In October of 2008, EA released a sci-fi survival horror title called Dead Space. It was a moderate hit, well-regarded for its intense action, horrifying monsters, and strong atmosphere. It would spawn two sequels and a number of multimedia tie-ins and spin-offs, but the third game in the series was widely disliked and the franchise died, though not without having cemented itself as a favorite among horror and action gamers.
In January of 2023, EA released a complete remake of Dead Space from a new team. The visuals were completely overhauled, the levels rearranged and tweaked, the gameplay adjusted to reflect improvements from the original game’s sequels, and some new story content was added to patch over rough spots in the original script. Having never played the original, I was excited at the opportunity to dive in and see if it lived up to its reputation as an action-horror classic.
Where We’re Going, No One Can Hear You Scream
The premise of Dead Space is straightforward and familiar. It’s about 500 years in the future. Isaac Clarke (as in Isaac Asimov + Arthur C. Clarke) is an engineer who has signed up for a repair job aboard the USG Ishimura, the first and most prestigious “planet cracker,” a mining ship that uses advanced technology to harvest entire planets for their resources. Isaac’s girlfriend, Nicole Brennan, is stationed on the ship, acting as a medical doctor, and he is desperate to see her. Communications from the Ishimura have ceased, so the small crew of repair personnel have been dispatched to resolve the issue and earn themselves a fat paycheck.
Of course, things swiftly go sideways. The entire ship is infested with monsters called necromorphs, twisted abominations raised from the corpses of the crew. The repair team is aboard for perhaps five minutes before they are attacked, and by the end of the first hour the team is stranded, members are dead, and the survivors scattered across a vast ship. Isaac needs to find Nicole and escape, and maybe unravel the mystery of what, exactly, the deal is with all these monsters.
It’s nothing terribly original in premise, and indeed, the script is a little schlocky and predictable, pushed along by performances that are good but rarely great. The strength of the game’s story is in the details of its worldbuilding and the believability of its environment. While you’ve seen this basic story before, Dead Space adds a few unique wrinkles. Most prominent of these is Unitology, a religion that is obviously inspired by Scientology in its overt cultishness, but which has an actual, publicly acknowledged theology: that their central martyr was killed by the government of Earth in order to suppress the discovery of alien technology and the promise of “Unification” that technology offered. Early on, Unitology just seems like a parasitic scam, but by the end of the game it’s clear that there’s a terrifying logic to their goals and behavior. As they see it, Unification is possible and they work to bring it about, and the brutal exploitation of their members is less a scheme for enrichment and more a necessary mechanism to provide the resources to achieve their goal.
Details like Unitology enrich the setting, and it’s rare that the game will present something where there isn’t at least a superficial gloss to provide a grounded explanation. The way planet cracking works makes sense, the technology they use makes sense, the layout of the ship makes sense, it all holds up in a way that’s important for selling the experience. The star of the show is of course the Ishimura itself, a clanking industrial nightmare that seems like it would be an awful place to live and work but which doesn’t seem entirely implausible as a mining vessel. It is reminiscent of Alien’s Nostromo, but in Dead Space you will be traveling back and forth throughout the entire ship, seeing its full layout and functionality, from docking stations to cargo bays to hydroponic farms to crew quarters.
Rip and Tear
As strong as the setting is, it does ultimately serve as the backdrop for an intense action game. Isaac is an engineer, not a soldier, so in the face of terrifying monsters he turns to the tools of his trade to slice, burn, and blast the necromorph hordes as he works to escape the Ishimura. Yes, Dead Space is basically Resident Evil 4 in space, and across 12 missions, each lasting around an hour, you’ll be peering over Isaac’s shoulder as gruesome monsters charge forward to tear him to pieces.
Isaac’s weapons are, with the exception of the Pulse Rifle, all sci-fi engineering tools. His starting weapon is the Plasma Cutter, a sort of projectile arc welder that fires white-hot lines of plasm in vertical or horizontal lines. Other highlights include the Ripper, an anti-gravity circular saw, and the Force Gun, a heavy piece of mining equipment intended to shatter rocks but which Isaac uses to blast the flesh right off the necromorphs’ bones. Isaac also has access to Stasis and Kinesis, physics-defying tech that allows him to slow objects and enemies and hurl objects around, respectively. These are as important for puzzles as combat, and moreso than the weapons sell the idea of Isaac as a far-future engineer.
The necromorphs are the secret ingredient of Dead Space’s action. There aren’t many of them, with perhaps just 10 enemy types across the entire game, including bosses. But they are twisted ghouls, dripping with ichor, writhing in perpetual rage and agony, intimidating to face and a blast to kill. They are less durable than, say, a Resident Evil zombie, easier to put down, but they can inflict a lot of damage to Isaac very quickly if they get ahold of him, and Isaac is rarely afforded the opportunity to deal with just one at a time. Their signature quality is that they can only be killed by hacking off their limbs, be it a leg, a taloned arm, or a thrashing tentacle. Blowing their heads off does nothing, and the damage they take from body shots is so low it might as well be nothing. Instead, Isaac needs to use his weapons to hack them apart, aiming for joints and other weak points, and despite the limited number of enemies the game manages to find a lot of ways of combining the necromorphs’ weakness with the capabilities of your arsenal to produce fun and engaging results.
Ammo and health packs are carefully balanced so that you always have just enough to get through, but there will be times when you have to use a less favored weapon to get through. Upgrades can be found and bought throughout the ship, and you’ll quickly find yourself able to pump up your favorite weapons. I developed an obsession bordering on mania with the Ripper, myself, its short-range, high-damage buzzsaw proving an ammo-efficient answer to the problem of fighting melee monsters in narrow corridors. But inventive necromorph designs like the one that breaks into a skittering horde of hostile body parts as you hack it apart made me appreciate options like the Flamethrower and the meat-mulching Force Gun, and ranged necromorphs ensured that less up-close and personal weapons remained important all the way through.
Of course, all of this action raises the question of whether the game is scary, and that’s ultimately a personal question. I found it intense and stressful, but as I became more comfortable with its systems I found myself less scared by it. It doesn’t rely as much on jump scares as the original’s reputation suggests, though whether that’s because it was just not as bad as advertised or if the remake tones that down, I can’t say. It’s not a subtle game at all, and if you can’t be scared by monsters running around in a haunted house screaming in your face, you probably won’t find Dead Space especially frightening. I will say that the sound design is extremely good, and while I became somewhat inured to the game as I got used to it, the sound never stopped being nerve-wracking and I couldn’t bear to play with headphones on for very long.
The More Things Change
I never played the original Dead Space, so I can’t speak wholly to changes and updates. The visuals are obviously a significant improvement, as can be seen in comparison videos posted online. Necromorphs now have a Doom Eternal-style modular damage system, chunks of their rancid flesh blasting apart as they take damage. It serves a similar mechanical purpose as in Doom Eternal by acting as an abstracted health bar, but where Doom Eternal makes it a fun bit of excess, in Dead Space it adds to the menace of the necromorphs, who simply do not stop even as their bodies are reduced to ragged bits. It’s especially awful with the Force Gun, which blows the meat off their bones in spectacular fashion but rarely stops them without multiple shots.
Lighting is also a huge improvement. From what I’ve seen, the original game couldn’t manage true darkness, instead capping out at a sort of murky yellow fog. The remake, on the other hand, can submerge you in absolute darkness. One early section requires you to turn the lights off to unlock a door on the same circuit and then backtrack in pitch blackness with only your flashlight to guide you. The game is rarely so extreme, but it uses fog effects and carefully controlled lighting to create an intense mood. It never looks anything less than great.
The Ishimura has been rearranged to function as an actual space, and outside of loading saves there are no loading screens, creating the impression of a seamless location and not a series of disconnected levels. It works wonderfully, and I never questioned the plausibility of the environment.
The franchise’s famous zero-gravity sections are back, and they now work as they did in Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3, with Isaac able to seamlessly launch himself into the air and maneuver freely. They’re cool sections, though also the points where I felt like I most had to repeat sections because of how disorienting it can be.
There are also a few sidequests available that push you to return to areas of the ship outside of the main story for various rewards. The rewards are very good, and the game has a Left 4 Dead-style AI director that provides some semi-randomized changes when you are off the main path to keep you on your toes. My understanding is that the original game had doors that were locked by power nodes–Isaac’s skill points, essentially–to create a risk-versus-reward situation where you could sacrifice those nodes for goodies. Those are gone in this version, though I do not know the specific reason. I certainly never felt like I was on top of the world in terms of abilities, so I don’t think it’s a blow to balance; if anything, it makes the game more doable even for players who don’t pursue all the optional rewards.
There is also an alternate ending, available only in New Game+, but having looked it up, it’s not a meaningful departure from the standard ending in terms of what it might say about future games in the revived series.
Dead Space impressed me. A solid if uninspired script in a well-realized setting with fantastic combat against top-notch monsters, I’ll be surprised if it gets knocked out of my top five games of the year. The game’s reputation as a horror-action classic is well-deserved, and I sincerely hope that the team behind this remake are given a chance to tackle Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3, as well.