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01/27/23 Electronic Arts
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01/27/23 Electronic Arts

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Dead Space (XS)

By Lee Mehr 01st Mar 2023 | 3,089 views 

Hallo Spaceboy.

Reviewer's Note: Experience based on Version 1.005 of the game.

Before getting into the review, it’s worth noting this remake is the first Dead Space property I’ve ever finished.  Unlike my intimate familiarity with The Last of Us Part I, the bits and pieces I’ve gleaned from a partial playthrough, some livestreams in the background, and cultural osmosis are enough to get the gist of the world without it sinking those hooks in deep.  Another victim of my ever-expanding backlog.  Even though I’m ill-equipped to directly compare and contrast it with Visceral’s legacy, it’s immediately apparent that Motive Studios respected and enhanced every rivet and solder across this derelict ship.

Said ship is the USG Ishimura: the largest planet-cracking mining vessel to date.  It’s now orbiting the distant planet Aegis VII, and no one onboard is responding to the Kellion’s hails.  You step into the bulky boots of Isaac Clarke, a talented engineer whose girlfriend, Nicole, is on the Ishimura.  After he and the rescue crew crash-land onto its docking bay, things quickly go awry after they’re attacked by necromorphs (this universe’s zombies).  After narrowly escaping an ambush and subsequently separating from his team, Isaac is tasked with plotting a means of escaping this madhouse.  His customary engineering tools are now makeshift weapons to hack limbs off of any monster in the way.

After acquiring the iconic Plasma Cutter – with the big blood-drenched message "Cut Off Their Limbs" scrawled across the nearby wall – you immediately understand that combat centers around strategic disassembly, most often within tight, confined spaces.  Not once in my 15-hour, exploration-focused playthrough did I implicitly consider aiming for the head.  It’s not just an empty subversive spin on the zombie formula either; it connects the mechanics of claustrophobic corridor-shooting with the context of Isaac’s occupation.  Outside of the admittedly-suspicious auto rifle with supplementary mine launcher, the rest of his arsenal has a primary purpose tied to mining or engineering.  Everything within his tool belt is geared towards crippling enemies to death, not deft trick-shots through a zombie’s cranium.

This is further explored with Isaac’s own abilities.  Relatively soon after the Plasma Cutter, you’ll get the ability to temporarily slow enemies with Stasis and telepathically grab and throw items with Kinesis.  Besides playing around with loose items for kicks, you can hurl explosive or stasis canisters for crowd control or spear enemies with rods or even their own knife-shaped forearms.  But as powerful as these abilities are, they’re in service to a capable-but-lumbering everyman whose only means of handling enemies up-close is swinging and stomping.  You eventually develop a Pavlovian tempo of maintaining space, aiming at designated limbs or tendrils, and continually eviscerating them to bits until a health pack or ammo appears.  

This macabre routine will be all too familiar for long-time fans, but never quite in such lovingly-rendered detail.  One quality I distinctly remember in the original was necromorph death animations, which often looked like plastic-y giblets after obliterating them.  Now with the advances of two console generations, Isaac’s brass duds look incredible and no enemy goes down without leaving juicy clumps of flesh and viscera across the floor.  Whether it’s grinding down limbs with the saw-fed Ripper, or instantaneously flaying from head to toe with the Force Gun, the amount of work put into the minutiae is both gross and impressive.

These core elements together, a deliberately-paced combat tempo, tying the nuanced zombie-killing arsenal with Isaac’s engineering background, and the updated audio/visual design, make for one of the most rewarding survival-horror templates to date.

What of it beyond the solid foundation?  When you’re talking about a double-digit runtime, there ought to be more than the standardized drip-feed of weapon and suit upgrades to hold someone over.  This is where the Ishimura itself ranks among Dead Space’s best qualities.  Outside of Motive’s sedulous work in polishing and refurbishing the rooms, the level pacing is almost second-to-none.  Whether it’s a new area showcasing how it had a self-sustaining ecosystem or a different enemy variant, it’s surprising just how few engagements felt like needless repeats, even when the story shuttles you back to somewhere you’ve already been.  When a more standard resource-draining bout would happen, it wouldn’t take long for a special scenario to come along – like freeform zero-g sections or unique level hazards – to spice things up.

Outside of great level pacing and creative scenarios, there’s something to be said about an ensorcelling atmosphere.  Doing that properly isn’t so easy; one doesn’t simply jump-scare their way to being spooky.  There’s also the build-up – flickering lights, monsters intently roaming through air ducts, ASMR voices in your head – in making the scares more pronounced.  This is probably where a healthy dose of credit is owed to the advertised Intensity Director too; if my default tactic becomes slowly edging each corner to anticipate an ambush, you’ve done something right.  And when those intense parts do arrive, likely complimented by the room’s chest-high fog and low lighting, they’re among some of the most well-executed and technically-impressive I've experienced. 

Like the Intensity Director, I’d bet Motive would also credit atmosphere to another addition: the game rendered as one long tracking shot.  I’ve brought it up before, but it bears repeating: the one-shot game comes off as a self-aggrandizing marketing trope to claim it’s being more "cinematic" than other blockbusters; that said, this is the best use of it thus far.  Dead Space’s claim is more honest than Norse God of War, since every UI element (health meter, inventory systems, etc.) is diegetically integrated to this world; and compared to Halo Infinite, there aren't awkward transitions when Mario 64's cameraman exits and enters the back of Master Chief’s helmet.  That's not to say I’m wholly sold on the fad, but it is the first time I've appreciated its implementation – if just a pinch.

Atop these new, subtler features comes one of the remake’s biggest additions: Isaac’s vocal chords.  Given that Gunner Wright is the same voice actor from Dead Space 2 & 3, his tenor will be familiar to any fan.  What’s more of a surprise is that Motive incorporated Wright’s face as well, making Isaac look like a combination of mid-20s Adam Sandler and mid-20s Lance Armstrong.  Looks aside, the reason Isaac’s shift from mute bucket-head to terse engineer is a bigger deal is simply the potential danger in screwing it up.  Given the recent slate of titles going the Marvel route of "so… that just happened" line delivery, it’s surprising how focused he remains while balancing touches of levity and humanity.

Outside of good dialogue additions, Dead Space’s story ranks as an odd mix between decent narrative and exceptional world-building.  Even when back-tracking, I was constantly hankering to get more crumbs about what happened, how sides were being drawn during the outbreak, and the Unitology religion.  It’s not a unique nor sophisticated fictional faith-based system (L Ron Hubbard mythology plus ritualistic sadism), but the way it’s slowly uncovered within the story consistently kept my interest.  And while the over-arching story is often a series of "go here and do this" tasks stretched across hours, how certain developments and payoffs are handled felt eminently rewarding. 

The biggest drawback would go to the finale.  To avoid SPOILERS as much as possible, I’ll just say a 9th-inning change of scenery winds up feeling mismanaged.  The combat scenarios get more redundant, certain revelations feel too cheesy, and it just doesn’t seem like anyone knew how to properly tie things up.  While it certainly earns a bombastic send-off, in that 'everyman turns to action hero' way, there could’ve been a better way to implement those ideas without straying from the beginning’s atmosphere.  It’s a notable and disappointing speed bump that’s practically endemic to blockbusters of that era.

One other notable issue comes with the technical expectations of a remake.  Of course, no game with a modicum of complexity will be free of all bugs and glitches.  And while it would’ve been nice to see a tad more spit-polish to avoid rare performance drops, the main one that got to me was a progress-halting glitch: the golden path being blocked by a bugged enemy that didn't move and couldn't die.  Restarting didn’t fix the situation.  Fortunately, a YouTube video showed an optimal counter to this issue.  It’s hard to say just how frequent this occurrence will be for others, or how quickly this’ll be fixed, but it’s one of those weak points in what’s otherwise an applause-worthy effort that clearly feels separated by two console generations.

It’s one thing to be enthused for any remake (or remaster) when you already enjoyed the original.  It’s another when you’re stepping in with a fresh perspective.  Even when not intimately familiar with every alteration, it’s easy to respect what’s here because every nut, rivet, and bolt on the Ishimura has been securely fastened.  In doing that, Motive also reignites what makes Dead Space stand out in the survival-horror genre; it’s not in just the Resident Evil 4 design similarities, nor the stylistic inspirations of The Thing or Event Horizon, but the whole gestalt of soaking in so many identities while still being unique in its own right.  That’s what ranks it amongst the best remakes and blockbusters in recent memory.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a retail copy of Dead Space (2023) for the XS

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