Since its announcement trailer and gameplay reveal at E3 2016, hype for Days Gone has been middling to say the least. In a generation with an already overabundance of not just zombie games, but open world experiences as well, the latest game by Bend Studio was a tough sell from the very start. So, three years on from its reveal, and with multiple delays to its name, does Days Gone deliver us with a unique and fun game? Or like the hype preceding it, is the experience just yet another dull open world experience? Sadly, it’s the latter.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Bend Studio
Platform: Playstation 4
Release Date: April 26, 2019
Price: $ 59.99
Taking place in a fictionalized version of Oregon, the story of Days Gone follows Deacon St. John as he deals with the hardships of surviving in a world overrun by ‘Freakers’, all while trying to determine the fate of his wife after they were separated during the initial phase of the virus outbreak.
The game’s story isn’t bad, and it has narrative beats that kept me hooked, as well as a few emotional moments that are well handled by the voice cast. Emotional moments that are aided by a musical score that hits all the right notes. Disappointingly though, by the time the dust settled and the narrative had ended, I ultimately felt let down due a plot that overstayed it’s welcome, and an introduction of villains that just weren’t all that interesting.
Helping maintain my focus, even as the story began to drag, is a cast of characters that is largely enjoyable. Deacon is a great protagonist with more depth and layers to his being than one may assume based off promotional footage. His friendship with fellow motorcycle club member and BFF William ‘Boozer’ Gray is especially compelling, and early on when an injury sidelines Gray, I was actually on edge as to what his fate might be, especially when things begin to go from bad to worse.
Eventually another character is introduced named Rikki Patil, who is brought to life with solid writing and voice acting, and her relationship with not only Deacon, but an allied doctor at the camp in which she resides is well handled and includes satisfying emotional moments. She also occasionally provides much needed comical relief including one scene where Deacon asks if she was going to “shoot him in there,” and she replies with something along the lines of “No, of course not, I was gonna lead you outside first, and then shoot you.”
Bringing the characters to life is a mostly excellent voice cast led by Sam Witwer as the voice of Deacon. Most people will recognize him from his work on the American television remake of Being Human, or his contributions toward quite a few Star Wars related projects. He does great work here, and it definitely added to my enjoyment of his character.
Similarly, the voices behind most of the other characters are quite good. Maybe besides the odd merchant here or there, no one did a bad job in voicing the various roles. If anything, the one place that characters fall apart is not in the voice acting department, but the writing. The leader of a cult you meet mid-game did nothing for me as a villain, and I found his presence pretty lame. Especially as the cult he runs added very little new to the game.
They’re called the Rippers, and they carve up their skin with knives, and torture people to death. At face value that should seem all well and good, and on paper they sound like a workable video game enemy type, but where it fails is just how little they differ from similar enemy types in a myriad of games. They huff PCP in combat, which is really the only unique thing about them, and otherwise they just check the box for cliche’ cult video game villains. This even comes down to how they decorate their environments.
Not helping matters when it comes to enemies is that even the Freakers follow mainstream video game zombie archetypes almost to a ‘T’. They may not technically be zombies, but the developers basically copy/pasted the general versions of zombies that way too many games already mimic. You have the strong bullet-spongy brute, and even a screaming female type that attracts others.
The only area where this game excels with its enemy variants is the thing the entire game has been marketed upon, hordes. Scattered across the map are just under 40 of these (not counting story specific moments), and they’re actually pretty terrifying. I didn’t stop to count the bodies, but the biggest one of these must have featured at least 300+ Freakers, all chasing you at once, and it’s a frightening blob of stampeding bodies.
To kill a horde you must use all the tools at your disposal. From exploding gas canisters that are near some of them, to other environmental traps that require a little bit of planning to pull off. However, your main weapon will be whatever guns and explosives you’re carrying, and whatever other items you can craft. There’s molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, grenades, and proximity mines, just to name a few.
Making these moments so enjoyable is just how chaotic it can get. Quite a few times what I thought was a perfectly executed plan would fail partway through, and I’d be running for my life trying to pop shots off behind me as a swelling mass of bodies tried to run me down. It’s genuinely scary at times, and the adrenaline will no doubt pulse.
One failing with the hordes is just how underutilized they are during the main campaign. It was especially noticeable during the last half where most of the enemies you fight are just other people with guns, with many of the final missions being just shootouts against humans wearing body armor. It was a missed opportunity, and in a game about a zombie apocalypse of sorts, it was disappointing to constantly fight so many humans. Not because it didn’t fit the story, but due to just how dull the repetitive gunfights quickly became.
Speaking of repetitiveness, Days Gone is a redundant game. Too many missions maintain the same structure. I lost track of how often I was told to drive to a location, only to use my focus vision to start tracking something, because yes, like too many modern AAA open world games, this game has a Witcher/Detective vision, and it’s massively overused.
Falling in the footsteps of other games, there is crafting, a mechanic that on its own isn’t always bad, but constantly needing to scour an environment to pick it clean of its crafting items became a tedious chore. By the end of the game I was so sick of it that I just began using my guns for everything as I never had the items necessary to create explosives and other goods, and losing that aspect of combat was preferable to needing to pick up more random items scattered around the map.
Realistically the game would prefer the player use stealth, but the enemy AI is so incompetent that stealth felt more a waste of time than a satisfying option to take out an enemy threat. There’s absolutely no challenge to it, and why waste time sneaking when it doesn’t feel like an achievement upon completion? I’m not kidding when I say I just turned the game into a full-on shooter by the end.
In terms of things to do, Days Gone is lacking in content. There’s ‘Nero’ camps scattered around the world, and each one contains an upgrade that can increase Deacon’s health, focus, or stamina, but almost every camp plays out the same way, and it felt like a missed opportunity to do something unique. I would have enjoyed it if they were designed similarly to Far Cry 5’s prepper stashes, where each one was an individualized puzzle. Instead, here you go through almost the same steps at each Nero camp. Disable some speakers, fill a generator with gas, and sometimes search for a fuze.
As for other activities, there is an overabundance of collectibles that serve almost no purpose, various side quests that often play out the same, and enemy encampments to take down.
Getting around the world is easy thanks to Deacon’s motorcycle, but like many things in this game, that too becomes tedious. The bike requires gasoline, and while I only ever ran out once, an event that required me to ever so slowly walk my bike to a gas pump, it became annoying to constantly fill it. The survival aspect of watching my fuel gauge added no challenge to the game, and was mostly just a complete waste of time.
As for the bike itself, it can be upgraded with new parts at various camps. Upgrades include, but are not limited to, larger fuel tanks, new wheels, and things of that nature. It can also be painted, and through the completion of missions, new decals can be unlocked.
The camps themselves serve as story hubs, and safe locations to purchase ammo and other items. New items can be unlocked by leveling up each camp, and this is done via completing missions, killing hordes, turning in Freaker ears, and completing other open world activities and side quests. All activities that also level up Deacon. Upon leveling up, the player can choose to spend an upgrade point in one of three skill trees. Some of these are essential, but thankfully leveling up comes quickly and easily.
One thing absolutely holding this game back is a host of technical issues. One of which irked me to no end. Towards the end of the game as I was entering the final missions, the voice acting and sounds within cutscenes became un-synced by 7-10 seconds. It was so bad that a cutscene would end before I could hear the last thing said. On top of that, the game crashed me to my PS4 home screen on multiple occasions. Not helping matters is that for some reason the frame rate began to tank towards the end of my experience. After a key plot point a new location on the map is opened up, and that area killed my frame-rate. I swear, at some points it dropped down to single digits.
All the technical issues are a shame too because I actually enjoyed the map. The environments look great, and the layout is believable. Unlike some games, it felt like this was a real location. Very little in the environment felt misplaced.
Days Gone is also has some great weather effects. The fog is especially chilling. At one point I was wandering through the woods looking for a horde, when a thick fog rolled in and I could barely see. A terrifying prospect when somewhere nearby were hundreds of Freakers ready to pounce on me the second I found myself within their vicinity.
The graphics aren’t on par with other Sony exclusives such as Spider-Man or God of War, but it holds it’s own and definitely doesn’t look bad. The graphics are good enough that I spent a decent chunk of time playing around in photo mode. Don’t believe me? Well, every photo in this review is from my own experience with the game. So it has that going for it.
Days Gone is ultimately a disappointing experience, that could have been much more. I didn’t hate my time with it, and there’s a lot of heart to the experience that I genuinely appreciated, but it falls into the same trappings of too many open world experiences. Instead of blazing their own trail, Bend Studio decided to play it safe and copy what has already been done in way too many titles. Very little sets it apart from the competition, and what’s here is often just mediocre at best. After the main campaign has ended, there’s a final mission that sets up a potential sequel, and my only hope is that in the interim, the developers branch out and try something new. Deacon and co are good enough characters that I’d be open to seeing them again, but only if the gameplay evolves into something better than what’s currently there now.
Days Gone was reviewed on Playstation 4 using a review copy purchased by Niche staff. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.