It’s been eight years since the last major release from Sony’s Bend Studio, the PS Vita’s technically impressive but overlooked Uncharted: Golden Abyss. And that’s a long time to wait for fans of the former Syphon Filter developers to make their PS4 debut, but now it’s here. It’s called Days Gone and it’s a very fun and quietly inventive take on familiar gameplay concepts.
While there’s certainly a valid argument for open world fatigue, and Days Gone isn’t without its share of frustrations, Bend Studio has combined deep gameplay systems, diverse approaches to combat, and tactical stealth elements to produce a game that feels more like Metal Gear Solid V than The Last of Us. When that’s combined with a surprisingly moving story, great acting, and world-class visuals, it becomes obvious that Days Gone has found a winning formula.
I’ve seen Days Gone described as a survival horror game, but it’s not really a horror game, and it’s not really a survival game either. It definitely has horror elements: the bloodthirsty freakers (that’s what Days Gone likes to call its take on zombies) can be anxiety-inducing with their overwhelming and seemingly endless hordes. And it definitely has survival elements: there’s material gathering, crafting and hunting.
But it’s not really scary, and it doesn’t really try to scare you in the way most horror games do, although there are a few moments that come close. And it doesn’t rely as much on its survival elements as you might think: while you need to fuel up your bike and repair it if it gets damaged, fuel and other resources are mostly in abundance and I was never left wanting more materials for very long before I found them. At its heart, Days Gone is an action game: it’s all about using the tools at your disposal to bring as much chaos down on your enemies as possible.
The last time I played Days Gone, I went to take on one of the enemy ambush camps that dot the landscape, where enemies wait for naive bikers they can snipe. As I snuck up to the first enemy, I saw a group of freakers slowly approach the human enemies and swarm. A trickle turned into a flood when dozens of freakers poured through the checkpoint and overwhelmed my human foes. The two groups of enemies started fighting each other– humans shooting at freakers, and freakers gnawing at enemy flesh– and one group won. It’s strange then because I didn’t do much of anything, that this moment felt so satisfying to experience. It’s fun to just watch Days Gone, to see how its different systems interact with each other.
If you need to take down a horde of freakers, try setting proximity traps and luring them into a narrow passage where a single Molotov can burn through a swarm. Or use environmental traps to bring down piles of logs onto your enemies heads. There aren’t many open world games with tools this interesting and fun to play around with.
There are tons of fun weapons in Days Gone, whether its the brute force of the Crowdbreaker shotgun or the precise death of the 50 caliber BFG sniper. They all feel very different to use and have their own quirks. There will be complaints about Days Gone’s gunplay and it definitely can feel a bit floaty.
Not every weapon has a precise reticle, and although I adjusted and grew to enjoy the gunplay, especially with shotguns and more powerful rifles, there’s definitely been moments when it feels like the aiming lacks precision. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for a good bullet-time slow-motion effect and Days Gone has that with its Focus Mode, and not only does it give you more time to take out enemies, but it also makes aiming more precise and reduces the size of your reticle.
You’ll be pretty familiar with a lot of the raw materials used to create Days Gone’s open-world. There are bandit camps that fill in your map when completed, although this time they’re map bunkers instead of map towers and you have to search for their underground entrance. There are RPG elements, and luckily the upgrades for your skills and stats feel significant and are limited. Like in Breath of the Wild, you can’t simply grind your way to an infinitely high level. There’s a set number of items in the world that will upgrade your stats and once you’ve found them and obtained all the skills, that’s it.
The world also contains areas which feel more like individually and carefully designed game levels than typical open-world landscape. The old sawmill is delightful with its logjams, creaky bridges, mechanical doors, and narrow passages that make fighting the horde of freakers who live there feel different every time you try to tackle it. And you might have to try a few times: there are around five hundred freakers in that horde alone, and they can swarm you and kill you in a second if you make a wrong turn.
This is an absolutely massive game, by the way. I was surprised by just how much world there is in Days Gone, and just when you think that you’ve explored it all, more areas open up. Expect to spend fifty hours or more if you want to complete the campaign and do a decent number of side quests. And yeah, there’s some repetition. You’ll face many enemy camps, for instance, and the basic mission structure is the same: take out the enemies, locate the bunker. Luckily, the core gameplay loop is still fun and the environments are varied enough to keep things interesting.
Those horde encounters are the most thrilling in Days Gone. They’re an interesting form of boss fight where the sheer numbers of enemies become the boss, rather than a single stronger enemy. It’s phenomenal to watch them fill your screen and there’s not much else like it. They won’t come at you in a straight line. If you’re on top of a building they will fan out and climb through every window to surround you. The horde A.I. is awesome and terrifying in the way it sends streams of freakers through every path that could reach or surround you.
Human encounter A.I. doesn’t always hold up to the same scrutiny. It works well most of the time, but human enemies are sometimes a bit slow to respond and they don’t always seem to think tactically. They don’t fight you with nearly the same aggression and determination that freakers hit you with and those are the game’s best encounters.
But it’s still fun to take out marauding snipers who focus their laser sights on the open road, or members of the brutal death cult called the Rippers, who cover their bodies with gruesome cuts and scars. The melee combat is a bit janky at times with slightly awkward transitions between animations, but it’s not really the focus here and is more of a last resort combat option.
I don’t need to spend too much time going over the basics of Days Gone: the scrappy biker Deacon St. John loses nearly everything, including his late wife Sarah, when an epidemic hits that wipes out most of the world’s population and leaves many of the people left transformed into feral beasts called freakers, which are as much a reversion to human’s primate instinct as Romero-style brain-eating zombies.
But Days Gone isn’t really about that: it’s about how the human survivors survive, in this case in the dense forests of the pacific northwest around the fictional town of Farewell, Oregon. It’s about rebuilding, adapting, and surviving. And although Days Gone may not be a survival game in the way that genre has come to be defined, the story is fundamentally about survival. There’s surprising emotional resonance here too, and there are some moments, especially in the second half, that might find some players close to tears with their tragic, unflinching brutality.
Days Gone feels like watching two or three seasons of a good TV show. It doesn’t build up to one big climax, there are peaks and valleys and several points where I thought I had reached the end only to realize it was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. It does drift and drags a bit towards the end of its massive campaign, when some characters you’ve grown to know and like take a backseat and a whole new group of characters who aren’t quite as interesting take their place.
If you’re wondering whether Deacon St. John is an interesting enough character to carry this game on his shoulders, the answer is yes. And he’s an effective protagonist because Bend Studio has centered him in the game world. So much of the ludonarrative dissonance found in series like Tomb Raider or Uncharted–that question of why our noble, pure-hearted hero is so relaxed about stacking up hundreds of dead bodies–doesn’t exist with Days Gone.
Why does Deacon ruthlessly track and kill members of the marauding death cult known as the Rippers? Because they captured and tortured his best friend, the fellow One-Percenter and renegade biker called Boozer. Why does he spend so much time wiping out nests of freakers? Because it makes his travels, and the camps he frequents, more secure. This isn’t the case of an RPG where you’re the chosen hero sent to urgently stop the apocalypse, but you might have to help a little girl pick berries and find her cat along the way.
There isn’t much you do in Days Gone that wouldn’t be a fairly sensible way to behave if these circumstances arose in real life. But there are certainly things Deacon has done that are beyond the pale. He’s killed many people, including innocent people, and there are even pretty strong suggestions he has been at least marginally involved in things like the post-apocalyptic slave trade.
Details like this show how much work Sony Bend has put into thinking about what a zombie apocalypse might actually look like, how people would re-organize their societies to try and survive and move on and how the grifters, shysters, slavers, garden-variety scumbags and con-artists of the world might take advantage of that situation. There are a lot of interesting characters you’ll meet in Days Gone, and some of them aren’t revealed until you’ve spent a very long time with the game, and I’ll try to preserve those reveals as much as possible.
Deacon can be a bit of a bastard at times. He’s a character who shows very early on that he is capable of real cruelty and unpleasantness. But Bend Studio understands how to balance this dark side in order to prevent him from becoming completely unlikeable: he does possess compassion and human decency, it’s just been buried by the savagery of his situation. Whether it’s the harsh but strangely charming Ada Tucker, leader of the Hot Springs slave labor camp, or Addy, the warm-hearted and decent follower of Iron Mike’s experiment in post-apocalyptic democracy, the dense ensemble cast of Days Gone also does a good job giving the story an emotional core.
In the same way Uncharted: Golden Abyss pushed the limits of the PS Vita’s hardware to produce a graphical showpiece for that handheld, it feels like Days Gone is stretching the PS4 hardware in the exact same way. It is a fascinating technical achievement. Few games have such striking lighting, such detailed textures, or as dense and detailed foliage, and the fact that all of this is achieved in an open world of Days Gone’s size adds to the achievement.
Cutscenes in Days Gone are great to look at too, with detailed character models and great motion-captured animation that lifts up the acting and general performance to produce convincing emotional moments. Unfortunately, the faces aren’t as convincing during regular gameplay, where facial animations are less detailed and can be a bit stiff. These conversations aren’t as frequent, but it can be a bit jarring when it does happen, like during a bounty or hostage rescue.
The dynamic weather system is fascinating. As the weather changes, players can watch snow grow from a few flakes to a thick coating on the streets and trees, which will affect your bike’s handling. When you trample through rainy roads on your bike, it kicks up streams of realistic mud behind you and the wet grounds reflections have a realistic sheen. Bend Studio have taken full advantage of the custom variant of Unreal Engine 4 that powers Days Gone and it’s produced big dividends here.
Performance in Days Gone is a mixed bag. While the game mostly maintains a solid 30 fps in earlier areas, there are still occasional streaming hiccups and stutters, and in some of the game’s later areas, the frame rate dips severely on the PS4 Pro. After installing the game’s latest 1.03 patch, the framerates have definitely improved in these problem areas, but I still encountered pretty big drops at moments even after this patch and it can definitely still be immersion-breaking during gameplay. As for bugs and glitches, I didn’t run into any serious ones, just a few janky animations during melee combat or when I was opening doors.
There’s not much to complain about with the audio here, so I’ll keep it brief. Stereo separation is very good, and the positions of different objects in the sound mix are clear and distinct. Guns sound accurate, with a satisfying crunch and good volume levels. The original score is excellent: lots of anthemic, sweeping strings with great melodies and a real explosive atmosphere when you get overwhelmed with enemies. The more traditional rock and folk songs (with vocals) that pop up during certain emotional story beats aren’t as good as the rest of the score, but they still do a decent job in context.
It feels like Sony has been on a bit of a winning streak lately, with their first-party titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, Spider-Man, and God of War seeming to land hit after hit. Luckily, Days Gone feels like it could absolutely be another tentpole franchise for Sony. There is a lot to love in Days Gone. Yes, we’ve seen many of these open world game design elements in other games, but they’re combined into something unique here. Nothing else quite captures the experience of being hunted by a mammoth horde or finally taking them down with equal parts brain and brawn. Yes, it has its issues, there are some annoyances and oversights, but they aren’t enough to keep me from recommending Days Gone to just about everyone with a PS4.
Review copy provided by Sony PlayStation.