Review: Dead Space (2023)

Dead Space

As the new age of our favorite genre continues to shake off the dust of so many years on the back burner, “survival horror remake season 2023” has officially started thanks to the release of Dead Space, a remake of the 2008 classic. The first title released in this series in a decade, and the first not handled in any capacity by the original developers at EA Redwood Shores/Visceral Games (developed instead by EA Motive), this revisit had both a lot to live up to — and a lot prove to both a new generation of players and skeptical old guard fans. After playing through its 9-hour campaign and diving into its New Game+ mode, I can confidently say that this revisit is one of the best… perhaps ever.

Set in the far-flung year of 2508 Dead Space sees us stepping into the space boots of CEC engineer Isaac Clarke, freshly dispatched as part of a repair operation sent to investigate a communications blackout aboard one of the company’s mining ships. That vessel, the USG Ishimura, will be our home for this wild ride, as Isaac and his team (security chief Zach Hammond, fellow techie Kendra Daniels, and two armed escorts) come in for a rough landing aboard the strangely silent ship, leaving them stranded until they’re able to get their own ship running, and fix the Ishimura’s problems. Things quickly spiral out of control as a host of undead alien mutations of human flesh attack from the shadows, splitting the team up and leaving Isaac alone and terrified. With nothing to protect himself but a scavenged repair tool and his whits, Isaac must brave the darkness and find a way off of the infested craft — or die trying.

This is of course all familiar to you if you’ve already played the original game, as the story of Dead Space remains largely identical. If cut content was something that had been worrying you after other recent revisits like Capcom’s remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 left much on the cutting room floor, Dead Space takes the opposite route and is in fact much closer to 2002’s Resident Evil in terms of being a “remake”. Indeed, REmake might be the most (and even only) direct comparison one could make for this title, as Dead Space opts not to leave anything behind but rather enhance what was already there. While this return visit to the Ishimura will absolutely feel familiar, it also boasts quite a lot that’s new and viscously more dangerous than ever before.

Dead SpaceWhere to even start is the real question, as every aspect of this remake has something new and incredible on offer. The visuals are the first thing that will probably grab you, as the world of Dead Space shines like never before with a game that I’d argue is one of the first real “killer apps” of the current console generation. Dripping with atmosphere and knee-deep in detail, the Ishimura has never looked or felt better or more alive (or dead, in this case), and it goes beyond just sharp visuals on a technical level. Art design reigns supreme in this world, eschewing the muddy browns and greys of the original in exchange for a varied collage of uniquely stylized locals. Brimming with vibrant oranges and glowing blues, the color contrast is a beauty to take in, glinting off of the metalwork on Isaac’s RIG suit and casting brilliant glowing warmth across cold and empty rooms. Sound also plays a massive role in strengthening this atmosphere, as EA Motive’s newly designed 3D audio helps the world feel more real and immersive than ever before.

The power of current-gen hardware of course makes all of this shine even brighter with gorgeous atmospheric effects, as volumetric fog rolls in, sparks shower cascading light across pitch-black corridors, and colored light bounces from surface to surface. Combined with the charmingly monikered Intensity Director (which tracks your progress and infuses the tension with randomly timed frights), Dead Space creates an atmosphere, not unlike a Halloween Horror Nights event at a theme park. Previously ventured corridors see their atmosphere systems short out, filling them with dense mist, or a door’s mechanisms begin to fail mid-open and screech across their sill with a spray of sparks, and occasionally even more subtle, psychological effects will take hold. This haunted house approach to the Ishimura and its atmosphere is a joy to explore with almost giggling excitement, always waiting to see what new fright or tension-raising event lies around the corner. In general, Dead Space is often at its best just exploring the derelict ship, allowing the sheer tension and atmosphere to grip you like a too-tightly wrapped blanket.

Being our third visit to this beloved local (having appeared in the original game, 2009’s Dead Space: Extraction, and 2011’s Dead Space 2), it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything new to squeeze out of this already well-trod path, but Dead Space finds a way as a newly interconnected, nigh-Metroidvania layout offers an ever-expanding hive of twisting paths and darkened corners. Enhanced by the atmosphere and effects, exploring the ship is a mission all on its own, as every nook and cranny is packed with oh-so-necessary resources and upgrades. While the original Ishimura was worth exploring as well, it was a mostly linear affair and locations became locked off once a chapter was completed — this is thrown out the window as this new take on the ship opens up into a claustrophobic network. While the original tram system (which previously marked the beginning and end of chapters) is still here, it acts instead as a fast-travel system, independent of simply walking from one end of the ship to the other, which is totally possible as well. Backtracking to already explored areas is encouraged as well, as a new security clearance system (which replaces the original’s power-node locked doors) sees Isaac gain access to new and increasingly more useful rooms, lockers, and storage chests as the game progresses. 

Interlaced with this exploration are all-new side-missions, which help to flesh out the original story by offering new character depth and world-building. The biggest highlight is the expansion to Issac’s girlfriend, Nichole, who is lost aboard this catacomb of horrors. The original game didn’t offer much in regards to Nichole’s role in the story who, while given more depth and agency in the game’s spin-offs, was largely just the princess in need of rescuing in the original 2008 title. The new story additions see her fleshed out into a commanding presence on the Ishimura’s medical staff, tracking down the source of the Necromorph infection and butting heads with fellow science officer Challus Mercer (who also receives a nice boost in personality and motivation). This extends even farther beyond just the main cast, as a few other members of the ships’ crew are allowed to stretch their legs, and a new emphasis on lore building sees elements from other Ishimura-based stories such as 2008’s animated film Dead Space: Downfall and rail-shooter spin-off Dead Space: Extraction integrated into this adventure. Deep lore fans are going to take real joy in digging through this game’s files.

Dead SpaceOne of the biggest character expansions, of course, comes in the form of our beloved spaceman Isaac Clarke, who is brought new life thanks to the return of Dead Space 2 and 3 actor Gunner Wright. Isaac, who was originally a voiceless protagonist in the 2008 title, is given a new dimension by the addition of voiced interactions with the characters around him, adding greatly to his presence in the story, and overall it worked out significantly for the better. I’ve personally never been a particularly big fan of silent player characters, especially when they’re as emotionally involved in the story as Issac is, so getting to finally hear and see his reactions (as Isaac also occasionally takes his helmet off when interacting with other survivors) is fantastic.

Don’t worry about it becoming overbearing of course, Isaac doesn’t devolve into the muttering, reactionary type of character a lot of modern games have begun to focus on. Isaac typically only speaks when directly spoken to by another character, or when it would feel more awkward if he didn’t speak up in certain situations. Isaac remains dead silent during the majority of gameplay, leaving you to be the one reacting to the haunting exploration and visceral combat. 

Gunner of course brings it big time, having already played the more experienced and confident Issac of the sequels, it’s awesome to hear him deliver a more panicked and freaked-out take on this character. Small teases of who he will become as Isaac gains his footing throughout the story are also extremely exciting to watch unfold, and add another layer to the pre-existing Isaac in the sequels. Isaac’s personality and character history also gain new depth throughout this adventure as well, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

On top of expanding on characters, there is of course the expansion of the game’s resident creature feature: the aforementioned Necormorphs. These “don’t call them zombies” undead horrors have been the main threat across the entire series, and have been given a new lease on death thanks both to updated visual fidelity and the newly grotesque peeling system. Despite the series famously focusing on dismemberment as the core of its combat, the concept has never evolved particularly until now, which sees the Necormorphs presented as layered onion monsters. Attacks literally peel the flesh away from muscle, and muscle away from the bone, until finally chopping the limb off completely. It’s both immensely satisfying and stomach-churningly grotesque, as you see each limb’s “health” depicted with each new layer of damage. Some weapons, like the air-canon-esque Force Gun, can completely unwrap layers from an oncoming Necromorph, leaving them a spindly skeletonized husk charging after you, opening them up for less powerful (but now more critical) attacks. 

This peeling has been applied to corpses and even wounded survivors, offering a new level of horrifying gore the series hasn’t ever seen before, which is honestly saying a lot. By far, Dead Space is the goriest chapter in this entire series so far and I didn’t even think that was possible at this point. There are moments where it might make even Mortal Kombat veterans cringe.

Dead SpaceBecause of this new system, combat has become noticeably more challenging and complex, adding a level of strategy that was only half-formed in the original title. Taking on this newly revamped threat of course calls for a stronger arsenal, and Dead Space has gone over the original weapon loadout with the same level of polish. The entire weapon roster appears again, but with new tweaks to each that make them infinitely more useful than before, and each with a distinct role in combat. The Flamethrower’s alt-fire now lays down a wall of flame to suppress oncoming Necromorphs giving you time to reload a different weapon or lay into them with another, and the aforementioned Force Gun can generate a gravity well that pulls all your encroaching threats together for a well-place singular blast. It’s fun and frantic, and a newly balanced emphasis on ammo conservation will make these fights even more of a challenge. 

I’ll be honest, I never really had an issue with item management in the original Dead Space. Being more akin to Resident Evil 4 in space, the frequency with which enemies and the environment doled out ammunition and health never really had me worrying about either. 2023’s take however is much closer to Resident Evil 1 in space, and I was constantly coming up dry on every weapon in my inventory. Despite having an in-universe store where I could spend found cash on resources, the choice wasn’t always easy. I often found myself forced to consider whether I needed immediate ammo and health or if I should save up for new armor or one of the newly added weapon upgrades (which unlock special abilities for each weapon and a new track of upgrades on the BENCH system).

The lack of ammo is balanced out by now being able to carry your entire weapons loadout in your inventory (instead of being limited to just four of them at a time), and it made every weapon a useful tool. Where I would’ve just stuck with the Plasma Cutter, Pulse Rifle, and Force Gun in the original, this remake’s stinginess on resources left me bouncing between everything I had, and it made me appreciate the weapons I usually left behind so, so much more. Of course, carrying all six weapons in your inventory means fewer slots to carry those precious resources (although new armor sets upgrade your carrying space as well).

Dead SpaceOf course, on top of combat and inventory management, what’s survival horror without puzzles? The original release had a few, but nothing particularly substantial really. Dead Space however lays in with more complex revamps of those original puzzles that might have old-school fans tripping over themselves when they realize things aren’t quite as simple as they used to be. Along with this, a new fuse circuit breaker mechanic sees our favorite Engineer often having to make a tough decision when trying to progress. As the Ishimura’s electrical systems fail, parts of the ship can only be powered on by stealing from one source and applying them to another — which can have dangerous implications. Need that elevator started up to progress? Well, you’re going to have to choose whether to divert power from the lights (leaving you to navigate in quite literally pitch-dark areas) or atmosphere control (sucking away the oxygen and leaving you in a race against your own air supply tank). There are a few different variations on this, and it’s awesome to see Isaac’s primary skill in lore be applied in a way that directly affects gameplay.

The environment in general has lots of neat gameplay enhancements, from new piping on the walls that you can rip off using Isaac’s TK ability to fire at your enemies, to shooting fire extinguishers to knock a Necromorph back in the burst of compressed chemicals. The beloved free-float Zero G mechanic from Dead Space 2 and 3 returns, replacing the original point-to-point jumping system from the 2008 game, which opens up a treasure trove of new possibilities as environments are redesigned to accommodate it. Old areas that were previously just jumping around until you found a button have been transformed into more intricate zones, seeing you explore every inch while spinning in space to get a new vantage on the situation. All of this is without even getting into New Game+, and while I won’t go into detail, I can promise you that there’s more to it than just a replay. Your journey isn’t over when the credits roll, that much is for sure.

Now, it would be remiss of me not to mention one serious flaw with this otherwise fantastic title. Dead Space, at least prior to a potential day-one patch, is surprisingly buggy. From character models spawning in what essentially amounted to A-poses before quickly assuming their intended stance/animation, to occasional stuttering/pop-in, these issues (while small) were frequent and jarring. Worst of all, just before this review went live, encountered a game-locking bug that saw the game crash just before a necessary action to complete a task in New Game+ I’d hoped to see finished in time for publication. After five separate attempts, I simply gave up and have resigned myself to hopefully being able to circumvent the issue with a much older save, or wait to see if a day one patch dispels the issue.

Four days (at the time of writing) after finishing Dead Space, I simply can’t get the experience out of my head, and as I stated at the start: I can confidently say this is one of gaming’s best remakes ever. Honestly, it makes my feelings regarding titles like Resident Evil 2 Remake, which cut out so much and changed even more, extremely complicated after seeing something pull off exactly what made REmake so special back on GameCube seemingly effortlessly.

Even beyond being a remake, it’s just a damn, damn good survival horror game in its own right, and easily one of the best in terms of atmosphere and survival elements since perhaps 2014’s Alien: Isolation. This package as a whole is just such an incredible feat that I can hardly believe it exists at all, and will be returning to it over and over again, I can promise you that. If you love Dead Space, or survival horror in general, this isn’t just one not to miss, it’s a necessity to pick it up. Praise be to Altman, God damn they did it.

9.5 out of 10 stars (9.5 / 10)


Rely on Horror Review Score Guide

PlayStation 5 review code provided by the publisher, played in ‘quality mode’

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