Staying True to the Original
If a video game remake’s success is measured by its ability to capture the essence of the original experience, then the Dead Space remake can be considered a triumph. The 2008 action-horror game still feels remarkably contemporary, despite its dated visuals and storytelling. As someone who played the original for the first time just a year ago, I can attest that staying true to the source material was the safest decision for the franchise.
Developer Motive Studio took this approach in retelling Dead Space. Every decision made serves the original game, from modernizing outdated systems to enhancing the effectiveness of each weapon in combat. Even when the remake deviates from the script, it does so in a way that triggers a sense of nostalgia and familiarity. The developer reworks elements with tweaks that give the impression that they have always been there. Playing the remake feels reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s faithful recreation of Psycho, leaving me pondering the necessity of such a project.
For those who have yet to experience one of the greatest horror games in gaming history, the new version of Dead Space offers a definitive and refined experience. Its intense limb-carving combat and claustrophobic atmosphere still surpass many contemporary horror games, thanks to some intelligent adjustments. However, for those who have played the original extensively, the remake may not bring anything significantly new to the table. It is, in essence, a remake for the sake of remaking.
All Limbs Intact
Viewed on its own merits, Dead Space (2023) is an exceptional third-person horror experience. The story of Isaac Clarke, an engineer stranded on the abandoned mining ship USG Ishimura overrun by murderous necromorphs, evokes the spirit of Aliens with even more grotesque undertones. It’s a tightly crafted game that skillfully balances tense jump scares with power-fantasy action. Dead Space remains a meticulously designed popcorn game.
The original game’s storyline was never its strongest aspect, and this was never a significant issue. Dead Space focused on establishing the foundation of the franchise rather than telling a complete tale. It provided glimpses into a distinctive vision of 2508, blending capitalist satire with scathing critiques of religious cults. The remake attempts to inject more emotion into the story by giving the once-silent Clarke a voice, but this change does little to alter the overall experience. It’s a reminder that the game predates the narrative advancements seen in The Last of Us.
This is not a criticism; in fact, it adds to Dead Space’s appeal. The game serves as a tone piece, painting broad strokes across a canvas soaked in blood, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s style. The Ishimura stands as one of gaming’s most iconic settings, an inescapable dark labyrinth of eerie corridors. The constant claustrophobia builds tension, turning every encounter with a necromorph into a fight-or-flight response. Dead Space is a horror game that relies on quick reflexes. When you’re prepared for anything, you remain in control. But the moment you let your guard down, your life hangs in the balance.
One particular sequence perfectly captures this dynamic. Through most of the game, resources are abundant, and I feel well-stocked with plasma cutter ammunition, granting me flexibility in battle. Then, I encounter my first Brute. This hulking quadrupedal monster dwarfs other necromorphs, leaving me in a state of panic as I struggle to fight it. Despite pumping loads of ammo into it, I feel like I’m barely making a dent. Only later do I realize that its weak point is on its backside, but not before expending most of my ammunition, heightening the tension for the next hour. This experience mirrors my playthrough of the 2008 version, showcasing the timeless core design of Dead Space.
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More than anything, Dead Space shines through its signature combat system, which surpasses that of most games of its size. The core gameplay revolves around Clarke’s ability to sever individual necromorph limbs using a variety of creative weapons. This transforms each battle into a puzzle, allowing players to strategically disable aliens by severing their legs or freezing them with stasis powers. While other games have attempted to replicate this formula, few have achieved the same level of satisfaction in executing action.
Motive Studio truly understands the assignment when it comes to Dead Space’s combat system. They put in a great deal of effort to enhance the system without discarding any of its original elements. In the 2008 version, the plasma cutter stood out as the most effective tool for limb carving. However, in the remake, every weapon is viable. Amputation becomes more dynamic as players peel back layers of flesh with each shot, rather than cleanly severing limbs with a single line. I had just as much fun melting enemies with the flamethrower or blasting them away with the force gun as I did carving them up with the line gun, which was my go-to weapon in the original. These decisions clearly demonstrate Motive’s reverence for the original game and their commitment to doing justice to its unsung ideas.
While the enhancements to combat are the most noticeable, the Dead Space remake is filled with numerous tweaks. Some changes are more significant, such as the removal of the frustrating asteroid-blasting minigame, while others involve minor adjustments to the story. The visual overhaul is the most obvious change, impressively bringing the game into the modern era. Not only does it look like a contemporary title, but the art direction also adds more detail, making the Ishimura feel like a lived-in space.
Motive Studio pays meticulous attention to detail. The contrast is more pronounced, with darkness effectively concealing necromorphs. Showers of sparks from lighting fixtures create an atmospheric cascade of light. One standout touch is the contact beam, which now obliterates enemies with a mesmerizing stream of energy reminiscent of Ghostbusters. However, all these embellishments have a downside – the 2023 version is occasionally less legible than the original. In certain zero-gravity battles, I found it difficult to locate enemies as they became lost amidst the ship’s intricate details and lighting. While the remake showcases visual elegance, it sacrifices some of its scariness for enhanced playability. The 2008 version strikes a better balance.
Nevertheless, most of the changes in the remake are discreet, blending seamlessly with the original experience. These modifications make it seem as if they have always been part of the game, only noticeable when playing both versions side by side. For example, zero-gravity segments have been completely reimagined. In the original, Isaac couldn’t freely fly in zero-gravity zones; he could only hop from one surface to another, a frustrating experience rectified in Dead Space 2. The switch to free flight fits perfectly in the remake, to the point where I completely forgot that it wasn’t a feature in the original. Similarly, other enhancements, such as subtle overhauls to weapon upgrades, have a significant impact without appearing as flashy new additions.
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Motive prioritizes natural changes like these, favoring incremental adjustments over sweeping transformations. This approach may make the project appear less intricate than it truly is. One notable aspect is the “intensity director,” a standout system that dynamically changes the ship’s state throughout the game. This invisible director can alter a room’s lighting or determine enemy spawns, making each playthrough feel more unpredictable. While this impressive technology boosts the fear factor and replay value, casual players may not necessarily notice the nuances.
However, these changes are not made in vain. I appreciate Motive’s ability to put its own stamp on Dead Space without erasing the essence of the original. Although it may require watching a developer diary to fully grasp, every change, including adjustments to the story, feels carefully integrated to reinforce the original game, rather than overshadow it. There is no sense of developers attempting to outdo the former Visceral Games team. This remake is born out of respect, a testament to Motive’s commitment to preserving the legacy of an aging game.
The question that lingers is whether the original truly required this remake’s intervention.
The Remake Dilemma
Many video game remakes are easily justified. Games, as a unique art form, naturally suffer from the degradation of visual and gameplay elements over time. Explaining the significance of a game like Shadow of the Colossus to a younger audience today is challenging when its mechanics feel archaic by modern standards. In such cases, a remake becomes a necessary step in preserving the game’s importance. This is an issue that a movie like Casablanca will never face.
But what is the ultimate goal of remaking a game like Dead Space, which still plays excellently and is readily available for purchase on various platforms? Although 2008 may seem like a long time ago, in terms of video game years, it is not that distant. Technological advancements have slowed since the Xbox 360 era, and standout games from that period often hold up well. While I undeniably enjoyed revisiting the Ishimura as much as my initial playthrough, I cannot say that it felt substantially different. Emotionally, it felt like a standard replay.
As I played, I struggled to discern the underlying motivation for this remake. Why choose to remake Dead Space instead of developing Dead Space 4 or rebooting the franchise with an entirely new story? In Sony’s controversial The Last of Us Part I, a deep range of accessibility options made the original game playable for individuals with various disabilities. While Dead Space features its own accessibility menu, it is not as extensive, primarily focusing on subtitle customization. It also provides the option for players to enable content warnings, which, ironically, seems amusing in a game centered around ultraviolent limb amputation.
Some changes appear superfluous. The original game featured rooms filled with resources that could only be accessed using high-value nodes used for weapon upgrades. This added a layer of decision-making to exploration, in line with the game’s survival horror resource management concept. In the remake, this has been replaced with a somewhat arbitrary security system, where Isaac gains access to rooms and containers through story progression. Theoretically, this provides a reason to backtrack, but I found little motivation to remember every locked locker I encountered along the way. It’s a minor complaint, but it highlights how challenging it can be to spot the differences between the two games.
I initially referred to Van Sant’s ill-fated Psycho remake, but a more fitting analogy might be Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Ten years after directing the 1997 Austrian psychological horror film, Haneke embarked on an English-language shot-for-shot remake, even utilizing the same set and props. The director claimed that the film was always intended as an American production, but that reasoning does little to diminish the confusion surrounding its existence. Why watch the remake when you can opt for the perfectly comparable original? Is the second version genuinely additive? Does it even matter which one you choose?
Reflecting on Dead Space (2023), I find myself grappling with the same questions, despite thoroughly enjoying the remake. There are moments when it feels similar to Hollywood green-lighting a new film solely to retain intellectual property rights. Am I playing the Dead Space remake because someone believed that the horror narrative would resonate more after the collective trauma caused by a pandemic? Or am I playing it because EA’s leadership deemed it necessary to restore the franchise’s social relevance as a reliable source of revenue?
While I remain cognizant of the cold and often artless nature of business, I still find value in this version of Dead Space. Its capitalist satire (ironically) carries greater weight in 2023, and its inescapable isolation resonates more deeply with players old and new. These factors, coupled with impressive technical advancements that establish Motive as a studio worth watching, validate a blood-soaked return to the USG Ishimura.
This review of Dead Space was conducted on a PlayStation 5 connected to a TCL 6-Series R635.
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