Dead Space (2023) Review
Many would give an arm and a leg to be able to play their favorite game again for the first time. But, short of suffering amnesia, that is not really possible. There won’t be any surprises if you play it soon after. And waiting 15 years, or so, will mean the visuals may not have aged well enough to stomach a replay. That is probably why there have been a few remakes, and most merely upgrade the visuals and bring in a few modern-day features. Motive Studio might have found another way. Their Dead Space remake takes the original third-person action game from 2008 and recreates it with improved presentation, as expected. But it also makes changes to gameplay and story. The result brings enough surprises while preserving what made it whole.
For those unfamiliar with the original, the story begins with our protagonist, Isaac Clarke, and his maintenance team approaching the USG Ishimura spaceship after receiving a distress call. But the Ishimura does not respond to hails and the stranded planet-cracker looks abandoned. Once on board, the team discovers an empty flight lounge, until something grotesque crashes through the ceiling and impales one of Isaac’s colleagues. The putrid attacker is a so-called necromorph: a zombie, of sorts, that has been disfigured with arm bones forming talons. Thus begins Isaac’s nightmare aboard the Ishimura, where he must restore basic systems, prevent it from crashing, fix the air filtration, and send out an SOS. A few of his colleagues survived the initial assault, but as the only engineer, Isaac will do most of the repair work by himself.
New to the remake is a voice for Isaac. Gunner Wright, who played him in the second and third games, brings his vocal chords (and likeness) to the previously silent protagonist. Aside from Isaac looking older, most of the dialogue has been transformed. Instead of merely taking orders, Isaac now contributes and even takes the lead with his engineering expertise. In some cases having Isaac speak just works much better for how the story progresses and other times it’s a minor shift. Fortunately he’s mostly silent outside conversation, so he won’t tell you how to solve puzzles or react to the horrible noises coming from the walls.
In addition to Isaac’s speaking role, the story has undergone some change. All the main narrative beats are here, especially in the early chapters. But now there is more screen time for side characters, like Isaac’s girlfriend who was on the Ishimura when the outbreak began. Augmented reality recordings bring periphery characters to life, along with new text and audio. The new story content is not always succinct, but it fleshes out the world and is rarely obtrusive. Indeed, more concise pieces could have been sprinkled throughout. Story changes even extend to the fates of some characters, who often meet their demise in different ways to keep returning fans on their toes.
Isaac has to stay on his toes too, to deal with the reanimated dead bursting out of the ventilation shafts. The various necromorph creatures are still amazing threats, both aesthetically and for gameplay purposes. Types include standard humanoids, babies that cling on ceilings, leapers that pounce, exploding ones, and some infused to the walls. The enemy variety is excellent (a sharp contrast from The Callisto Protocol) and a big reason for the original game’s success. With the remake’s visual upgrade, the necromorphs also wear crew clothing and this peels off when they take damage. They also sound horrific in the cavernous spaces and move fast enough to keep you on edge during the quiet moments.
Fortunately Isaac gets his hands on some potent, albeit somewhat unconventional, weaponry. There is the iconic plasma cutter, rotating ripper blade, and contact beam, to name a few. These returning weapons all have alternative fire modes and many useful upgrades. Most are great at doing just what the game wants: removing limbs. The force gun will blow off skin and clothing, leaving exposed bone and sinew that players can target with the line gun. Removing limbs is both satisfying and a useful indicator of status—standard foes die when two limbs are gone, tougher ones might survive until none are left. Remove legs to reduce their speed or remove arms to minimize lethality. Amputated talons can be picked up with Isaac’s unlimited telekinesis module and used to impale other targets, along with any exploding containers and fan blades. In addition, Isaac’s handy stasis module will slow down threats to better hit weak spots or flee. And once all threats are down, you can stomp corpses for resources. Thus the basic gameplay is effective and just as fun as the original.
Although the story progresses in the same way, the Ishimura is actually fully open to explore this time around. Once each area has been unlocked, Isaac is free to travel to it via the tram that runs down the spine of the ship. This is put to use for the new side quests, which are usually at the heart of the extra story content; they often take players back to a room that was locked. To gate story progress, Isaac’s security level is upgraded steadily. Since most areas are fairly small, it does not take long to move about, although the tram and elevators are slow.
The remake randomizes a few of the combat encounters, and this is more apparent when returning to areas. These range from group onslaughts to sole threats lying dormant near buy stations. Horror often takes a backseat, but there are changes to atmosphere too: dense fog, failing lights, spinning vent fans, and rare supernatural occurrences. If you want more, the new-game-plus mode offers a tougher class of necromorphs and an alternate ending, unlocked after collecting 12 markers found around the ship.
In addition to the open Ishimura, there are tweaks to the level design and gameplay. Zero-g navigation is now fully 3D with Isaac able to use jets to zip around, although sadly he cannot land on inverted surfaces like in the original. Most zero-g sections are more enjoyable and a bit different. Another alteration is that there is less of Isaac dragging things with the telekinesis ability; some movable objects have been removed and others travel automatically with Isaac throwing switches. While this is mostly innocuous, using telekinesis for practical purposes strengthened the lore; there are still puzzles that use both stasis and telekinesis, and many glowing flesh pustules to destroy. And, finally, some levels have changed significantly in the later parts of the game; when Isaac ventures onto another vessel, its interior is quite different from the original and definitely for the better.
As expected for a remake of a fifteen-year-old game, the visuals have drastically improved. The ship design is incredibly faithful to the original; interiors often have identical layouts, just with far more geometric detail, lots of physical bric-a-brac, and new side rooms. The ambiance is incredible, with dense volumetric lighting and drifting fog. Sounds range from screams to whispers, along with loud mechanical clanking and practically no sound when in a vacuum. Isaac’s suit speaks too, with blood and bile oozing down armor plates and ice accumulating, and then melting, after a trip into space. The remake might not have the raw visual power of something like The Callisto Protocol, especially when it comes to character faces, but it makes up for it with environmental storytelling: graffiti on the walls, blood drag marks, piles of corpses, shoddy barricades, and more. The stunning presentation helps to make the updated Ishimura a captivating house of horrors.
Dead Space (2023) demonstrates that remakes do not need to be just a visually superior copy of the original. There is room to tweak the story, like by adding narrative layers, changing eventualities, and including apt side quests. Gameplay can be altered too, in this case by improving level design, opening up the Ishimura to free exploration, and tweaking zero-g navigation. Finding the right balance between what to change and what to keep is the tricky part, but Motive got it right.