Nearly 15 years ago, EA released a sci-fi horror game that wore its inspirations on its armored sleeve but still was a breath of fresh air for the survival horror genre. Like the horrifying creatures within it, Dead Space took Resident Evil 4‘s genetic code and morphed it in delightfully dreadful ways.
The core of over-the-shoulder third-person action-horror remained, but terrifying alterations had been made: players would fight onslaughts of unique monstrosities in cramped spaces, navigate pitch-black corridors, manage their oxygen while traversing zero gravity areas, and avoid the hazards of a rapidly decaying spacecraft. Most famously, Dead Space stripped hardcore gamers of the comfort and complacency derived from their skill in other titles. Well-aimed headshots hardly hindered its undead monsters; you had to cut off their limbs. It was terrifying and very, very fun.
The franchise settled into a long slumber following the third game’s reception in 2013, and only now has it reawakened with the release of EA Motive’s Dead Space remake. Is it a well-deserved revival, or should Dead Space have remained its titular adjective? After more than twenty hours with Dead Space (2023) and over six hours replaying the original, I feel qualified and confident to say that this is one of the best remakes we’ve yet seen. It’s a faithful recreation of an incredible game, and when it isn’t, it has improved gameplay and immersion in mind when making thoughtful changes. Only minor missteps keep it from pure perfection.
Capitalism, Cults, and Corpses
Dead Space is set in 2508, in a world where we’ve finally gluttonously used up Earth’s finite materials. As resourceful as we are insatiable, humanity takes to the stars to find planets we can “crack” and harvest. Gargantuan vessels built by the CEC travel to resource-rich planets and pull out massive chunks of them, bringing them inside the ship where the mass is mined for valuables and studied. Ripping these planet portions out can have a huge impact on each sphere’s geology. If we strip enough of the orb away, the alteration to its mass begins to impact its gravity, impacting its orbit, impacting the whole of its solar system. But hey, Earth is out of iron, zinc, and copper, so the show must go on.
The USG Ishimura, the very first planetcracker, launches a distress signal while out on its 35th mining operation, and this is where Dead Space begins. Players assume the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent with a small crew to assess the situation and hopefully repair the spacecraft. This is his specialty and his occupation, so he’s here to get the job done naturally, but there’s a personal factor at play. His girlfriend, Nicole, is part of the medical staff on the ship. The first thing we see in the game is her video message to Isaac, lamenting how things are “falling apart” there. And oh boy, how they’ve fallen apart.
Isaac’s team arrives to an unfathomable disaster and they’re quickly separated when a group of grotesque monsters attack. The ship is in dangerous disrepair. Scrawled on the walls in blood are warnings from now dead (or reanimated) crew members and mantras of the cultish Church of Unitology. Using a mining tool as an improvised weapon, Isaac sets out to find Nicole, help the remaining staff members repair the ship, and get the hell out of there.
A Cut Above
Though Dead Space is a horror game first and foremost, its action-packed gameplay is as fun as it is frightening. As you make your way around the ship to repair tram access, restore power to asteroid defense cannons, and make other fixes to keep your crew alive for just a bit longer, you’ll be hunted by all manner of undead terrors you need to take down.
These relentless creatures are known as Necromorphs. They are the corpses of Ishimura’s crew morphed into disgusting new toothy, boney lifeforms. Whether they’re the product of a virus, alien life, or another abominable cause is a mystery slowly unraveled over the course of the game. But what’s immediately apparent is their unique anatomy calls for unique killing methods. Using your arsenal of mostly makeshift weapons, you brutally dismember their arms, legs, tails, and tentacles to make them die a second time. Their hurried shambling, sprinting, and leaping means you’ll need to perfect your aiming and keep your panicking to a minimum.
Along with what you should cut, you’ll quickly learn what not to cut. Headshots often behead Necromorphs, but instead of ending them, it enrages them. Necromorphs with swollen stomachs spew hoards of tiny monsters if you puncture their belly. Some have developed massive pustules that will explode when ruptured. You’ll need to aim carefully when they’re close, but they can also be used as bombs to take out their kin if they’re distant. What if you encounter one of these with no other enemies near it? Cut off the limb with the growth and toss it at the next grouping of enemies you encounter.
The dismemberment system adds much more to the game than limb-based target practice. It encourages a strategic approach to its fast-paced gunplay, made even more frantic by the fear factor. Melee is an option as well. One button has Isaac swing his weapon, and another is a crunchy, satisfying stomp. These attacks don’t do very much damage, but can create some distance in a pinch or possibly finish off a crawling Necromorph.
Also at Isaac’s disposal are two futuristic technologies afforded to CEC engineers. Stasis allows you to create temporal time dilation. While intended for repair jobs, in Isaac’s unique, horrifying case, he can use it to slow down fast-approaching Necromorphs, giving himself more time to aim or to run away.
Then there’s the kinesis module, an addition to Isaac’s RIG suit that creates artificial gravity fields. This means you can pick up items telekinetically and forcefully blast them forward. Fire extinguishers, gas tanks, enemy bones, and pustules can all be drawn in and thrown at foes to great effect. Like most survival horror games, resources are in short supply. Clever use of environmental objects is essential to saving precious ammo.
Can We Fix It?
Along with the issue of undead monsters scurrying around in its vents killing and turning its inhabitants, the USG Ishimura is structurally in dire straits. Besides staying alive from moment to moment, Isaac and his peers have to contend with the many failing systems of the ship. Text and audio logs scattered through the decks give players more context about what happened before their arrival. The information is useful, and more often than not, chilling.
The plot takes players from section to section of the gore-soaked spacecraft to mend mechanisms whose functions are essential to the ship being habitable, traversable, and not falling out of the sky into the planet it’s tethered to. Players will find and place batteries, divert power to various systems, provide targeting data to turrets, and more, using stasis, kinesis, and zero-gravity maneuvering.
For every problem solved a bigger threat emerges, but there’s a real sense of progress in fixing such huge features of the gargantuan mining ship. While the threat of Necromorphs is ever present, you slowly but surely make the Ishimura itself less of a death trap. Though the situation you’re facing is unimaginable, Isaac’s engineering prowess and the aid of both a tech expert and a senior security officer lend to the idea that maybe there’s hope in escaping this nightmare.
Keep On Keeping On
The pacing of these tasks is stellar. Exploration, setpieces, combat, jumpscares, and secrets are balanced very well throughout the game. I don’t ever remember getting to a point that dragged on or lowered my enthusiasm for continuing onward. New enemies and new weapons are introduced in intervals that keep combat fresh too, on top of its good encounter design.
Weapon upgrade items and potential credits to buy resources from the ship’s stores encourage players to check optional rooms so that despite the damage they might take during these excursions, they’ll be better equipped for the rest of the adventure.
Diverting electricity is often incorporated into optional exploration, allowing players the choice of mechanism in the area to power. There’s an incredibly light puzzle aspect in figuring out where you’re sending power and if it unlocks a room you’re interested in. In one instance, players have to choose whether they’ll spend electricity on lights or oxygen. Pure darkness, or completing your task within the 70 seconds of oxygen your suit can provide you with. Both options are terrifying, but in Dead Space, the choice is yours.
Up Your Arsenal
The weapons in Dead Space are so gratifying they deserve a review section of their own. Isaac finds himself on a planetcracker, not a battleship. As such, he doesn’t come across many guns. What he finds are even better suited for limb lopping: space-age power tools.
You’ll have access to a gravity-tethered circular saw that can forcefully discard its diamond-tipped blades after they’ve been suspended in air rending apart Necromorphs. There’s the fan favorite Plasma Cutter, a pistol-like tool that shoots in small straight lines, that with its alt-fire, can be made horizontal or vertical at your discretion. There’s also a flamethrower, a beam designed to split meteors, a triple barrel assault rifle, an extra-wide plasma cutter that can attack laser traps to walls and floors, and also the rock-shattering “force gun”.
Each of these weapons, with the help of their alt-fire, serves a different purpose in combat. They can be strategically quick-swapped in the middle of a fight to best protect yourself from the Necromorph onslaught. All of them feel great to use. The combination of the DualSense’s haptics and adaptive triggers, sound design, screen shake, shot effects, and the gross flesh-tearing system makes each attack impactful.
This Is My Boomstick
One of my experiences sticks out to me in particular. In a narrow hallway, a Necromorph busts out of one of the ship’s vents and attacks me from behind. I quickly spin around and see that it’s far too close to me to worry about aiming at arms or legs. Walking backward, I put away my plasma cutter and pull out my force gun. I let it get within biting distance of me before I pull the trigger.
A rainbow-tinged flash emanates from the tool’s barrel that quickly expands past the entire screen and the kinetic blast blows off every inch of the monster’s skin. Somehow, it’s still standing. I expend one more round and the shot breaks the Necromorphs exposed bones, and it goes flying back, limbless. Dead Space is often this exhilarating.
The biggest difference between the Dead Space remake and its original is the obvious one: visuals. The textures are big and beautiful. Multiple striking light sources highlight the Ishimura’s various mechanical ridges and the equipment, furniture, and clutter within it. Shadows are impressively cast, and if the game’s horror has a hold on you, Isaac’s own shadow is at risk of scaring you at times. Destroyed parts of the ship and metal-on-metal interactions produce dazzling particle effect sparks that are made even more lifelike by Dead Space‘s impressive HDR implementation.
Isaac’s RIG suit remains iconic and is one of the title’s visual standouts. Tons of shiny metal armor strips line his person, with a contraption on his back that colorfully displays his health and his remaining stasis energy. Since Isaac’s character model displays your important information, Dead Space can forgo a HUD for a more immersive presentation.
Like the game it’s based on, the color palate here is mostly brown and gray. But that’s not to say there isn’t variety. It’s more that the game has a visual identity than its colors are too limited. Bursts of blue, orange, and red from the ships’ various tech often brighten up the decks of the Ishimura.
Though Dead Space‘s environment is one big metal ship, there’s a pleasing mix of materials throughout. You’ll encounter cloth, plastics, and a mess of flesh that all react to light appropriately and looks how you’d expect it to in reality. This is one of the best-looking games we’ve seen so far this generation. On PS5 players have the choice of 1440p 60fps or 4K 30fps with ray-tracing, and both look stunning.
What Was That Noise?
It’d be easy for EA Motive to rip the excellent sounds from the original Dead Space and call it a day, but they’ve gone above and beyond. Many recognizable audio effects from the 2008 title return, but they’re blended with brand-new noises and are made more immersive by 3D Audio and “audio occlusion”. Motive has applied a system to sound that allows level geometry to realistically muffle it, and then the positional audio further immerses you by accurately convincing your ears it’s coming from above, below, or behind you.
Isaac’s exasperated grunts are as entertaining as ever. Dead Space‘s many viscous liquids are vividly realized through audio. Broken doors clang, fluorescent lights buzz, fans, and engines roar, Necromorphs scream and wail: the Ishimura is a noisy place. There is care taken in deciding when and what players are exposed to though, with breaks from abrasive noises allowing players a small respite. You’ll likely still hear things skittering in vents or distant machine parts whirring though.
One of my favorite aural flourishes of the original game is featured in the remake. When Isaac enters any part of the ship exposed to the space outside, sound is muffled to the point of near silence. The only sounds that persist are the clank of his gravity boots, the beep of his health monitoring system, and the blast of his weapons should any of the undead attack in these sections.
Dead Space‘s music was hit or miss for me. The shrill, shrieking strings that accompany the appearance of Necromorphs and persist through most battles added intensity at times, and at others, I felt I’d become numb to them. These instruments can also be tough on your ears over the course of a long play session. What I really enjoyed were the moody atmospheric tracks that played in certain areas, most memorably in the first big zero-gravity room. Though the circumstances are horrible, flying freely through the air with one of those songs playing reminds players of the magnificence of space.
Horror and Terror
This new take on Dead Space is scary, there’s no doubt about it. But I do find it hard for me to fairly judge just how much it is. Your first experience with horror media is likely to be the most frightening. There’s anticipation, surprise, and shock that go into an effectual scare. It’s simply impossible to recapture that first time, and since I’ve played the original, I’d seen the necromorphs before, and I knew what it’d take to kill them. I already knew the sights and sounds of the Ishimura, and I knew the fate of each crew member. The good news for fellow returning players is that EA Motive knows you know.
Through a system they call the “intensity director” Dead Space tracks players’ experiences closely to balance tension. Lights, sounds, fog, and enemy spawns are dynamically adjusted to give players breaks, build anxiety, or shock them. It definitely gave me a jolt on a few occasions. I once exited a room and encountered a scripted fight with a few enemies. I immediately retreat back into the safety of the room to get my bearings and ensure my weapons are reloaded. Suddenly, in an unscripted instance, a Necromorph destroys a vent, busts into the room, and attacks. I definitely jumped.
Me, Myself, and Isaac
One of the changes in the Dead Space remake is that Isaac is no longer a silent protagonist. Some side characters get more screen time too. This leads to a bit more conversation over the course of the game. This small increase in chatter made me feel less alone during my playthrough, which made me feel less afraid.
Initially, I thought this was an issue that would lead me to prefer the original game over the remake, but as time went on I realized it introduced a new kind of psychological horror. While I wasn’t emotionally invested in any particular character outside of Isaac, the gravity of the situation is gripping. You and your peers could die at any moment. If you manage to survive, you could still be trapped here forever. There’s also the risk of this infestation spreading to the rest of humanity.
The work you and your squad are doing is crucial to any possibly happy ending here, and the increase in communication drives this home. And as communications break down and tragedy strikes, you begin to feel more and more alone; any hope of success grows fainter. The original game viscerally scared me, but Dead Space (2023) also filled me with dread.
Remake Us Whole
Fans of the excellent original shouldn’t worry, Dead Space is a largely faithful remake. Gameplay is functionally similar enough that they even include the option to use the exact same control scheme from the 2008 game (that’s what I used). Motive’s changes make for a more fun and well-rounded experience. One of the biggest differences is that Dead Space‘s chapters flow naturally into each other rather than functioning as levels. To make this possible, the Ishimura has been restructured to allow backtracking at will. This affords players the ability to return to areas and find things they missed, but also makes the planetcracker feel much more like a real place. Immersion was clearly a focus for the team.
Though I enjoyed the gravity jumps of the original, replacing them with the zero-g thruster navigation from later games in the series was the right call. Dead Space (2023) consistently makes the right calls. For example, the frustrating asteroid turret section from the 2008 title is now an impressive and fun setpiece, but it doesn’t betray the original experience. It uses the same threat of falling debris, still requires skillful aiming, has the same plot purpose, and the same outcome, but is now much more engaging.
Kinesis has also been upgraded to the way it worked in Dead Space 2. Certain throwable items don’t only damage necromorphs, but impale them and pin them to walls. While kinesis had combat applications in the original game, the remake’s changes further encourage its use, adding spice to combat and another option when ammunition is running low.
The nitpicker in me noticed a few things that I miss about the original. The new camera has a wider FOV and no longer bobs with Isaac’s movement. Isaac is also a bit faster now, making his character and equipment feel less weighty. The plasma cutter is still a joy to use, but it lacks some of the bass and thump in its shot; it’s likely a change to make the more powerful weapons seem even crazier by contrast. The interaction with the survivor by the bodybags near the beginning of the game is less depressing but definitely still spooky. But these are indeed nitpicks. They’re differences, not downgrades.
Dead Space‘s weaknesses are few and far between, but a few issues did mar what’s otherwise an exceptional experience. The voice acting in the original game is strong, so it’s no problem that the remake matches that quality rather than surpasses it. But I did have an issue with how humans were animated in the new release.
Their movements often seem stiff, and with few exceptions, characters’ faces seem incapable of bending in the ways they need to for convincing expressions. One unfortunate example of this is Nicole’s video message that opens the game. Her face just doesn’t seem to match the content of her dialogue. Connecting to these characters adds to the weight of the game’s events. This uncanniness sometimes hinders that connection. Elsewhere, the animation is excellent: the necromorphs, weapons, and ship’s mechanisms all impress.
Another problem that’s an immersion breaker is the reuse of assets. When I say this, I’m referring to a very specific asset. The game’s locations all use models and textures in ways that I thought were superb and I didn’t notice any recurring elements in this regard that didn’t make sense. What is overused are messages/graffiti found on the ship’s walls.
I’m not taking issue with whether these messages would realistically be left by the crew, or if they’re good lore or not. My problem is that these messages are copied wholesale multiple times throughout the game. The same words in the same font with the same color can be found copied and pasted around the various decks. The most egregious instance is one room having the same graffiti in it twice, identical aside from the fact that one has been shrunk. This isn’t a huge deal, but when Dead Space‘s world otherwise feels so real and atmospheric, things like this stick out.
How It Works
Dead Space is a very polished release, and it’s surprising for a modern day title to be so functionally solid at launch. I did encounter a few strange bugs though. There were rare occasions where despite my aim being true, for some reason my shots passed enemies by. It was so rare that I thought it might be my imagination, but I confirmed it with the PS5’s media playback. I got softlocked behind a kinesis object at one point, but the game’s quality checkpoint system prevented much frustration. I also had a Chapter Cleared notification pop up a second time further into a chapter once, and that didn’t get in my way but was a puzzling sight.
All I Got Left
Taking its inspirations and fusing them into one excellent horror game, Dead Space was a revelation in 2008 that became an instant classic. Almost 15 years later, Dead Space (2023) is the best version of it. It’s gripping, gutting, and thrilling throughout. It’s an exceptionally entertaining shooter with unique mechanics and enemies that make it unlike anything else. The original made the USG Ishimura an iconic location, and the new remake has made it a real place you can explore. If you’re a fan of horror or action games, you owe it to yourself to stomp through the halls of the planetcracker and see Isaac Clarke’s harrowing journey through.
Disclaimer: Electronic Arts provided Final Weapon with a PlayStation 5 copy of Dead Space for review purposes.