When Sony Computer Interactive Entertainment releases a PS4 exclusive, the gaming world stands up and pays close attention. For years exclusive titles have pushed Sony’s hardware sales forward, and they have delivered some of the best narrative-driven experiences in recent memory. When Days Gone was pitched to fans, the same expectations followed. Bend Studio has fallen short of those expectations, but not all meals have to be gourmet in order to taste good. Days Gone certainly has its flaws, but it isn’t without its share of fun and charm.
In Days Gone, gamers will play as Deacon St. John, a biker who is doing quite well for himself in the two years since the virus outbreak that brought about this post-apocalyptic world. It’s clear early on that he’s a damaged man. Having lost Sarah, the love of his life, in the early stages of the outbreak, Deacon now mixes his time between jobs for the various encampments around Oregon and trying to find out what truly happened to Sarah. As players embark on this journey they will be flipping back and forth between present-day horrors and flashbacks to better times. The story Bend Studio is telling in Days Gone is not a short one, and I hit a point of fatigue in the middle waiting for things to pick up, which they do.
Unfortunately, the grind to get to the good stuff is long, and the narrative presentation falls short of what I’ve come to expect from a PS4 exclusive. Far too often I would have to click through menus to figure out what my objective was, or I’d discover a new main quest because of a blinking icon on a map instead of a natural transition. It felt more like trudging through mud than flowing freely through water.
Killing for sport
Thankfully, Days Gone does a lot of gameplay mechanics well, such as the types of Freakers, how they behave, how Deacon’s interactions with them change based on time of day, and a player’s preference for stealth versus guns blazing. During the day, Swarmers, a type of Freaker, will hibernate in infestation nests. During the night they will come out to play, which gives players a choice in how to deal with these infestations. Burn it out during the day and Swarmers will rush out to attack Deacon. Approach during the night and the nest might be empty, but the world around it certainly won’t be. I exercised extreme stealth for the first few nests, but as I got more comfortable, I stopped hiding in bushes as much and started experimenting more.
The same concept applies to hordes, which are large groups of Freakers that act as a single entity. If one is alerted to Deacon’s presence, the entire horde is, and that’s something that Bend Studio nailed. Hordes will hibernate during the day, then wander around when it’s dark. I never went out at night if I could help it. Running into a horde is inevitable, though, and my first experience with them was satisfying even though I failed miserably. I was impressed at how they moved and the terror that filled me as I was about to be mauled. I retreated to my safe house to lick my wounds, then left my gameplay session wondering how I could overcome such a force. The next day, I returned to the game and the horde, and managed to kill them all with some clever decisions. That was the moment I graduated into a grizzled survivor in Days Gone.
That first experience with a horde taught me a few other things as well, such as to use the world around me to overcome obstacles in unique ways. When I found a camp full of human enemies and a small horde nearby, I just had to make enough noise to get the horde to come check it out, then they cleared the camp for me while I sat in a bush. When I discovered that Rippers, one of the creepier human factions, didn’t attack Freakers, I just had to bring one nearby and it decimated the entire squad.
It wasn’t just understanding the world that made life easier, though, it was also leveling up skills and the bike. Deacon earns XP for almost everything he does, and each new level unlocks a skill point to be used at the player’s discretion. These can be used to buy skills in the ranged, melee, and survival categories, allowing players to enhance their preferred play style. Deacon also earns Trust by doing jobs for encampments, and the more he’s trusted the more access he has to buy better guns and upgrades for his bike.
Ride or die
Perhaps Days Gone’s best gameplay trick is the connection it builds between Deacon and his bike. It takes about 10 minutes for players to find out how much it sucks without it, and that experience was enough to put the fear of losing it into me for the rest of the journey. Deacon’s bike is one of the only places to save the game and it’s the only way players can fast travel, but most of all it’s a get-of-trouble-free card when fight isn’t an option and flight is mandatory. It’s not as simple as just being near the bike, though, as Deacon must take care of it by not letting it take damage, keeping it fueled up, and even upgrading it with new parts to allow for faster rides, more control, and longer trips. In terms of controls, the bike feels good for the most part, but I found it difficult to judge turns at times, even with several upgrades that should have improved this.
Other than the weapon wheel defaulting to weapons I didn’t want to use at times, such as a Pipe Bomb instead of a Molotov, the combat controls are on par with just about any shooter or action game. One good surprise, though, is how the touch pad works. A simple swipe in any direction will instantly bring up the map, story progress, inventory, etc. It’s one of the simplest and yet effective uses of the touchpad I’ve seen.
Gameplay in Days Gone is fair, and a lot of that has to do with the bike. If Deacon clears out an infestation, that area will become relatively safe to travel, and there’s a measure of persistence there. Deacon doesn’t kill 12 enemies in a cul-de-sac and come back the next day to find them respawned, and I adore the sense that my work means something. If I clear out a horde, that horde is gone, and I can then go back without fear of running into them again. Where the bike comes into the picture is with fast travel and fuel. Fast travel between two locations isn’t free. If there’s an infestation between two points, fast travel is blocked until Deacon clears them and the roads are safe. If Deacon doesn’t have enough fuel, he can’t fast travel somewhere. Fast travel isn’t just brainless map clicking, and Bend Studios doesn’t just respawn every enemy endlessly to simulate difficulty, and that part of Days Gone is fantastic.
The color of death
Where Days Gone started to come up short of my expectations was the size of the map, or at least the perception of its size. Most rides to a mission or camp were under 1 kilometer, with long rides coming in around 2.5 kilometers. Bend Studio hides this by fragmenting the world, often putting a big mountain between two sections of the map. The distance between two camps might be 500 meters, but that pushes to 1 kilometer when Deacon finishes riding around the mountain. Unfortunately, there were only a few times that I really felt that motorcycle on the open-road high, but when I did it was good, and it made me want more.
Size and larger structure notwithstanding, the visuals suit the narrative and are well presented on a smaller scale, but it’s tough to get those breathtaking visuals into a post-apocalyptic setting where everything is death. Cars on the side of the road and cluttering tunnels tell a story of a frantic last few days for the previous civilization. Homes are a shell of their former selves and NERO (government) checkpoints scattered along the roads paint a grim picture. In the end, though, open-world games for me are about exploring, and I found that tough given that everything was always trying to kill me. There just weren’t enough quiet moments or peaceful corners to let my guard down and sink into it.
The biggest visual letdown came in the form of lack of accessibility. I’m severely color blind to the point where I suffer from various symptoms of different types, but it was the red-green problem in Days Gone. Marking enemies put a red marker over their heads, but I just couldn’t see that against the foliage. Unfortunately, there are no settings to fix this.
While visuals were up and down, sound design, voice acting, and the soundtrack were generally high points. There were a few audio bugs here and there, but Freakers and hordes sound terrifying, the bike sounds good, and the voice acting and performance capture hold up nicely. I still think it falls a bit short of other PS4 exclusives, but sound design doesn’t let Days Gone down on any level, especially when it busts out tracks like "Soldier's Eyes" by Jack Savoretti, which some might recall from Sons of Anarchy, and that should surprise nobody.
Remembering the good and the bad
Ultimately, I will look back on my time with Days Gone fondly. No, it wasn’t on the same level as other PS4 exclusives before it, but as I eluded to in my opening, not all meals have to be gourmet. Bend Studios set out to make a game about a biker in a post-apocalyptic world full of Freakers that aren’t quite human and aren’t quite dead, and it’s generally a fun experience with some clever gameplay choices and a few moments of brilliance.
Like a biker, though, Days Gone lacks a certain level of polish. It took me a long time to care about the story that was being told and the characters in it, and it always felt just a bit out of sync for me. I think that’s partly due to the world not feeling very welcoming, which may have been intentional, but robbed me of that precious exploration and downtime that open-world games should offer.
- Zombie hordes are the star of the show
- Day and night cycles mean something
- Excellent use of the DualShock 4's touch pad
- Deacon's bike is his lifeline
- The fuel mechanic adds a layer of depth
- No color blind settings
- Story can drag on through the middle
- Exploration is a bit of a chore
- Bike steering seemed just a bit off