Do you remember the first Daymare game, Daymare: 1998? You might not, and we weren’t particularly kind to it. But behind the resentment was the initial hope that it might be good, even in a shonky way. Alas, it was not, but it didn’t stop Invader Studios from trying, this time in prequel form with Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle.
Much like the series it apes with little discretion, Daymare refuses to die and is back again with another over-the-shoulder action/shooter, complete with dark rooms, gross nasties and logic puzzles that don’t require much thought. Oh yes, it’s another Resident Evil clone.
But in the spirit of “if at first you don’t succeed…”, does Daymare: Sandcastle (I’m not putting 1994 each time) find the right formula this time, or are there really some things man isn’t meant to mess with? Let’s put our sceptical hats on and find out, shall we…
Secrets, At Area 51? Surely Not
Do you remember the plot to the “critically acclaimed” first Daymare (their words, not mine)? No, didn’t think you would. It was corny, generic as all hell and pretty forgettable come the end. Well, apparently it warranted a prequel, but for the life of me I can’t remember the first plot to confirm whether it smoothly transitions or not. So we’ll look at this independently instead.
Our story begins in the combat boots of Special Agent Delila Raiz, or Reyes, as even the game can’t make its mind up. Seriously, all text says Reyes, her shoulder ID says Raiz, always a promising start. Anyway, Reyes (we’ll go with that one) is an agent of H.A.D.E.S, who are definitely not like S.T.A.R.S whatsoever. Partnered up with stereotypical, no nonsense Major Radek, the H.A.D.E.S agents are sent to Area 51 to locate some maguffin and an agent.
Turns out, Area 51 has a secret lab in it. I mean, more so than the secret labs that we already “don’t” know about. Tasked and accompanied by their commander, Foster, it soon becomes evident that something isn’t right here, some shenanigans have been going on and… well, you know the rest.
Things That Go Bump In The Lab
Whilst it would be easy to compare this again to 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake, Daymare actually reminds me more of an older title. Specifically, a lesser known 2001 PlayStation 2 title, Extermination. I did make a comparison about how the original ran was like Extermination in my Daymare ’98 review, but Sandcastle feels more like a comparison to it in story.
For me, it’s down to it being set on a base right from the go, unlike the usual streets/police station/bunkhouse-then-lab route. From the off, the H.A.D.E.S team are soon trapped in Area 51, with Reyes quickly discovering more sinister goings on. A weird, electromagnetic force(?) is reanimating bodies, a mysterious voice is egging Reyes on… and Foster seems very intent on chasing down a briefcase.
Without wishing to spoil the story, it does fall into generic territory. Newer plot threads keep popping in, muddying the starting plot after a while. Well, if one is a veteran of Resident Evil/other sci-fi shooters, it’ll all be pretty obvious. But that being said, sometimes a comfort game that hits the same beats isn’t a bad thing. What’s important (well, fairly) is the presentation.
Again to reference the original, Invader Studios has gone back to the drawing board in terms of graphics. Visually, and with the benefit of more powerful systems, Sandcastle does actually look quite good. Sure, it doesn’t have that big budget money, but it’s working well with what they’ve got. The base looks sufficiently dank and scary, with some very good volumetric lighting creating the ambience. It ticks the spooky boxes to a tee, but there’s a weird disjoint with the character models.
As my brother put it so succinctly when he saw me playing it: “They look like the puppets from Team America”. It’s honestly strange, the heads of any human character always looks slightly larger than the body. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s something you can’t help but notice. That (and this is in no way meant to sound sexist), Reyes’ running animation is so odd. It’s out of sync with the sound of running, even Reyes’ shadow runs properly, in contrast.
And then there’s the voice acting… I’m not pulling any punches here. It is awful, yet (and here’s the twist) you can’t help but enjoy just how bad it is. It’s like the actors were given the script, but there were no notes on how something should be pronounced. So everyone’s chewing the scenario and hamming up every line.
Not to mention the cliches about Reyes being incapable as a woman, the macho sexism, the “top secret underground shenanigans and the traitor amongst us”. It’s all very reminiscent of early Resident Evil/Silent Hill/Night Trap which, I suppose, is what Invader Studios were going for. It smacks of straight-to-video, B movie camp, which isn’t always a bad thing.
Whilst I am having some degree of fun with Daymare: Sandcastle, there are a few turds in the sandpit that I can’t ignore. One of them, being a large component of the game, is the combat. See, when Resident Evil 4 switched to over-the-shoulder (bear with the comparison again), it changed how to anticipate enemies. Whilst it restricted the view somewhat, it added to the tension in bottle-necking enemies advancing on Leon. Many other games, regardless of setting, cottoned on to this.
Sandcastle, unfortunately, hasn’t. It makes a big plot-device deal about matter transporting and teleporting enemies. Fine, I get it, it’s thematic. But you know what ruins the fun? For every enemy that spawns in Reyes’ field of view, there will always be another (or more) behind her.
To make matters worse, the common grunt-type enemy has one move: a grab attack. One that requires a QTE button-mash every damn time. What’s worse, there’s an even bigger enemy that floats, teleports and one-hit kills you. It is, pardon my parlance, absolute bullshit.
Far too often I’d be seeing Reyes die as there’s no indicator or HUD to tell players where one of these shits has teleported in proximity to them. It’s not so much giving players a fighting chance as it is just mistaking challenge for daft difficulty spikes. At one point, players are stuck in a room with multiple Sparkers (the big ones), and I lost track of how many times I had to reload.
One nifty little gimmick that Sandcastle has to try and even things out is the Frost Grip, however. A backpack that looks a cross between an Auro Interactor and a beer dispenser, it is in fact a nitrogen slinging gauntlet. It serves two functions: plot progression and combat. The former is spraying cold blasts onto fiery surfaces, or burst pipes, whilst the latter is used mostly offensively.
It starts off simple enough, with a cold blob-bullet slowing foes down with one shot, freezing them two/three. Then it starts getting fancy, with mines, shields and group-targeting bombs. But then it soon becomes dependant, like when you have to freeze the invulnerable enemies to actually kill them.
Then, to add to the panic, players need to keep an eye on its energy gauge. It does refill, but it’s not quick. Furthermore, there’s no standard melee attack, just a power-using one that takes out frozen enemies. So you think you’re being conservative with ammo, but if you’ve not got the power, you’ll be freezing and then using ammo.
And if that’s not enough, these electro-teleporting beasties have a little plasma ball inside them that, if not shot with an ice blast, will merge with another enemy to make them invulnerable. What seems like it should be a fun-but-tense mechanic instead becomes an exercise in frustration and cheap, health-destroying firefights.
The Express Elevator To Hell!
It’s thematically fitting that the game utilises the Hades/hell mythos in its dialogue, given that it feels like descending purgatory as you delve further into the underground layers of Area 51. Dubbed “the CASTLE” (or Castle, or even C.A.S.T.L.E, the game can’t decide), its linear corridors become darker as time goes on.
It does feature some backtracking, but the game is so terrified of players getting lost that it isn’t that involving. The most you’ll do is a few rooms back or a transit system transition or two. Puzzles are, as mentioned earlier, pretty simple, with the hardest being the timed locker hacks for extra goodies or weapon upgrades.
These are in short supply, which also makes things harder when there are only two weapons throughout: an MPG5 and a shotgun. The latter is the showstopper, the former just feels like it’s there for variety. Ammo is sparse, upgrades even more so. One could argue it adds to the challenge, whereas I’d say it wasn’t thought out properly.
There’s a four-way D-pad inventory system, but two of those slots are taken by Reyes’ torch and scanner, and cannot be moved. Why the game couldn’t account for more, and have those two items as contextual, we’ll never know. It makes the game feel like a slog, rather than either a slow paced horror or an action-shooter. Random enemies hiding around a corner when you’ve got your MPG5 equipped isn’t scary, it’s just annoying.
The Living Daymares
I’ll admit, I went into Daymare: Sandcastle expecting more the same mess as Daymare 1998, with a bit more spackle. Whilst the first was a technical nightmare, in presentation and gameplay, effort has been made here to at least try and pull something credible off.
In terms of technical performance, I haven’t had any issues with it. No bugs, crashes or major failures. A few enemies decided they didn’t want to play corpse and instead clipped and spazzed out through a few walls, but that was it. As previously mentioned, the character animations are a strange breed but you learn to roll with it.
It was nice to see the odd pop culture reference again, like the one above. Daymare 1998 was full of them to the point of being obnoxious, so it’s nice to see some tasteful toning down. No “emails from Ada” this time, thankfully.
At time of writing I’ve not finished, and honestly, I haven’t considered the connection to the first game. A text log mentioned about stealing “the Daymare virus” but otherwise haven’t given it a second thought. It might have some link, but the first is so distant in my mind that it won’t be a massive revelation to me.
A Shaky Castle
To summarise, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is a massive improvement on the original. Alright, it was a very low bar to begin with, but it’s nice to see that Invader Studios didn’t rest on their laurels and recycle the same crap on a new system. At least they’ve tried, which is commendable.
In terms of story, it’s a bit of a mess. What starts off as a simple retrieval-cum-betrayal, it doesn’t take long to try and shoehorn other elements in. Elements of Dead Space, The Mist and Half-Life soon creep in, without wanting to give anymore than that away. It’s admirable, but it’s hard to keep up when the pace and tone flip-flop at each chapter.
The combat is okay, but the enemy placement and lack of ammo makes it harder than it needs to be, as well as the lack of weapon variety. Reyes effing and blinding every five minutes only serves as a conduit of my own frustration at every cheap death.
In terms of improvement, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is a sign that progress wants to be made. Okay, it will never reach the heights of those it emulates, but for a mid-range Resident Evil knockoff, you can do far worse than this. The beauty of it being a prequel, you don’t have to have played the first one. Even if they do consider it “critically acclaimed” on the dashboard (it really wasn’t).
A vast improvement over the original, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle still doesn’t reach those lofty, highly recommended titles. That being said, if you’re looking for some B movie cheese in an over-the-shoulder shooter, this should tide you over.
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.
Developer: Invader Studios
Publisher: Leonardo Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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