Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
August 30, 2023
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is an over-the-shoulder survival-horror game very much in the vein of certain Resident Evil titles, acting as a prequel to Daymare 1998. The original game was actually born from an independent group’s efforts to try and remake Resident Evil 2 before Capcom would go on to announce their own, leading the developers, now known as Invader Studios, to take the work they’d completed and rework it into an original game concept.
Sandcastle sets out to continue the groundwork laid out by its predecessor, not necessarily in plot but in polish, by introducing new features and more original ideas to spice up the gameplay.
Do you know what killed the dinosaurs!?
As with the last game, you’re controlling a lone survivor as you explore a dark and undead-laden environment, checking each room for precious bullets and solving a few puzzles as you go. The main source of tension throughout your adventure is of course the zombies, who are a bit more distinct from your typical fodder in a few interesting ways.
For one, each variant of undead beastie is surging with electricity and can use this to not only quickly dodge out of your sight, but even teleport. Compounding this is the fact that killing a zombie may not actually be the end of them, as the lingering charge may enter another nearby corpse. IT’S ALIVE!!!
Not long into the game, you’re introduced to Sandcastle’s key weapon, the Frost Grip, a self-refilling freeze-thrower that can turn the tide on the abominations, allowing you to either blast them to bits with your guns or even punch them with your gauntlet to save ammo. The Frost Grip can be upgraded as you progress through the game via one-use terminals. You’ll definitely need to come to grips with this weapon, as it becomes vital for keeping you alive, especially when some of the tougher enemies show up. Freezy as!
Beyond the Frost Grip, you’re mostly limited to a starting arsenal of a sub-machine gun and shotgun, though if you take the time to explore and hack into certain locked areas, these can be upgraded. With that said, Sandcastle’s terminal access minigames have returned, albeit in a new form, which is essentially a slide puzzle. Overall, most of the puzzles this time seem a fair bit simpler compared to the last game, feeling less like genuine challenges and more like… busywork? I know our heroine is a genius, but if this is meant to be a meta indication of that, it fell a tad flat for me.
In contrast to the easy puzzles, the combat sections can become hellish extremely quickly. Resources are scarce, though you can use your punch (Frost Finisher) to save ammo and potentially gain more. This isn’t super well tutorialised, which is an odd choice since it’s a necessary technique to understand.
Sandcastle’s combat also comes with the introduction of a floating enemy later in the game that ramps up the difficulty in a ridiculous manner each time it appears. Without giving too much away, this enemy can summon minions, strengthen them, teleport, silently approach you, and then INSTAKILL you when it gets close. It is absolutely overpowered, and my playthrough would go from smooth sailing to dying ten times in a row because the AI likes to distract you with fodder and then murder you from behind. This honestly strikes me as a terrible design choice, especially when you compare it to similar enemies from the game’s direct inspiration, Resident Evil. Instakill enemies like Dr. Salvador or the Chainsaw Majini made telltale sounds and created tension from their approach rather than jump-scaring the player while they’re distracted. In Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle, what was a fine gameplay loop just ends up becoming a chore every time this enemy gets involved.
“Wow, what a… base!”
Zombie gripes aside, the game has definitely stepped it up visually from the last outbreak. The base and surrounding area are rendered really well, not necessarily Triple A in fidelity, but still impressive and immersive for what the game’s aiming for. This is combined with some properly spooky sound design that helps make you feel that much more isolated, with only faint sparks of broken lights to disrupt the haunting silence, accompanied by the slow sloshing of the liquid nitrogen in your Frost Grip. It’s minimalist and it works well, especially when an enemy appears and suddenly things get LOUD. A lightbulb exploding will have you whipping around and aiming at nothing in sheer panic.
Sandcastle’s environments are perhaps too mysterious. By which I mean 90% of the game is way too dark and your flashlight is near useless in many areas. You could make the argument that this adds to the scare factor, but when every enemy glows like a Christmas tree, it honestly just makes them an easier target if anything. The areas that are actually well-lit look fantastic, so it’s a shame to see so much of the game being obscured like this; and no, upping the brightness doesn’t help much, it just seems to make the darkness blue.
What could stand to hide in the shadows more are the cutscenes, which are really hard to take seriously. These feature awkward animations for both the bodies and mouths, non-existent lipsyncing reminiscent of classic kung fu movies, and characters that don’t actually seem to look at each other while addressing the other person. It’s incredibly distracting, and not in an endearing B-movie sort of way, as it honestly hurts the experience somewhat. Graphics don’t make a game of course, but when the performances end up looking unsettling, it does become very noticeable. There’s a similar issue with your character’s running animation which is interesting to say the least.
“Hope this is not Chris’ blood!”
An unfortunate realisation about Sandcastle is that it’s kind of hard to tell how confident the developers were with their own ideas. You have this Frost Grip which is a fun concept of course, and unique zombies that aren’t just Romero or runner style, but then you look a little deeper and it gets a tad weird.
“…it’s kind of hard to tell how confident the developers were with their own ideas.”
Take for example the menus. They are very, very reminiscent of Resident 2, 3 and 4 Remake, and even feature a challenge menu in the same style that allows you to unlock concept art and infinite ammo based on different tasks or campaign ranks. This isn’t an idea Capcom owns by any means, but it’s no stretch to at least see this as somewhat… derivative? There are even hidden bobbleheads in the environments for you to shoot, which is again not Resident Evil’s sole identity but surely you see a pattern forming?
Truth is, as a whole, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle feels like a cheap imitation of Resident Evil’s recent output, which is really sad when you consider that its precursor managed to do its own thing, even if it had flaws of its own. The fact that the franchise managed to take both a step forward AND back at the same time is certainly confusing, and as a follow-up to a title I genuinely enjoyed for its earnestness, it’s disappointing to see a franchise full of potential squander it to become a lesser imitation of what inspired it.
- Unique take on the undead
- Frost Grip tool can be a lot of fun to wield
- Nice graphics and sound design
- Way too dark in many places
- Difficulty spikes aplenty
- Too derivative of Resident Evil
- Awful cutscenes
Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is a game that could have been a lot better if it were less afraid to step out of the mould it emerged from to fully realise its own identity. Pushing its unique ideas further and leaving behind what had already been done would have been of great benefit. Instead, the game feels half-baked, a decent-at-best title that is by no means bad but will likely leave players yearning for something better.