Review: Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle – A Chilly Prequel

I’m a big fan of the survival horror genre, especially the widely popular Resident Evil series. So when I heard that Invader Studios, a small group of indie developers that aimed to recreate Resident Evil 2 before Capcom could, was coming out with a new game, I couldn’t help but feel excited and hopeful. For those unaware of the aforementioned series or the survival horror genre in general, just know that it generally focuses on inventory management, combat, and puzzle solving. Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle successfully captures the essence of its inspirations, but also stumbles in many key areas, ultimately making it a mixed experience.

The first game Invader Studios released was Daymare: 1998, released in 2019 to mixed critical reception. I was surprised to see Invader Studios come out with a second title, laying down more of the foundational work to what I can only assume to be a future franchise of their own. Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle serves as a prequel to the first game, and has you assume the role of a new protagonist: Dalila Reyes, an agent of the Hexacore Advanced Division for Extraction and Search (or H.A.D.E.S.). You are tasked with two of your colleagues to investigate a mysterious incident that went down in Area 51, and soon discover some grim horrors awaiting you. The narrative is mediocre at best, with plenty of forgettable characters, but gets the job done setting the premise and context.

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle
Dalila Reyes conversing with H.A.D.E.S leader Ivan Radek

While it’s true that the developers learned from some of the lessons of their first game, Sandcastle still suffers from some laughable B-movie jank when it comes to visuals and audio. I was initially impressed with how detailed and clear the visuals were for a game of this caliber, but then I started to notice the little things. The environments are often detailed and capture the eerie atmosphere effectively, but character models and animations leave much to be desired. You’re given a flashlight, but sometimes the environments are so dark it’s impossible to see clearly.

Cutscenes are also extremely awkward with the animations and the voice acting is flat out terrible and frequent punctuation and spelling errors in the subtitles. Dialogue lines are cheesy and laughable, and sound effects don’t quite add up. With my television volume set at a medium level of 10, I could barely hear the characters speak, but a loud bang in the distance or a light bulb popping, which I assumed is used as a scare factor, was loud enough to burst my eardrums. Look, I get that this is an indie game, and the lack of polish is understandable to some degree, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. On the other hand, playing this game on the PlayStation 5, I found the performance to be quite optimal, with quick load times and stable frame rates.

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle
Exploring an abandoned base

I understand that the entire Daymare series serves as an homage to Capcom’s horror franchise, but Sandcastle can be seen as a bit too derivative of its inspirations. If you played any modern Resident Evil remake before, then most if not all of the UI and gameplay mechanics will feel the same here. You explore derelict and creepy corridors, solve cryptic puzzles, fight demented monsters, and manage your limited inventory. Ammo is limited, and so are health packs, so you best be smart with how you use them. Saving is done at dedicated computers, reminiscent of Resident Evil’s signature typewriters. Sandcastle also features a similar Challenges menu that allows you to unlock extra perks such as infinite ammo on subsequent playthroughs. Heck, you can even shoot down bobblehead collectibles that are eerily similar to the Mr. Raccoon figurines from Resident Evil 2.

Sandcastle does feature unique mechanics and quirks of its own, notably the Frost Grip weapon that you acquire not too long into the campaign. With this device, you can freeze zombies in place and then punch or blast them to pieces, ensuring their demise. Why do you want to follow up with a punch or blast you ask? Well the undead entities in this game can come back to life, even after you fill their bodies with lead. Electrical energy surges between enemies, attempting to reanimate fallen foes or supercharge ones that are alive. Using the Frost Grip is the only way to make sure they stay down for good. This concept definitely drives more terror and despair during tight combat situations, and does a great job keeping me on my toes.

I said Freeze!

Unfortunately, the jankiness in combat makes the aforementioned refreshing mechanic more frustrating than fun. For starters, other than the Frost Grip, there is no other weapon to find or use, which is very unlike the Resident Evil games. You are only equipped with your starter shotgun and submachine gun. Audio feedback from all of them is extremely weak, with little to no impact. Yes all of them can be upgraded eventually, but that’s about it. There’s no secret RPG to be found and not even a knife to use as a melee weapon! Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle leans very heavily into head on combat rather than stealth, and enemy design is widely unbalanced, featuring staggering spikes of difficulty throughout the game. Certain enemies can teleport to you then instantly grab and kill you while others will just bum rush you until you get overwhelmed. You can already imagine how much this is exacerbated given how scarce ammo is.

When you’re not too busy running for your life or gunning down undead baddies, you’ll spend your time gathering lore documents, finding clues, and solving puzzles. You are equipped with a handy dandy scanner that can analyze various objects and environments, which helps with overall immersion. Level design is actually surprisingly quite linear, with very little backtracking to do.

Daymare 1994: Sandcastle
A chilling discovery

Like its inspirations, Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is meant to be played more than once. Not all weapon upgrades can be unlocked in one playthrough and there’s plenty of additional challenges to complete to unlock cheats and perks. One playthrough will generally take you somewhere between six and eight hours, depending on your skill level and which difficulty you choose. The game offers three difficulty modes: Story, Normal, and Hardcore. I don’t recommend starting off on Hardcore, but you will need to achieve an S rank on this mode if you want to snag the Platinum Trophy.

Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle successfully channels the spirit of classic survival horror titles, but the clunky controls and laughable voice acting prevent it from reaching the heights of its inspirations or pushing the genre forward. Nonetheless, it is a valiant attempt at capturing the essence of ‘90s survival horror that can serve as a palate cleanser for fans waiting for Capcom’s next installment in the Resident Evil series.

Lewis played Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle on PlayStation 5 with a review key. Daymare: 1994 Sandcastle is also available on PC, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One and Xbox Series S|X.

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