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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #27—Dead Space

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Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is the first straight-up survival horror name on the list and a remarkable achievement, unfairly buried by executive meddling in the years hence.

Dead Space promo 2

#27. DEAD SPACE, by Michael Cripe

Horror has never quite been able to break out of the awkward phase when it comes to its place in video games. Sections meant to terrify lose tension due to the fact that respawning is almost always an option, and mini-maps or health bars alike always manage to obscure true immersion.

However, Visceral Games’s sci-fi masterpiece Dead Space stands true as a title so far ahead of its time that it managed to rectify nearly everything that has been holding the genre back for decades. Dead Space is a masterclass in immersive world building and no game has ever come close to even touching the bar it set in October of 2008.

Purely based on fundamentals, Visceral cracked the horror code in a way that felt as if the now shutdown developer peered into the future. Booting up Dead Space finds players in the worn shoes of interstellar engineer, Isaac Clarke. Clarke has been sent on a recon trip to the USG Ishimura after communication with the mining ship ceased.

To make matters worse, Clarke’s girlfriend was last seen onboard the same mining ship he is travelling to. Equipped with nothing but a standard RIG suit and an engineering tool called the Plasma Cutter, players are made perfectly aware that they are practically useless in terms of combat.

After the stage is set, boarding the Ishimura reveals the HUD—or lack thereof—that players will become familiar with over the next 10 or so hours of the game. From beginning to end, players will almost never see a traditional health bar, inventory select screen, or special meter. Everything that needs to be seen can be found on or around Clarke and the RIG.

The health bar is aptly located right on Clarke’s spine while stasis has a dedicated semi-circle nearby as well. Inventory is displayed via hologram in-game and if players get lost, Isaac has a navigator that can spawn from his hand in order to help guide the way. The different ways Visceral kept minds from leaving the game world range all the way from naturally intuitive to remarkably genius.

Of course, the glue that gels all of Dead Space’s moving parts into one whole is the world that has been so carefully laid out before the players. Necromorphs are the enemy encountered nearly at every turn and they manage to both terrify and intrigue. The only way to kill necromorphs is by cutting off their limbs. Not only does the specific idea of dismemberment add lots of gameplay potential, it makes these creatures completely unique to science fiction.

Mangled space zombies that come in all different shapes and sizes that are easier to kill through dismemberment are a piece to the massive lore puzzle that is Dead Space, and the piece fits flawlessly—it is all believably horrifying in every way that has not been seen since the original Resident Evil. Even more remarkable is the fact that Dead Space is somehow still a joy to look at, even an entire decade later.

Whether the art style or sheer technological power is to credit for graphics that still mostly hold up is hard to tell. Regardless, one would have little reason to not go back and give Dead Space a shot.

To add on to the world building is the narrative presented throughout. The twists and turns in a game that absolutely does not need a convincing narrative are ever present. Suddenly Clarke discovers that the necromorph invasion did not happen by chance and is actually the result of a religious cult known as Unitology.

Cultish undertones and Resident Evil visuals paint a grotesque canvas teaming with tension. Suddenly, Dead Space becomes less of a romp through a haunted house and more of an investigation that tests a willingness to survive. Even in its worst moments, Dead Space will keep players on their toes.

Dead Space is less a stepping stone for the genre and more of a landmark. The industry is still failing to keep up with Visceral’s success in immersion and world building, but that does not mean that Dead Space was anything but a triumph.

Rarely is the title brought up in discussion when looking back at the greatest games of all time, so hopefully our piece has helped shine a light as to why the horror-thriller is one of the standouts. If you have never played an entry in the franchise, we at OnlySP implore you to rush to your PC, plug in your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, or download it on your Xbox One, to give it a shot.

To help keep the tension alive until you are boarding your first trip on the Ishimura, check out the game’s reveal trailer from E3 2008 down below.

THE AGE OF “MAINSTREAM”

Only two and a half years after the first Dead Space made waves in the survival horror genre, Dead Space 2 came along and was less an evolution of the form and more like ‘Uncharted in space’, complete with a now-voiced protagonist and explosive set-pieces. Luckily, as one of the most expensive games ever made, the sequel retained polish and excitement to spare, making it successful with critics and fans—but the damage had been done to what was once a promising horror franchise.

In the same year as Dead Space 2, publisher EA also happened to release Dragon Age II and Crysis 2. For all three games, what started as a relatively niche product for a specific audience was pressured into adopting broader strategies; in the pursuit of greater magnitudes of sales. These games all had their own fans, but at the expense of the hardcore early adopters of the series.

Crysis 2 became more linear. Dragon Age II reduced the complexity of its battle system and breadth of its world. Finally, for Dead Space, whose primary inspirations System Shock 2 and Resident Evil 4 were beloved in their time, the sequel dropped the backtracking, the tough choices around resources, the slow build of dread. By the time Dead Space 3 arrived, the spirit of new ideas that began in Dead Space was replaced with a vaguely horror-tinged shooter, one that even used the cover mechanics that were all the rage in mainstream action games.

Taking cover, co-operative multiplayer, and universal ammo (essentially erasing resource management as a problem) were all features intended to appeal to a broader audience. Not terrible by any means, Dead Space 3 maintains a healthy contingent of defenders, but the series still lost its original followers, without becoming the sort of blockbuster success that EA hoped for.

In this case, other single-player games for fans of Dead Space are not its disappointing sequels but its inspirations and successors. Aside from the aforementioned System Shock and Resident Evil, the more recent The Evil Within games share Dead Space‘s resource-managing, panic-stricken horror, and Bethesda’s reboot of Prey has many terrifying encounters, mixed with deeper role-playing mechanics.

Alien: Isolation comes closest to the thrill of Dead Space, but just missed the mark.

Alien: Isolation comes closest to the visceral thrill of Dead Space‘s horror, though without the inventive rogues’ gallery that the necromorph threat brought. At the far end of the spectrum, complex action-adventures such as Dark Souls and Metroid Prime (whose 3D map presentation and slow-unlocking doors made an appearance in Dead Space) include plenty of back-tracking and snatches of horror, though less of the survival-horror aspects specifically.

Thanks for joining us this week for an important title, well worth checking out and hopefully to inspire the next generation of survival horror games. Do you have a memorable game in the survival horror genre that you wish had gotten a better shake, or at least not devolved into a cooperative action game? Share in the comments if you like, and we will see you again next week on OnlySP’s 50 Favourite Games for a very influential action series.

Single-player games coverage. Every day.

OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #17—Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

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Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is a classic—a founding title in a genre loved by many to this day.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night gameplay screenshot 4

#17. CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT, by Daniel Pereira

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is truly a special game. Few titles within the industry can be labeled as a work of art, and Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is, without a doubt, one of them. Being born of an ideology that a new direction could be what was best for the series after three iterations  of the same style, Symphony of the Night took a leap of faith for the franchise, and looking back on its success, players will have no question that the leap paid off.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night takes place five years after the events of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, where Richter Belmont traversed Castle Dracula to take down the main man himself and once again reset the Castle’s reappearance cycle .

What is interesting about Symphony of the Night was that  the game begins as Rondo of Blood ends: with the climactic battle of Richter and Dracula in the throne room. Once the battle is complete the game transitions and players are now reintroduced to Alucard, Dracula’s half-vampire son with a human woman. This game is the first time players had seen Alucard since Castlevania III (1989), and this time he is the primary playable character.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night gameplay screenshot 2

Alucard’s introduction within Symphony of the Night as the playable character created a whole new dynamic for the player to wrap their head around. Since Alucard is not a vampire hunter nor a member of the Belmont family, he does not use a whip to slay monsters. Instead he uses a variety of weaponry that players can discover throughout their journey into the castle. Interestingly, the game starts the player off at what is essentially Alucard’s peak performance, as he is able to slice and dice his way through any enemy before him—that is, until Alucard is reunited with Death, who strips him of his abilities and gear forcing the player to start their adventure empty-handed.

The developer ’s choice to start the player completely fresh and weak contributes nicely to the game’s new direction. Unlike previous playable characters, Alucard can equip different armor, weapons, and abilities to further aid him while traversing the castle. Ultimately, Alucard’s goals are to figure out why the castle has reappeared only five years after being destroyed, and locate the missing Richter Belmont. Despite a narrative that captures player attention  immediately, Symphony of the Night proves that its new gameplay direction is what will ultimately steal the show.

As a revolutionary new direction for the Castlevania series at the time, Symphony of the Night was the first entry that did not end after a stage completion or boss fight . Instead, Symphony of the Night surprised players by simply continuing forward. In previous games, after completing a stage, the player would be taken to a map screen to select the next area of play; however, in Symphony of the Night, the map can be toggled with the press of a button and only indicated areas that were visited by the player, with everything else nonexistent until discovered. This promoted exploration and returning ventures to familiar areas, allowing the game to really showcase its roots  and establish a formula that would usher it into the history books.

In addition to the new approach to level design for Symphony of the Night, what is most surprising about the game, and perhaps what solidified it in most gamer’s memory, is the fact that after what would seem to be the final boss fight, the castle would then invert and could be played entirely upside down. For this event to conspire, the player would have to complete specific tasks before and during the boss encounter, and whether or not those tasks were done would determine if the game ended there or continued with the Inverted Castle. As a truly remarkable feature, Symphony of the Night‘s Castle Dracula was designed to look just as beautiful upside down as it was during the normal playthrough. Not only was the aesthetic of the castle perfectly preserved in its inverted state, but it also played just as seamless as it did right-side up.

As a testament to the wonderful art and craftsmanship by the developer for this title, the gothic horror atmosphere combined with the excellent sound design of the game only attributed to how incredible Symphony of the Night‘s Castle Dracula was. That the artistic integrity of Symphony of the Night has withstood the test of time is truly astonishing. At a time when the industry was shifting to 3D models, the team behind Symphony of the Night chose to go against the grain and create what feels like a swan song for the 2D gaming genre.

Recently, director Koji Igarashi released the long-anticipated Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. OnlySP had the privilege of reviewing the new game, and although it exceeded our expectations and presents itself as a worthy successor, it cannot replace or recreate the zeitgeist that was Symphony of the Night. The 2.5D graphics of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night are outclassed by the 2D pixel art  of its predecessor. A style decision, yes, however one cannot help but wonder what the final product would have looked like with a 2D template.

Of course, Symphony of the Night cannot be truly praised without mention of its greatest contribution to the industry. Without this game, players would have never known that man is a miserable pile of secrets. Thanks to Symphony of the Night’s original intro battle, the industry will always remember the significance surrounding Dracula’s rhetorical question of “What is a man?”

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a stylish love letter to fans of the series. More importantly, however, is the game’s contribution to the industry and the Metroidvania genre as a whole. To this day, Symphony of the Night is recognized and referenced as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Metroidvania game of its generation.

From the outset, players might question how this game could come with such accolades, but the easiest answer is more often than not the simplest one. For one to understand what makes Castlevania: Symphony of the Night so great and worthy of a spot on OnlySP’s 50 Favorite Games, all they need to do is play it.

Thanks for joining us as we take a look at one of the founders of the Metroidvania genre. Join us next week as we look at a very different game from a different genre—but one that has remained inspirational for years nonetheless.

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