Dead Space Retrospective
Upon completing Isaac’s quest on the ill-fated and oft-disgusting Ishimura deep-space mining vessel, after slicing the limbs from countless Giger-esque creatures and dredging through enough broken industrial equipment to earn a master’s degree in archaeology, I was meant with a single notion: Dead Space is deeply, fatally nihilistic. And while that may be fitting for a game whose main foe is called the “Necromorph”, it doesn’t make for a particularly fulfilling experience. Released in 2009 for the seventh generation of home consoles, Dead Space was a revelation. A true action horror game, built with seemingly no reservations for scale of violence or severity of tone. A game for the hardcore and hard of heart. In many ways, that fantasy still rings true, more than a decade later. In others, it does not.
The Aesthetic is as overpowering as ever, as if the Saw movie franchise was launched into the depths of space after being injected with a deadly virus. Shadows fester in the corners of every room while sterile sources of light gently swing with a fragility bordering on madness. Dark streaks of fresh blood and ancient grease drape over the scant furnishings. And the ship itself sways and creaks and groans with nearly every step. The immersive HUD grounds the world in a grimy post-future reality that feels far too close for comfort. Rarely, if ever, has a game environment felt so suited to the horror it wishes to inflict on the protagonist. It becomes clear upon the player’s first step aboard that the Ishimura was a sinister place long before the Necromorph invasion - And what an invasion it was. The narrative follows a mute engineer as he investigates a radio-silent mining ship and subsequently gets trapped with a threat far above his pay-grade. The zombies in Dead Space are vile things — gangly and muscle-exposed masses of garish nightmares. They screech instead of moan, and sprint instead of shamble. Even the most basic form of Necromorph is designed to strike fear in the hearts of its audience, and that trend continues with its evolutions.
Isaac isn’t here to fuck around, however, and the game quickly establishes a blistering pace of action. Dead Space controls like well-lubricated Resident Evil 4. . Unlike the savior of the President’s daughter, Isaac can aim while walking, sprint down corridors, and deliver a heavy boot to any foe that falls at his feet. Necromorphs, for all the terror of their appearances, perish like flies when faced with Isaac’s laser cutter, flame-thrower, or kinetic buzz saw. It may not fit the standard horror mold, but it’s… fun, if a little easy. Isaac has to be quick because so are his predators. Necromorphs emerge dashing from vent systems, floorboards, and ceiling panels at a moment’s notice, and it results in the peculiar sensation that Isaac is never truly safe. Dead Space eschews the popular “headshot” cliché for dynamic limb vivisection. The quickest way to kill a charging Necromorph is to slice it’s hooked limbs to shreds before it can reach you. First go the legs, so that it tumbles to the ground, and then the arms as they grasp for leverage in a never ending quest to render Isaac as mince meat. The Necromorph ranks vary wildly, with over a dozen unique enemy types and combinations of extremities. Some cling to the filthy walls and launch razor-sharp bone fragments, while others leap across the floor in wild zig-zag patterns. Searching for an opportune moment to strike. Still others hang back, ensuring that the player’s path is blocked from every angle. The Isaac’s armaments are (for the most part) crunchy and satisfying, and the stasis ability allows the player to freeze opponents for several seconds, earning the breathing room necessary to reload a gun or use a med kit. The kinesis ability, however, is much less useful. The lack of limitations on the power feel out of place with the otherwise resource management-intensive experience, and its miniscule damage output pales in comparison to more traditional means of combat.
2009 might as well have been a lifetime ago as far as the AAA industry is concerned, and a standard game being less than ten hours long was somehow considered a poor thing. And thus, despite holding a strong 6-hours worth of interesting ideas, the game stumbles on for twice as long, filling that “dead space” with uninspired puzzles, mini-games, and copy-paste quest design that bogs down any sense of momentum or fear the player could possibly have felt up to that point. It doesn’t help that Isaac’s gloved hand is firmly held the entire way by overbearing UI and a frustratingly unlikeable supporting cast. Unfortunately, the engineer didn’t land here alone, and his companions are two of the worst characters possibly ever written in a game (and yes, that is quite the high bar). Zach Hammond and Kendra Daniels act as the in-world voice of the game’s designers (or more likely its producers) as the bickering pair offer task after meaningless task to the player, helpfully instructing exactly where to go and what to do at every corner. Nothing stifles the sense of dread quite like ensuring the player is never left alone for even a moment. This isn’t just a critique of the horror, either. It’s equally difficult to create a sense of adventure, accomplishment, peril, or excitement when the player is constantly accompanied by lifeless companions. Every choice is important when designing a game, and if elements of that experience aren’t serving a distinct purpose of gameplay or narrative, they need to be cut.
There is an extraordinarily lucky alternate universe wherein Dead Space’s structure behaves closer to the original Resident Evil games. Unlike RE4, whose linear journey ferries Leon from one exotic locale to the next, Isaac remains in a singular, interconnected location for the entire extent of the game. I would have appreciated a more fitting pace for this environment. Instead of shoving unrequested backup in the player’s ear, encourage them to freely explore the Ishimura. The ship is constructed in a sensible manner, every door has signs, and plenty of secrets already hide in optional rooms, such as extra supplies or upgrade materials. It would be a smart step to remove the auto mapping feature and further encourage player independence through the level design.
My fondness for the adventure both waxed and waned as it progressed. The exhilarating combat sequences, while no longer fear-inducing, grew more complex, demanding, and fun with each encounter. Each weapon acts as a satisfying counter to the ever-growing opposition, and I never grew tired of the reliably tense combat bottlenecks that the designers use so regularly. And yet I still grew weary in my desire to witness the end of the experience. Repetitive assignments and an increasingly bleak narrative just utterly killed my motivation to complete Isaac’s story. It just feels… pointless, I suppose. An empty yet elaborate justification for why the player must battle space zombies in an extra-terrestrial facility. There is a lot to love in Dead Space. And there’s plenty else as well.