It has been 15 years since the original Dead Space came out and since that day in 2008, it gained a reputation as a standout survival horror title. For me though, 2008 was all about assembling my ragtag group of Nintendo mascots to win as many games as I could in Mario Super Sluggers for the Nintendo Wii. The 2023 remake of Dead Space is my first experience with this supposed crown jewel of the survivor horror genre. Thankfully, it turns out Dead Space is just as, if not better than, Mario Super Sluggers, thanks to its rich array of tense moments, exciting gunplay and gorgeous visuals.
If there’s one important aspect that makes horror games appealing to me, it’s tension, and Dead Space brings it almost right off the bat. You are “Engineer of the Year” Isaac Clarke, who together with your ragtag group of repair folks are tasked with providing maintenance to flagship mining vessel the USG Ishimura. Unsurprisingly, things go horribly wrong and you’re forced to try to survive while uncovering the ship’s mysteries. The answers to these mysteries are mostly uncovered through text, audio logs and holograms found throughout the ship. It’s a strong example of environmental storytelling, and I found myself checking through any door I could access, in hopes that I could find these logs, or even a scrawled message on the wall. If you haven’t played Dead Space yet then I recommend going in with as little story knowledge as possible.
While the tension in Dead Space does partially come from the slowly revealed story, a major part also feeds from the limited ammo and resources that are a staple of most survival horror games. There were dozens of times where I chose to try and run past enemies instead of fighting them, because I wanted to conserve ammo. It’s neat that Dead Space, for the most part, gives you the option to work your way around enemies instead of blasting through them. Thankfully, there’s still a ton of blasting to be done in the game. The lack of ammo pushes you to use every weapon in your arsenal even if they aren’t your favorites. There are many games where you start with a weapon and quickly move onto bigger and better ones. In Dead Space, the best gun is the one that currently has ammo in it.
There is additional nuance and customization given to each weapon and Isaac’s suit thanks to the nodal upgrade system. These nodes are scattered throughout the ship and each one unlocks a new skill ranging from extra HP and stasis powers, to more damage and faster reload time on weapons. They’re fairly standard fare as far as upgrades go, but it’s always exciting to stumble across a new one.
The enemy variety in Dead Space takes a while to expand but does so at a reasonable rate. The first grunt type enemy that you encounter is one that you’ll also be fighting 10 hours in, but by that time, they’re just one part of a tasty necromorph menu, each with their own unique style and gimmick. My favorite is the lanky Divider necromorphs, who are easy to defeat but drop terrifying heads with tendrils attached. If these tendrils kill you, they rip off your head and take over your body. Seeing them pilot your corpse is wonderfully creepy and the animations for getting killed are as mesmerizing as they are gruesome. Still, the game does have its challenging parts and it can be frustrating to see the same kill animation for the sixth time in a row.
Rounding out the combat is Isaac’s hover flight abilities, which are mostly used when exploring the exterior of the USG Ishimura. The flight controls are floaty and slightly nauseating, but it’s fighting against enemies while flying that feels the worst. It’s easy to get your orientation flipped around and there are often long range enemies that sit in the darkness. I died several times due to the combination of being out in space and not knowing where the enemies are, and it’s extra noticeable compared to how stellar and dynamic the non-flying combat is. It’s also a shame because the other aspects of being in space work so well. The visuals are neat, and the relative silence of the vacuum creates a wonderfully tense atmosphere in a game that’s already quite tense to begin with.
Also contributing to Dead Space’s tension masterclass is the lack of loading screens. Save for a couple of cutscenes, Isaac is always controllable and loading is masked by the elevators and trolley cars that help you navigate the Ishimura. While games without loading screens are becoming more common, the implementation in Dead Space is the best I’ve seen so. Waiting for the elevator to go down a couple of floors while not knowing what horrors await you is unnerving. and similarly to most of the game’s systems, adds to the overall tension.
It also helps that Dead Space is a gorgeous slice of sci-fi horror goodness. From the horrifying necromorphs and the dark industrial ship, to the flash of your weapons and the sheen of Isaac’s suit, Dead Space is a feast for the eyes and one that doesn’t let up for its duration (save for Isaac’s goofy expressions when maskless). My favorite visual touch is Isaac’s health bar taking the form of glowing nodes on his spine, as it is both a visually striking and practical way to show how much health you have left.
Dead Space is a fantastic game to play in 2023, thanks to its engrossing story, stellar combat, and smart systems. It’s a testament to the crew at Motive Studios and EA, that the struggle of Isaac Clarke and friends manages to impress 15 years later. This one’s a resounding home run.
Dead Space is available for the PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC.