings us to the pacing as a whole, which is a complete mess, full of exploration segments that mostly turn out to be empty hallways and wide-open spaces with nothing happening in them and seldom anything exciting to find in them, which are also constantly interrupted by dialogue and radio calls, as previously mentioned. It’s not an exaggeration that the first 90 minutes of the game have almost no combat and not much of anything happening at all besides talking and cutscenes, resulting in one of the most boring introductions of a video game I can recall in recent years.

Aside from the pacing being terrible, the puzzles, which are one of the things meant to balance with the exploration and combat, are as bland, pointless, and linear as you could possibly imagine. If you took the Resident Evil remake puzzles, dumbed them down even more, and took out any kind of interaction besides using the right item at the right place, that’s what the puzzles amount to in Daymare 1994.  The optional locker puzzles are the only ones that present any kind of challenge, but there’s only a small handful of them in the game.

Daymare 1994

As for the exploration, there’s not much to speak of here, since most of the areas are empty besides potentially finding one of the four different items you can pick up in the game, and exploration almost never feels satisfying or like it was worth going out of your way to search around. The collectible dolls are few and far between and don’t provide much fun in seeking them out, leaving much of your time with the game amounting to wandering without payoff.

Even concerning the story objectives, there is no map of any kind in the game, so you can easily find yourself turned around or stuck in an area where you can’t see the path forward with no way to even get a general sense of where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. This just makes things more obtuse than they need to be for a game that’s generally so linear in nature.

Daymare 1994

Moving on to the combat, this is one of the strongest elements of the game, with the combat system providing a handful of fun mechanics and strategies you can employ, especially given how limited the weaponry choices are, with only two guns available for the entire game. The Frost Grip freezing mechanics have a lot of fun and unique options that let you create your best approach to dealing with the tough enemies the game throws at you, and it’s generally very satisfying.

Some of the negative aspects of the combat come in later in the game once you encounter the enemy type that can inflict an instant kill attack just by touching you, leading to many kills feeling cheap and unnecessary, especially on the Normal or Hardcore difficulties. Resource management is generally a pretty tough thing to manage on all difficulties until you’ve really mastered the combat and it provides another fun layer of strategy to the combat, but can also get frustrating on higher difficulties.

Daymare 1994

The final encounters of the game end up being extremely irritating, largely due to there being no tutorial or tips of any kind to let you know how you’re supposed to be dealing with the situation and no in-game feedback that you’re doing the right thing (even if you are,) but most of the combat before these final scenes stand out as the best part of the experience.

There’s also a feeling that there’s a considerable lack of opportunities to even enjoy the combat system throughout the game since there are probably only around 25-30 combat encounters throughout the entire running time of the game, and they’re very scripted and tend to start feeling too similar after a while.

Speaking of the lack of tips or in-game tutorials, it’s a flaw of the game design that makes most situations feel more aimless and unsatisfying from the very beginning, and it never gets any better. The lack of even a basic controls tutorial in the beginning leads to constantly feeling like you don’t even know if you’re using everything available to you, and forces you to read through very vague text tips advertised as a “tutorial” in the pause menu or figure things out by trial and error in a very non-intuitive way.

Daymare 1994

In regards to the controls, I was able to play 1994 on three different consoles, and the controls felt responsive across them, with combat feeling snappy and most things responding the way they should, with only one small exception, and that’s in regard to the sprint function. While sprinting with the flashlight on (which is required to see through many of the game’s areas,) the flashlight does not follow the look cursor, ending up always pointing right in front of where the character is running, and it leads to a huge lack of visibility in dark areas when trying to explore. Hopefully, this will be fixed in a later patch, but for now, it’s a nuisance through much of the game.

As far as the technical performance is concerned, it’s a mixed bag across the Xbox Series X, Series S, and the PS5 that we got to try the game on. The visuals are generally solid across platforms, with mostly interesting visual direction throughout, and the game does present an option to prioritize performance vs. visuals in the menus on the more powerful consoles (Series S did not have this option.) Performance mode was the best option in general, especially since the combat is as fast-paced as it is, and the mode that prioritizes visuals felt like it rarely ever even hit a stable 30FPS on any platform.

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle

Where the technical package really breaks down is in the bugginess of many aspects of Daymare 1994: Sandcastle across the platforms. Frequent texture pop-ins across platforms, assets not loading in their correct place, enemies getting stuck in walls, and literal game-breaking bugs on the Xbox platforms. The first playthrough on the Xbox platforms had to be completely abandoned about 80% through the game since the game would consistently crash on the same cutscene and not allow further progress.

Another full playthrough was completed on PS5 without the game-breaking bug but with plenty of the other issues mentioned still present. The playthroughs will last between 6-8 hours on the first playthrough, and will naturally be much shorter after the first run. There isn’t much content to be had here other than replaying the story mode and getting the collectible dolls, which leaves the whole package feeling lacking overall. Some kind of combat challenge mode or something else to sink into would’ve helped give some more value to the experience.

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle

At the end of the day, even while there are some impressive elements in Daymare 1994: Sandcastle, especially with the context of how small of a development team Invader Studios is, the game is just not enjoyable in most respects due to its deluge of faults and shortcomings. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity and an amateur retelling of the Resident Evil 2 remake, in a way that most players won’t find satisfying.

Hopefully, some fixes can be made over time or more content added, but as it stands, Daymare 1994 is as lukewarm as it gets for horror experiences in 2023.

5.5 out of 10 stars (5.5 / 10)


Rely on Horror Review Score Guide

Review codes were provided by the publisher for the Xbox Series and PS5 platforms.

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