Horror games are having something of a renaissance in recent times, with the successful remake of Resident Evil 2 Remake, as well as the stellar Resident Evil 7 Biohazard taking the franchise back to its roots, and even EA testing the waters with its fantastic remake of the original Dead Space. Even the indie space has seen some fun horror titles, like last year’s wonderful Signalis. Developer Invader Studios is hoping to be a part of this horror renaissance with the follow-up to its 2019 release Daymare 1998—Daymare 1994: Sandcastle.
As its name might suggest, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle acts as a sort of prequel to its predecessor, giving us a look at what exactly was going on in the world four years before the events of Daymare 1998. The story takes place in the eponymous year of 1994, with a trio of H.A.D.E.S. agents heading out to Area 51 on a routine mission that goes horribly wrong.
"Daymare 1994: Sandcastle acts as a sort of prequel to its predecessor."
When it comes to gameplay, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle wears its influences right on its sleeves. Featuring an over-the-shoulder perspective, the game feels like a classic take on Resident Evil 2 Remake formula. The camera angle goes a long way in helping the game establish its tone and atmosphere, since your field of view is essentially funneled to focus almost entirely on what’s right in front of you. Another excellent idea that the game borrows from Resident Evil 2 Remake is the ability to do a quick 180-degree turn, which helps quite a bit in tense combat encounters.
Speaking of which, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle certainly features quite a bit of combat. After a slow build-up during the game’s prologue where you’re essentially learning how to execute some of the game’s puzzle solving and exploration mechanics, Daymare 1994 quickly starts amping up the frequency with which you’ll be getting into fights against the game’s many nightmarish enemies. This is where the game offers up a first impression that doesn’t really hold-up the further you get into the game. Where the slow opening would indicate an experience more focused on exploration and atmosphere, it instead quickly devolves into constantly fighting things off.
The combat itself, while quite a bit of fun once you get into the flow of switching between your weapons on time and making use of your Frost Grip ability, suffers from a distinct lack of variety in the equipment available to you. Where other action-oriented horror titles would offer you plenty of tools to at least have fun while you’re running for your life from monstrous creatures, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle instead features a surprisingly limited arsenal.
"Where the slow opening would indicate an experience more focused on exploration and atmosphere, it instead quickly devolves into constantly fighting things off."
The game shows an inability to balance out its slower, tense moments with the heart-pounding action that most of the game essentially becomes. While this is by no means a bad thing, the pacing quite definitely suffers because of these choices. If the game is supposed to be an out-and-out action game, it should definitely lean into those ideas further than the slow, plodding setup parts of the prologue. When it comes to horror, the game doesn’t really successfully pul off anything that might be even remotely scary.
Most of Daymare 1994: Sandcastle revolves around poorly done jump scares, which is a real shame considering how well the game can manage to look spooky from a distance at least. The bleak corridors of Area 51, lit up only by flashing red lights and a couple of lamps that haven’t had their bulbs blow out can offer up quite a striking image. Sadly, all the atmosphere can’t really help salvage the game’s attempts at horror when every second corner you turn around will have a monster lurking there. While early-game attempts at some jump scares can work quite well—a fuse box blowing up in the prologue comes to mind—trying to use nothing but jump scares can only really get you so far, and ultimately, it falls to the action gameplay to help uplift the game.
Sadly, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle also falters quite a bit with its combat. While visuals of weapons look decent, and the enemies look fantastically monstrous, there are smaller issues that combine together to form a bigger problem. For example, many enemies just won’t react to getting hit by your bullets. Sure, strong monsters shouldn’t necessarily be taking much damage from your SMG, but at least a minor stagger animation would have been much better than what we have now. There’s also the fact that you only really have access to two weapons during your entire playthrough: an SMG and a shotgun. That’s right, you won’t get any other weapons to play around with.
"Sadly, all the atmosphere can’t really help salvage the game’s attempts at horror."
Thanks to its poor attempts at horror while trying to focus on action gameplay, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle suffers quite a bit from poor pacing issues. While I first thought that these pacing issues would largely be limited to the game’s opening hours where it’s still trying to introduce its premise and characters for you, even the mid-game period still showed quite a few problems with how Daymare 1994 paces out its combat encounters with the slower, more exploration-focused puzzle elements.
The premise of the game is surprisingly fun, and grounds for a rather excellent adventure thanks to the heavy thriller vibes it gives off. H.A.D.E.S. agent and protagonist Dalila Reyes is a fun character, and despite the title featuring incredibly goofy writing, the interactions between her and her fellow agents can range from fun to entertainingly nonsensical. The premise for the game starts off simple, but as is the case with just about any horror game out there, things quickly get complicated once Reyes starts exploring deeper into the bowels of Area 51.
There’s even a contrived, surprisingly-futuristic PDA—called the D.I.D.—that you can use as the ultimate tool, since not only does it let you manage your inventory and track your collected documents, but you can also use a standard USB cable to hack just about any highly-classified government computer you find. Nothing in the game ever feels like it’s meant to be taken too seriously.
"The premise for the game starts off simple, but as is the case with just about any horror game out there, things quickly get complicated."
Daymare 1994: Sandcastle’s biggest success, aside from the fun vibes of its story, is how well it manages to capture its time period. Aside from the ultra-futuristic D.I.D., computers in the world of Daymare 1994 are beige, blocky things with massive keys on the keyboards, and a whole lot of dials next to screens giving off the soft interlaced glow of old-school CRT monitors. There’s quite a bit of charm to be found in exploring a ruined government office filled with these old-timey computers, even though you’re probably just going to get jumped by another monster.
The game isn’t free of technical issues in its visuals either. While the game itself feels and plays competently, cutscenes were strangely jittery, and the idea of lip syncing for dialogue may as well be a concept as alien as several of the monsters you end up fighting. Even when playing on Quality mode on the PS5, textures were surprisingly low-resolution, and even a map pinned to a wall was little more than a blurry, blocky mess. Where it might fail on technical levels, however, Daymare 1994: Sandcastle succeeds in its artistic intentions by presenting some really good-looking tableaus to punctuate the key moments of your exploration through Area 51.
Daymare 1994: Sandcastle is far from the perfect game. Plagued with technical problems as well as issues with fundamental design, it manages to be an average game thanks to its somewhat competent combat system. Sure, its story won’t be taking home any awards, and you might only really have two weapons to play around with, but the game still manages to be okay in a pulpy kind of way.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Great depiction of 1994; Fun, pulpy story; Has its moments of presenting some great visuals; Competent combat system.
Technically rough, especially during cutscenes; No variety in weapons; Really bad at being scary.