I have been wanting to revisit Dead Space for a while now but stopped every time I thought back to it. I wasn’t ready for the dread I would feel. Dread of going back to the blood soaked hallways where danger lurks behind every corner and every vent whispers lullabies to me. But it’s a dread that I love as well. It is such a weird experience to describe my fascination with the Dead Space series. It took me years to actually beat Dead Space for the first time because I was so scared initially that I struggled to go through any new section of the ship.
Play sessions could be ridiculously short and I’d make little progress towards any objective as I hid in corners waiting for monsters to show up. In time, I became accustom to the scares and conquered my own fears of the necromorphs. It’s a testament to the game design and how much the Dead Space could connect to my emotions. However, I’ve grown quite a bit since my first play through so I was hoping that Dead Space could still offer some scares and that I haven’t become too desensitized to its tricks.
Grab Your Plasma Cutter
You are in the boots of Isaac Clark, who is a ship systems engineer on a mission to repair the planet cracker USG Ishimura with your co-workers Kendra, Hammond, and some nobodies. The Ishimura is completely radio silent and shortly after landing it becomes apparent that there is something seriously wrong with the crew. After turning on the air filtration systems, something large crashes into the flight lounge and takes out the nobodies, while you stumble away from the blood bath to find a moment of respite in the elevator to collect yourself.
Isaac finds an engineering tool called the plasma cutter and repurposes it for self defense. What I like most about this opening is that Isaac thinks “okay what do I know? I can cut wires and reprogram gravity fields which means I am about to cut through necromorph limbs and get out of here.” The entire plot of the game is trying to figure out what happened while keeping the Ishimura in a stable enough condition to stay alive. All of this while defending against a mysterious alien infection.
The premise is perfect for a horror survival game as the levels play out where Isaac needs to fix something pesky like lack of air in the ship or incoming asteroids. The majority of the levels justify their existence this way. This is not a bad thing since Isaac then walks around more of the ship seeing how the different sections of the workforce faired against the necromorphs. The world building present is staggering considering it was a new IP that some people thought might fail miserably at the time.
The variety of areas within the ship help to really flesh out the true horror of the situation. For instance, my most feared level, “Intensive Treatment,” is set in the medical wing of the ship. Isaac steps off the tram and is immediately greeted by body bags and the sounds of flies buzzing around. Then in hydroponics, the player sees that plants cover every surface and the people who worked there were actually turned into spore covered mutants who pollute the air with toxins. For the most part, all the of the sections of the ship have their own personality and reason to be a part of the overall story.
I had a tough time actually finding parts of Dead Space’s level design that felt like filler. The last level probably came the closest because I feel it could have been given more personality being as it is the catalyst for the entire plot. I was hoping for something that felt just as human and personal as “Intensive Treatment” but instead the world felt lifeless and alien, which in its own right is appropriate but is not the style I would have hoped for the game to end on. I felt little connection to the last level and the majority of it just felt like a showdown between you and Kendra before the big boring boss is summoned from a crater.
I do have one issue with the story and I never realized until I replayed through this latest time. Kendra tells Isaac to watch the rest of the clip of Nicole (his girlfriend) when they meet in the last chapter. Isaac watched this same clip at the beginning of the story and Kendra noted that he had done it multiple times, so Isaac should have known that Nicole had died before arriving at the Ishimura. Kendra even knew the ending of the clip so that means that she too had watched Nicole kill herself with Isaac.
Yet, Kendra at the beginning of the game asks if Isaac is excited to see her again. What this means is that Isaac was not mentally stable even before he set foot on the Ishimura and Kendra had been manipulating his emotions and fractured sense of reality from the second the game opens. We are also supposed to think that Hammond had no idea of Isaac’s health, yet Hammond was in the same cramped cockpit as Kendra and Isaac. Hammond should have overheard or seen the video that Isaac watched multiple times during their trip together. I guess Hammond only cared about the mission after all.
Syncing Your Rig Up with the Ship
Dead Space introduces one of the most natural UI’s I have ever seen. The RIG or resources integration gear is the suit that Isaac and others wear in the Dead Space universe. It’s used for health management and strength enhancement, so the player is able to see their health not on their TV screen but instead directly on Isaac’s spine. The suits are used for all characters and I appreciate the continuity within the universe.
Dead Space ensures that players never are removed from the game. The UI is designed to keep the player immersed in the action so checking the inventory, map, or objective means that you are not safe from enemies. The player must choose when to safely check or utilize these tools. I love that many of the player’s interactions with other characters happens over a video feed. The video feed is a holographic projection that pops up in front of Isaac obstructing some view. Though enemy attacks never really happen when these videos are present for first time players it still feels like an enemy will jump through the hologram at any moment.
Cut Off the Limbs!
“Cut off the limbs!” These words are written in blood above the first weapon Isaac receives. It’s the only direction the player has before being thrown into combat with the first true enemy of Dead Space.
The gameplay is what sets Dead Space apart from many shooters even to this day. The various weapons available to Isaac, for the most part, are unique. Weapons like the plasma cutter, line cutter, and ripper play directly into Dead Space’s core gameplay mechanic of dismemberment. Unlike most other games where the goal is to shoot the target in the head or body, Dead Space forces you to pick your shots wisely focusing on enemy arms, legs, and sometimes the head.
What this focus on dismemberment does is it helps to mix up the gameplay from other shooters while also enhancing the tension. There is nothing more terrifying than a necromorph popping up directly in front of you and you can’t squirm to get a shot off on the arms or legs so you just shoot wildly and hope. Of course, you can punch the enemy back for some personal space but in the heat of the moment you lose all common sense.
The other weapons available are mostly unimpressive like the pulse rifle and flamethrower but the contact beam can be incredibly helpful in a pinch or against a particularly beefy enemy. Overall, the weapons available allow the player to play as they so choose but rewards players willing to play according to Dead Space’s rules of dismemberment.
Isaac also has two abilities to aid in his repair mission. He is equipped with a stasis module that slows down moving objects like doors or enemies and this can be one of the most useful abilities in the game since it can affect most enemy types. The upgraded version can make the effects last way longer than it takes to actually take an enemy down. I purposely didn’t upgrade stasis until the end of the game just because it can be really useful but it slows down the flow of the fight to a comfortable crawl.
Then there is the kinesis module that allows Isaac to pick up objects with his mind. Most commonly used for moving objects out of the way of a door or removing debris from an area, the kinesis module offers limited advantages in combat. Explosives, objects, and even necromorph limbs can be used during combat with kinesis. In Dead Space, this isn’t the most effective form of combat but it can have its moments like when the swarm (enemy varient) are gathering and there is an explosive tank nearby.
The gameplay for Dead Space can be fast paced when, in later levels, necromorphs are jumping out of vents every few seconds. In the early levels, the game makes it a point to immerse the player in the setting and mystery. The necromorphs are sent out at a deliberately slow pace in early on in order to keep the player’s sense of fear at the fore front of their minds. The player can’t help but wonder when the next attack will come or from where.
Do You Hear That?
The crowning achievement of Dead Space is the sound design. Moments after the first scare in the story, Isaac is plunged into near silence. Dead Space has moments that go from 100 to 0 really quickly, The newly acquired silence hangs on the player’s ears and makes them feel hyper aware of every sound around them. Developers Visceral Games use these moments to keep tension up. Sounds of things falling from a great height keep you looking over your shoulder at all times. The sound of flies buzzing around causes you to look for the bodies that have to be nearby. The worst of them all are the whispers and lullabies which sound like you too are going insane just like Isaac.
Everything in this game is working to either tell you an immersive story or trying to scare you enough to take a break. The audio files are a great to hear the emotion in characters’ voices as they voice their concerns that something isn’t quite right with the ship and leadership. My favorite files were the ones that had characters return like Temple. One of the only friendly presences you have in the game you never actually formally meet. You can find his discarded recordings around the Ishimura and learn about his attempts to escape the ship. As a fellow engineer, he feels like a close friend by the time you finally come close to meeting with him. Of course, Dead Space only introduces things so that it can take them away from you. There are no safe places in space, after all.
Dead Space has a very fair difficulty set up. There are four difficulties with easy, medium, hard, and impossible. I went with hard because I couldn’t remember how unforgiving impossible could be. I never had any real trouble on hard. By the last battle, I had way more supplies than I could ever want but the majority of these items came from the early game. I don’ think I would have been half as prepared for the later levels if I hadn’t prepared so early on by hoarding everything in sight.
The problem can be Dead Space begins to feel more like an action game in the late game rather than a survival horror game. The pace at which enemies spawn begins to remove a lot of the fear later on. This is not necessarily an issue because it’s a natural progression and forces the player to be preparing from the start and allows the developers to begin to play on player expectations.
For example, stores were from the beginning were these unspoken safe havens. The player assumes that the places that stores are located are safe from necromorphs. The unintentional safe zone. The truth is that the game never actually states this because it was just a player assumption. Visceral Games, in their sadistic way, placed corpses around one of the stores. Most players wouldn’t give this a second thought and those who chose to go back to the store to unlock that brand new level 5 suit were in for a surprise when a dozen resurrected enemies are slicing open their spine. You can never be too sure of anything in a game designed to scare you.
The core gameplay is not too challenging on most difficulties if you are careful with your supplies. Dead Space makes finding items, whether off a body or in the vacuum of space, fairly easy by making all items have a light associated with it. The lights help the player find the item and classify it from a distance. It’s a really smart system to incorporate into a survival horror campaign.
Dead Space starts out as an intriguing survival horror game with a slow pace and a mystery to unfold. The dismemberment mechanic helps to bring a unique identity to the Dead Space franchise while at the same time creating for more tension filled situations. While the later levels partially throw away this slower pace in favor of bigger bosses and far more enemies, Dead Space still manages to challenge the player’s combat prowess while offering moments of true terror. I only wish that Visceral Games chose the late chapters to subvert more of the player’s established expectations like they do with stores. I think it would have made for a more interesting end game but I do appreciate proving myself in Dead Space’s combat. I think, because I know where the franchise is going, I just want to hold on to the slow methodical pace of the first few chapters of Dead Space as much as possible. Those early chapters are where the game shines in survival horror before shedding its skin to become something more akin to an action movie with cool lore.