Sci-Fi Horror at its Best – A Dead Space Review

Sci-Fi Horror at its Best – A Dead Space Review

When it comes to horror games, I am a notorious scaredy-cat. You may look at this statement and question why exactly I’m streaming eight horror games this year given that, but I actually did this to myself.

In December 2021, my stream team and I were doing some fundraising, and while I had set up eight horror games on a list of potential games to play when my campaign hit certain donation milestones, I certainly didn’t anticipate hitting all of those milestones and therefore playing all of the games on that list. One of those games was the game I recently completed playing this past weekend: Dead Space.

Fate conspired against me in the form of someone donating enough money to my fundraiser to get me to play all of those horror games, so Dead Space had to be played.

Dead Space is one of the few games on the list that I was genuinely concerned about playing. I didn’t know a whole lot about it going into it, save for it being a sci-fi horror game and a shooter besides, and this alone was enough to concern me a bit.

See, as much as I love the science-fiction genre, sci-fi horror and I have a bit of a rocky relationship. I haven’t played a whole lot in the sci-fi horror genre due to me being easily spooked. My last, and only, foray into the genre prior to this was Funcom’s Moons of Madness, a game in which an organization’s expedition to Mars very quickly starts falling apart when cosmic horror enters the picture, and when I tell you that Moons of Madness left me unsettled and terrified almost the entire time, I’m not lying to you.

So with Moons of Madness being my only real point of reference for sci-fi horror, add to this my horrible aim when it comes to shooters, and you can probably imagine I was not entirely looking forward to playing Dead Space.

To my surprise, the game being a shooter was almost inconsequential to me as the game went on. That’s not to say I enjoyed the shooter aspect of the game. I absolutely did not. However, the story itself was so good that I almost didn’t care about it being a shooter.

As with all posts in this series, please be warned that from here on out, there will be spoilers. If you intend to play this game yourself, I would recommend avoiding the rest of this post.

First released in 2008 and with an upcoming remake set for release in either 2022 or 2023, Dead Space is the first in a series, although we’re just looking at this game. The game itself is set in the year 2508. Humanity has spread out amongst the stars. But with resource shortages on Earth, ships dubbed “Planetcrackers” venture out to harvest resources from barren planets.

Players take on the role of Isaac Clarke, a crewman on a vessel assigned to repair one of these Planetcrackers that has mysteriously gone silent, the USG Ishimura. Unfortunately, from the minute the crew arrives, all hell breaks loose. Their ship crashes into the Ishimura, rendering them incapable of leaving. The crew of your repair vessel is attacked by mutated human corpses called necromorphs, and Isaac quickly becomes separated from the others. Forced to fend for himself with minimal contact with his surviving crew, Isaac tries to save his team while discovering the truth of what happened to the Ishimura and his girlfriend, one of the ship’s medical officers.

A screenshot from Dead Space. Three individuals are on the bridge of a ship gazing out into space. In the foreground is a seated gentleman. A man and a woman stand by consoles in the background, staring out at a ship and a planet in the distance. One of them is saying, "The USG Ishimura. Biggest Planetcracker in her class. And it looks like they already popped the cork."

One of the things I genuinely liked about this game was the protagonist himself, Isaac. Unlike some other shooters or similar games, Isaac isn’t a hero (although like some, he is a silent protagonist). He’s not a soldier or a fighter. He’s not walking into this thing with a gun. He’s a repair tech just trying to do his job and survive.

The equipment you come across in the game is even reflective of this. Your first real “weapon” that you gain isn’t really a weapon at all but repurposed mining equipment, a plasma cutter. A lot of the gear in this game falls into this category, the majority of which come in the form of blueprints you can find scattered around the ship.

Isaac’s engineering knowledge even allows you to rewire and upgrade pieces of equipment at the various workbenches you find scattered around the station using power nodes that you find as you play. However, you’re not capable of upgrading everything as the game goes on. You essentially have to pick and choose what you want to upgrade depending on your playstyle.

This comes in handy as you quickly learn that unlike in a lot of typical shooters, aiming for the head or chest does nothing to the necromorphs you encounter. Instead, you need to sever their limbs in order to bring them down. This is sometimes tricky depending on the necromorph you’re dealing with.

Some of them are typical humanoid shapes only with blades for arms or some other disturbing additions. Others are more disturbing in the form of small children with tentacles. Others still are huge and move like heavily armored tanks.

Ultimately, though, doesn’t matter what limbs you take out, only that you take out some of them to damage the creatures.

A screenshot from the game Dead Space. Isaac is in his suit and staring at a blood covered work bench. Over the bench is what looks like a plasma cutter repair guide. The images and text on the guide are heavily obscured by bloody handprints and the words "CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS" written in blood.

And you have to do this quickly, too, as sometimes, you’ll be swarmed and have to deal with waves upon waves of necromorphs before you’re allowed to progress. If you enjoy slaughtering waves of enemies, this is absolutely where you’ll be delighted, although sometimes, you are shoved into a corner when this happens. At times, this does feel a bit claustrophobic, but I found that only added to the overall atmosphere of the game.

Speaking of the atmosphere, this is one thing I really need to praise the game developers for because everything from the audio and visuals themselves to how certain game mechanics work just up the tension every time you play this game. This was especially enjoyable because it meant that this game wasn’t just scaring us with jumpscares. There were a few moments where this did happen, but so much of the horror of this game just lies in just things you see around you.

Upon entering some spaces, items are scattered around, overturned, or destroyed, implying that something happened before you ever got there. Dead bodies and severed limbs are just scattered everywhere. You might spot trails or splatters of blood on floors or glass windows or a mutilated corpse that may or may not attack you later when you come back to that room. Later areas of the ship you visit are overtaken by some sort of flesh-like material that pulses and quivers as you move past it, which is just all kinds of disturbing.

My personal favorite visual element, though, was an assortment of graffiti you find on the various walls. Some of it is very clearly English, but there’s more still that’s some sort of alien script that remains a mystery until we find out what each character means later in the game. Some of the English graffiti was clearly written in response to impending necromorph attacks or how the crew felt while all of this was going on. This makes them feel more real and less like set dressing, which absolutely ups the immersion.

The unsettling element carried through in the graffiti, as well, as some of it was very clearly written in blood.

A screenshot from Dead Space. Isaac is in the foreground staring at a metal wall. To his right, the following graffiti can clearly be seen scrawled onto the wall: "Lydia, If I don't make it back, take care of the kids for me. I love you. Steve."

That unsettling feeling is only increased when you realize you can be attacked by a necromorph at any moment. And I do mean any moment. Unlike some other games, the world around you doesn’t pause if you bring up your inventory or map. These are presented as holograms projected through the suit Isaac wears, and you can see through all of these, meaning you have a clear visual or audio cue should something choose to jump out at you. (And something just might.)

Even seemingly quiet hallways or elevators aren’t safe. I distinctly recall a moment where Isaac was walking down what seemed like a relatively quiet breather hallway only for a large fleshy tentacle-like appendage to lurch out of a distant wall to wrap around his leg and start to drag him down the hall that I had to shoot before it dragged him outside to devour him. I spent several journeys in elevators looking up at the ceiling and commenting that I was anticipating getting attacked in there which did actually happen a couple of times.

While there’s a lot that this game does really well, there are still some aspects that I wasn’t a huge fan of that did make gameplay feel a bit clunky, some of which may have been impacted by the fact that I was playing via PC. Certain controls aren’t particularly intuitive like they might have been on a console. I say “might” because I was using my mouse and keyboard, not a gamepad, so I don’t really know how this game might play with that. Given that, though, I will say that the keybinds for certain things felt largely unintuitive. I often found myself returning to the keybind menu to try to remember which keys did what. I imagine this is a bit more intuitive with a gamepad, but I have no proof of that.

A screenshot from Dead Space. Isaac is in the foreground on the left. Ahead of him on a metal wall is what looks like a scan of one of the bloated necromorphs.

And that’s not even going into issues with the game itself, specifically zero gravity. I will admit that the zero-g areas are very cool in concept, leaving no area of the space off-limits to your exploration. However, it can also be incredibly disorienting.

You don’t always remember which direction you came from, especially when it comes to trying to navigate yourself back to a spot you had been in previously to exit the space. You might be able to spot a legitimate location you could propel yourself to, only to find that you can’t always leap to that spot. You may need to make smaller jumps to attempt to get yourself into a better position to get to that spot you saw previously.

If that explanation feels a little nonsensical, imagine it in practice. It’s just as ridiculous there, too.

And that doesn’t even mention that your camera’s locked in position as you make leaps in zero gravity, either, which means there’s a very real chance you might get attacked by a necromorph on your way to your next location and not even realize until you look at the health meter on the back of Isaac’s suit and see it’s depleted because the aforementioned necromorphs are at an angle that you just can’t see from where you are.

I found myself wishing several times that I could actually reposition the camera a bit. We’re locked in looking over Isaac’s shoulder, which does have the intended effect of feeling like you’re right behind him as the game goes on. However, what you can see is limited by what Isaac can see, which means you often can’t see too far in one direction and something might just be in your peripheral the entire time that you might not notice until it’s too late and it’s already on you.

It’s frustrating, especially if you’re trying to dodge something only to have another creature emerge from somewhere and just stay in your peripheral.

A screenshot from Dead Space. Isaac in his RIG stands in the foreground on the left hand side of the image. Ahead of him is a metal wall with a variety of graffiti scribbled upon it. In white, "The marker will save us." In blood below that, "Put it back. Put it back where it it belongs." To the right of both of those is something written in alien script, also in blood.

All that aside, though, I did have a surprising amount of fun playing Dead Space. Shooting and aiming aside (as that’s a lot of user error), the more I learned about what actually happened to the Ishimura and what was actually going on, the more concerned I was, and everything just came together really beautifully in the end.

There’s so much more that I really want to say about this game, but I’m trying to keep major storyline spoilers to a minimum here. However, trust me when I say that the story itself makes every frustrating aspect of this game and every shriek I let out while playing completely worth it. I don’t know that I would personally play it again as shooters are absolutely not my thing, but I enjoyed the time I spent playing it, and that’s really what matters in the end.

If you like science fiction, horror, action games, or some combination of those, give Dead Space a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Dead Space is available on Origin, Steam, and Xbox.

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