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Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle review - fun but flawed survival horror throwback

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle review - fun but flawed survival horror throwback

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle has plenty of survival horror nostalgia, but is it enough of a step forward from its predecessor?

The Daymare series from indie developer Invader Studios has an interesting history. The studio began life creating a fan remake of Resident Evil 2 before Capcom shut down the project, later announcing the official Resident Evil 2 remake that was eventually released in 2019.

Thankfully, it wasn't all doom and gloom for Invader Studios. Upon cancelling its Resident Evil 2 fan remake, the Italian developers were invited to the Capcom HQ to learn the tricks of the trade and lessons that would be taken into the studio's first-ever official game, Daymare: 1998. It has to be said that Daymare: 1998 was far from a great game. It had janky animations, unfair difficulty spikes, a frustrating inventory management system and repetitive enemies, to name just a few issues.

Check out the Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle trailer.

Despite its flaws, it was clear that Daymare: 1998 was crafted with love for the survival horror genre and had a charm that would garner a loyal following. Fast-forward to 2023 and with the arrival of the studio’s second game, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle, a prequel to the previous game, lessons have been learned to build upon the solid, if unremarkable foundations set by its predecessor. Well, at least for the most part.

The story of Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is your typical survival horror affair of government cover-ups, betrayal and mystery. Would we want it any other way? You play as the honourable agent of H.A.D.E.S (Hexacore Advanced Division for Extraction and Search) Dalila Reyes who is sent on what she thought to be a standard mission of retrieving an asset and taking it back to the powers that be.

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle,  Leonardo Interactive
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle, Leonardo Interactive

However, it soon becomes apparent to Reyes that this is no typical mission and she embarks on a path that leads to horrors beyond anyone’s imagination. Oh, and Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle takes place in the infamous Area 51, which has to be one of the coolest video game locations there could ever be, especially for fans of the retro TV series, The X-Files.

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle is a surprisingly nice-looking game, and I mean that with no disrespect to the developers. Don’t get me wrong, some of the facial and character movement animations are a little off, but at least for the most part, this is a fantastic-looking game, especially when it comes to some of its moody lighting effects which serve to heighten the perceived tension of the game.

On the topic of visuals, as with most games that launch on modern consoles, you will have the choice to favour performance or visuals. I found that performance is the way to go because the framerate takes a real pounding if you want the game to look a little bit nicer. You even have the option to adjust the Point of View giving you the choice of zooming the over-the-shoulder camera perspective closer or further away from Reyes. I found that when zoomed out too much, there’s an off-putting fisheye camera perspective, so I chose to stick with the default setting.

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle,  Leonardo Interactive
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle, Leonardo Interactive

In terms of gameplay, there’s nothing overly complicated with this game, and that’s fine. It’s nice to just pick up a game, shoot some monsters, solve some well-thought-out puzzles and become immersed in its twisting tale of mystery. Though Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle does have a gimmick of its own and that’s the ‘Frost Grip’. As the name of this gadget suggests, frosty coldness is its power. The Frost Grip can not only be used to solve some puzzles, but it's also a handy weapon against the enemy, whether it’s to slow them down or literally blast them into smithereens.

What’s more, the Frost Grip can also be upgraded via the designated stations that you might find hidden throughout the game. These upgrades can include improving its power, duration of blasts, recharge speed and so forth. If you’re lucky, you might even find weapon attachments to upgrade your pre-equipped SMG and shotgun.

I must also give a shout-out to the quality of voice acting in the game. Make no mistake, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is an indie game, but the level of voice acting puts many AAA titles to shame and that is of course down to the well-written script and complementary performances. The soundtrack is also fantastic, especially when synthesiser sounds are used which gives it an 80s/90s retro B-movie vibe.

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle,  Leonardo Interactive
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle, Leonardo Interactive

If you’ve played Daymare: 1998, the enhancements in this prequel are obvious to see from its improved inventory management system, which was overly awkward in the previous game to its more refined gameplay and overall production quality. Clearly, Invader Studios has worked tirelessly to make this a better game. Sadly, there are still some issues that have crossed over into this latest release. For starters, after a few hours, the lack of variety of enemy types becomes tiresome.

Furthermore, much like Daymare: 1998, this prequel has some sudden and unfair difficulty spikes that can make this game more frustrating than it needs to be. During a certain section of the game, I encountered what can only be described as waves of enemies in a confined room that I needed to survive in order to progress. Which is fine, this is a survival horror game after all and this is my jam.

Annoyingly, when this encounter features one-hit enemies that can spawn behind you, topped with an onslaught of sprinting enemies that can be too much for Reyes to keep up with, it can get very tedious. So, when I survived this gruelling encounter, I assumed that I’d at least get a short breather, but I was wrong. Just moments later, I was challenged with yet another horde of enemies in a smaller space, a challenge that I was still ready to take on.

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle,  Leonardo Interactive
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle, Leonardo Interactive

Unfortunately for me, I was only on 47% health with no health packs in my inventory and topped with an ill-timed checkpoint, the odds were certainly not in my favour. Yet, despite having no health packs, the game was still offering me ammo pick-ups in abundance, something that I was not in short supply of. This led to an overall unbalanced experience. If the game had only shaved off a few of the ammo packs in place of just one health pack, it would have made this encounter far less egregious. I am hoping that this balance can be addressed in a future patch.

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is a conflicting game. I love survival horror and I love the passion for this genre that Invader Studios clearly has. Mostly, this prequel is an improvement over Daymare: 1998. Still, where Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle takes three steps forward, it manages to take two steps back. If Invader Studios can level out its sudden difficulty spikes and balance the ammo-to-health pack ratio even by just a little, they could have a gem on their hands. Being optimistic, this studio did make post-launch improvements to Daymare: 1998, so I hope that this prequel will receive the same treatment. As of now, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is a flawed, but charming survival horror throwback of yesteryear that still has me excited for the potential of a third game in this series.

Pros: Improved visuals and gameplay over its predecessor, immersive story of mystery, Area 51 is an awesome location

Cons: Janky animations, harsh and sudden difficulty spikes, unbalanced ammo-to-health ratio

For fans of: Resident Evil, Tormented Souls, The X-Files

6/10: Good

Daymare: 1994 Sandcaste was released on 30 August 2023 for PC, PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo Switch. A review code was provided by publisher Leonardo Interactive. Read a guide to our review scores here.

Featured Image Credit: Leonardo Interactive

Topics: PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch