Over a decade and half ago, when the first Dead Space was introduced by game producer Electronic Arts, it became a smash hit among gamers who love the horror genre. Now on the verge of turning adult, the series has made a comeback with an eponymous ‘remake’. But, this isn’t just a visual reboot, which you come to realise as you slowly peel the layers off a desolate, doomed spaceship that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Before we get into the technicalities of the game itself, a bit of epiphany. You see, there’s something deeply enigmatic about outer space. But that’s not particularly breaking news — over the years, humans have spent billions of dollars to create fictional storylines, fixated around two specific themes. The first of these is fear, fuelled by a lack of our understanding around what lies in the vast, vast wilderness that expands infinitely.
Filmmakers and video game designers alike have exploited this fear as infinitely as the number of stars in our universe, with various designs and versions of loathsome aliens that range from purely gory to the spine-chilling psychologically deranged. To be very honest, this fear has started getting a little predictable, even amid all the jump-scares and eerie forms of half-lives.
The second of the space-related themes is more mature, and one that is definitely more alluring for audiences that transcend beyond lovers of gore and horror — sadness. This lies at the core of losing a loved one, or coming to realise how our greed for power should actually be the true reason behind the fear that outer space-themed science fiction brings forth.
The Dead Space remake (2023), in many ways, nails this.
Stay for the storyline
As the game unfolds, you find yourself in a module ship called the USG Kellion, making your way to a larger spaceship called the USG Ishimura. The latter, which is actually an illegal mining operation assigned to a rocky outer space exoplanet called Aegis VII, has fallen silent — which should have been reason enough for everyone aboard Kellion to expect horrific outcomes and weasel their way out of the mission to salvage the Ishimura.
But, our protagonist, Isaac Clarke, has a motive — he’s on his way to try and rescue his girlfriend, Nicole Brennan. He’s accompanied by a slew of characters on the way, each of whom play pivotal roles through the game.
As expected, nothing aboard the Ishimura is right from the onset, and the crew aboard Kellion learn soon enough that there is a horrific alien zombie invasion on board the ship. The invasion has led to the original crew of the Ishimura to mutate into slimy, disfigured zombie aliens called ‘necromorphs’, and with half the crew disabled due to the turn of events at the start of the game, Clarke is largely plunged solo into trying to salvage what remains of the people who were here once.
Through the course of the game, you come to learn about how these necromorphs came into being, lose some of your teammates, learn the somewhat expected and anticipated hard truth about Clarke’s girlfriend Brennan, and face betrayal from one of your trusted compatriots.
While none of this is particularly novel, what still beckons you to play on is how everything is layered. As you plough through fixing layers of technical malfunctions and kill more of the necromorphs, you come to find a deeper ploy that links back to evil characters wanting to turn all of humankind into these disfigured aliens back on Earth. You encounter villains that can enforce mind control — a bit of a cliche given that this is the 26th century, in outer space, but it is designed well into the game, nonetheless.
What the Dead Space remake does well is to add a certain poignant charm into the storyline. It is still a trigger-happy zombie killer of a game, make no mistake, but it is not mindless by any means — you play for a cause, and throughout the game, you keep hope in your heart that maybe you will find Brennan and salvage the situation, after all.
Great new game dynamics
On the technical front, Dead Space does not look like a dull remake of any kind. It looks every bit as new as any game capable of using ray tracing for realistic light effects. As a result, you get very realistic spaceship interiors in various levels of decay. Chancing Clarke’s spacesuit light beam on one of the walls at any moment is likely to reveal a gory, blood-written message about an alien force wanting to kill you. While this does not particularly haunt you, it does enough to clench your fist for a minute.
There is also something very ‘90s about some of the computer graphics aboard Ishimura, which adds to the ambiance of making you feel that this ship has been around for centuries. There is also a very clever use of in-game dynamics within the gameplay — for instance, you must use circuit breakers to feed power into certain sections of the spaceship, in order to progress.
In one level, for instance, you’re needed to feed power towards the elevator in order to progress. But, by doing so, you’ll have to cut off all light supply, and the rest of the level is a panic-stricken run towards the elevator, with you left praying for no necromorph to jump at you. Interestingly, the makers of the game have gone for a more realistic approach — instead of jump scares, these aliens try to hunt you from behind. This is probably what would actually happen if you do encounter such a situation 300 years from today, and this realism is a true win on the horror front.
Dead Space is also not a mad dash from the start to the end. The game beckons you to sit back and soak in the visuals and the narrations, which you must in order to understand the game and its premise. Eventually, you reach a point where there is plenty of trigger-happy action, along with a very control-like ability called ‘Stasis’ — where you get to slow enemies and objects down for a short while. All of this combines to make Dead Space a far more enjoyable game than being just a numb outer space zombie-killer.
A sci-fi horror for all?
At the end, what really catches you is that the game does not save a positive, cheerful ending — and yet, despite the heartbreak, you’re left feeling that the game trajectory is on point. It is this that makes the Dead Space (2023) remake a remarkably poignant journey into an outer space alien apocalypse, driven by none other than humankind’s greed, hatred, power and the ability to want to destroy.
In the end, Dead Space is a game that you would want to play, or even see being played out as a movie. Despite catering to a popular but niche genre, that is its biggest victory.