My knees felt weak, arms were heavy. And if I had eaten any of my mom’s spaghetti, it would definitely be on my sweater already. Taking a deep breath, I whispered to myself, “I can do this”. I flicked through my inventory to see if I had enough ammunition, healing items and most importantly, things that would go boom or burn flesh to a crisp.
I took in another deep breath and gripped the controller with sweaty palms, probably just as tightly as the protagonist I was playing in Days Gone, Deacon St. John, held the assault rifle in his hands. A few more seconds passed before I chucked an Attractor Bomb, a homemade bomb duct-taped to an alarm clock and aluminium can to amplify the beeping it makes, towards the opening of a cave.
It was quickly met by the screeching of a hundred deformed humanoids known as Swarmers clambering frantically over each other to halt the beeping. Understandable, I would want to destroy any alarm clock disrupting my midday snooze too. I smirked as I waited for the explosion; the poor fools won’t know what hit them.
But the explosion never came. A knot formed in my stomach as I realised that, instead of throwing an Attractor Bomb, I threw out a plain old Attractor — just an alarm clock duct-taped to an aluminium can. Quite useless against a horde made up of 200 hangry Swarmers rudely awoken from slumber. As the beeping stopped, they turned their attention to Deacon. I frantically let off a few shots from my assault rifle, turned tail and started running. At least 50 of them were chasing me, but I knew salvation was close as the motorbike icon on the minimap was drawing closer.
Hopping on the bike and spinning it around, I hit the accelerator, kicking up dirt and stone towards the Swarmers. I turned around to the horde behind me, screaming out “So long freaks! I’ll be back soon!” Bad move. A Screamer rears its ugly blonde-haired head out of a thicket and lets out a piercing scream that startled me, causing me to ram my bike straight into a tree. Shortly after that, Deacon became bacon for Swarmers.
The scenario above isn’t something that happened during the beginning of Days Gone. In fact, it happened after I had finished the main storyline, was armed with the best weapons and had unlocked all of the skills. Even after spending upwards of 60 hours in the game, the dread of facing a horde is still nerve-wracking.
SIE Bend Studios’ first and only open-world action-adventure survival horror game was released last year. It received mixed reviews with critics lamenting the various bugs, repetitive nature, story pacing and the fact that it doesn’t add anything new to the genres it inhabits. Edge Magazine summed up their Days Gone (DG) review by saying “This is ‘State of Decay’ without the stakes, ‘The Last of Us’ without Naughty Dog’s storytelling chops, and the most generic, overlong open-world game around.”
It’s hard to disagree with the comparisons made by Edge Magazine as DG shares a similar premise as both State of Decay (SOD) and The Last of Us (TLOU). DG is set in Oregon two years after a global pandemic that transformed the majority of humans into zombie-like creatures known as Freakers. As expected for a setting like this, the surviving humans have banded together, formed various groups and built settlements to try to bring back a semblance of normalcy and law and order from days gone.
However, I actually had more fun playing DG compared to SOD and TLOU because I found it to be a nice combination of both games. Like the former, it allows you to freely roam around in a huge map but does away with the tedious base-building and simplifies resource management. The only resources you mainly have to worry about are crafting items for healing, traps and explosives, ammo for your weapons, fuel and spare parts for your motorbike.
Sure, DG’s story and writing aren’t on par with TLOU. But, while a little clichéd and predictable, it was still entertaining for the most part. Players are given the handlebars of Deacon St. John, outlaw biker-turned-drifter. He is a bounty hunter of sorts hired by settlements to solve problems, be it finding other survivors to add to their numbers, tracking down and ‘arresting’ problematic individuals, or outright eliminating groups of bandits and marauders terrorising people of the settlement. Amidst all that, Deacon is also adamant to find out if his wife is still alive.
What got me hooked to DG is actually quite similar to what fellow DeconReconian JY Tan wrote about Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It’s the vulnerability and the unpredictability that open-world games can conjure. Even though Deacon was formerly a soldier in the US Army, he is still very much a human being. Even with his health and stamina maxed out, both deplete fairly quickly especially when you are outnumbered by a horde or even human enemies with guns.
Speaking of guns, though Deacon can carry three weapons, a primary assault rifle or shotgun, secondary sidearm and a special weapon such as a light machine gun or sniper, they too run out of ammunition fairly quickly. Suppressors, which you can only buy from weapon merchants in settlements or find out in the world, allow you to take enemies out from a distance quietly and in relative safety, but they deteriorate and break after a few shots, so you have to be really accurate and try to eliminate as many foes with as few shots as possible. There have been many times where I took potshots at Freakers without paying attention to the condition of my suppressor, and it led to either running for the hills or Freaker chow time. Like any good survival horror, DG gives you the tools to survive, but the challenge lies in managing your limited resources.
At least with human enemies, you can take a stealthier approach by hiding in bushes, throwing a rock to get their attention and executing stealth kills when they are nearby. Freakers, on the other hand, require a different approach. While you can eliminate them using stealth, it’s usually harder as they travel in groups and have heightened senses, so they are able to sniff you out. And when one Freaker spots you, it usually means the rest will follow.
Adding to the challenge is the introduction of evolved Freakers. Swarmers are the most common and weakest followed by a slightly tougher variant known as the Bleacher, which can be distinguished by its paler complexion. Then you have the Screamer, which acts as a living, breathing alarm. Its high-pitched scream doesn’t just attract other Freakers to your location but also disorients you and fully drains your stamina.
Later in the game, you also have to face the brutish Breaker, which is the tank in the Freaker squad. Last but definitely not least is the Reacher, a Freaker evolved to be a sneaky nuisance as it moves extremely fast and prefers hit-and-run tactics. It is even smart enough to hide in bushes and behind cover. The only saving grace you get when facing the last two types of Freakers is that they are hostile towards Swarmers and Bleachers and might give you an “assist” before setting their sights back on you.
If that wasn’t enough, there are hostile wildlife to contend with. Wolves, mountain lions and bears roam the map and are always ready to spoil your best-laid plans. There have been instances where I was hidden in the bushes waiting for a horde to come out of its cave, only for a pack of wolves to attack me from behind, causing me to run in the direction of the cave which caused the wolves to trigger the proximity bombs I had laid down. The explosion then caused the horde to pile out of the cave and hunt me down in full strength.
By this point, you’re probably thinking that that’s about it right? It can’t get any more challenging. But then comes the infected wolves (Runners) and bears (Ragers) that are more ornery, a lot tougher and are more than happy to spoil your plans.
While this may all sound frustrating (and sometimes it is), it is also why I love DG. The unpredictability and vulnerability make it extremely challenging and, thus, satisfying when you are able to mow down a horde of Freakers or when your plans actually work out.
It’s a challenge that is doled out fairly and consistently. Taking on a horde during the early stages of the game isn’t impossible, but not recommended (you’ll be in for a tough, painful time). That said, even at later stages with more upgrades and gear in hand, hordes can still tear you apart if you go in unprepared — a mistake I made when taking on the horde in the Sawmill, which is the largest horde in the game.
I appreciate that SIE Bend Studios decided to make Deacon feel as close to being human as possible, and not a video game super-soldier (lack of regenerating health, slow stamina regeneration and lack of armour). He huffs and puffs when he runs, and actually gasps for air when his stamina is depleted. At a certain point in the game, he even comments on how unfit he is when scaling up and down a radio tower.
Deacon’s own human limitations help me understand that going in guns blazing isn’t the best method of engagement. Instead, you have to survey your surroundings, look out for handily placed explosives that you can shoot as you kite a horde around it; or navigate tight openings that can be used to funnel Swarmers so you can easily pick them off while you regain precious stamina, and laying down your own traps and leading enemies towards it. While Deacon has brawns to spare, his brains (and yours) is what makes him a survivor.
Things rarely go perfectly to plan in DG. But you quickly learn it’s all about improvising, multitasking and staying calm. You will quickly master all three because you are bound to run the wrong way, clamber up the wrong rooftop and have to craft more items while escaping. And usually, it’s these battles that I scrape through by the skin of my teeth, ammo close to zero with not much health left that leaves me feeling satisfied as I’ve managed to overcome the odds.
If you are a fan of open-world or survival horror games, DG is one to try, especially since it’s a lot cheaper in price now. It’s not the most polished, innovative or nuanced in terms of writing but it is still a fun game with a decent storyline, beautiful graphics and solid voice and character work. Also, if you like games that pit you against insurmountable odds, this is easily one of the best available today for the PS4. Here’s hoping that there will be a sequel, if it can surmount its biggest odds of all — mixed reviews.
Originally published at DeconRecon.