Dead Space Remake Review: Familiar Frights Meet New Ideas

The remake of Dead Space comes exceptionally close to being a perfect recapturing of the original game: an immaculate, thoughtful, scary-as-ever remake. This redone version of a horror classic takes great care to tidy up unruly parts of the beloved experience while bringing the presentation in line with what modern standards dictate a remake should look, feel, and sound like, and Electronic Arts' Motive Studio team even makes mostly successful efforts to inject a sense of newness and unpredictability into the mix. It's not perfect, but it's exactly what a remake should strive for.

Any remake is one which fans would hope the developers would cradle carefully so as not to smudge the rose-colored glasses, but for many (myself included), Dead Space is not just a horror game. It's the horror game – the one that you played with the lights off because any other way felt just wrong, the one that made you pause the game to take a breath, and the one that everyone who played horror games had to have in their collection. Motive Studio quite clearly understood the lasting significance of Dead Space and the lasting impressions it made on people while still treading carefully to build on the original experience, not to change it for the sake of change.

Probably one of the Dead Space remake's biggest successes is that it knows what to kick and what to keep. You see this right from the start when our protagonist, Isaac Clarke, and the rest of his team make their harrowing entrance onboard the USG Ishimura. The original game only teased Isaac's appearance with a behind-the-head perspective before helmeting our hero and keeping him that way until the big face reveal at the end. That reveal doesn't really work in a remake, however, so we spend much more time looking at Isaac's furrowed brow since he periodically removes his helmet in the game. He's chattier this time, too, whereas he was silent in the original game. These sorts of common-sense changes seen at the beginning bode well for any other liberties Motive Studio presents to players further along.

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Some ideas don't work quite as well but are admirable all the same. Every weapon has multiple special upgrade accessible in return for "nodes." These sorts of special upgrades were more prevalent in future Dead Space games, so the fact that they've been incorporated in this remake is an example of Motive Studio taking bits of what worked from later installments and bringing it back to the start. While these upgrades to iconic weapons like the Plasma Cutter and Line Gun gives players something to look for and invest towards, they're often a bit underwhelming. The Plasma Cutter boasts a damage-over-time effect when upgraded enough, for example, as well as an effect that knocks enemies over with melee attacks. Fun concepts, but somewhat counterintuitive to a game where you're looking to dismember a Necromorph ASAP.

Where the Dead Space remake truly shines is through its updated traversal system and the "Intensity Director" the developers have talked about previously. This feature essentially randomizes encounters and instills new ways to spook players through Necromorph encounters. It's affected by a number of factors like how many times you've died in an area and so on, but its innerworkings are largely hidden from players which makes it that much more effective at setting up surprise encounters.

The tram system used to get around the USG Ishimura goes hand-in-hand with the Intensity Director. Added side quests and the ability to revisit other parts of the ship (mostly) whenever you want encourages a Metroidvania-style backtracking approach to the remake, and that's where the Intensity Director does its thing best. Through some parts, you'll be speeding through corridors, Plasma Cutter on the swivel, to access a door which was previously unavailable to you.

"That was too easy," you'll think, but you'll make it back to the tram unscathed. The next time you take that same path, however, things might not be so easy. The Intensity Director capitalizes on making players comfortable and then surprising them, and in a very meta way, it plays into the paranoia that permeates Dead Space's cast by making players think twice when opening any door. If there was ever any doubt that a remake of a scary game could still be scary when players already know its ins and outs, the Intensity Director is here to prove that it's possible.

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(Photo: The Dead Space remake's zero gravity segments are much, much better.)

Zero gravity segments, unfortunately, are still a slog, though there's only so much that can be done with those. Motive Studio did a superb job of salvaging the tedious and frustrating zero gravity moments from the original game by giving players more control over Isaac as he jets through the air instead of jumping from platform to platform, but these moments still never quite mesh with the fast-paced, relentless nature of the rest of the game. Improving these parts was an unenviable task, and even though they're still not great, they're far and wide better than what came before them.

As for the expected modern enhancements coupled with remakes like graphics, animations, and sounds, those fall under the previously mentioned umbrella of "nearly perfect" in the sense that there's not much to say about them beyond raving at how well those upgrades were executed. Necromorphs may ragdoll occasionally to break some immersion, but the way they now look sprinting at you in the remake and the way they rip apart but keep coming with every shot is no laughing matter. The game's sound is a marvel of its own – even though Dead Space is releasing right at the very beginning of the year, I'll be quite surprised if we make it all the way through 2023 without the remake winning at least one award for its eerie, unnerving sounds that are at times more unsettling than actually seeing a Necromorph.

For likely many others and I, the only hopes for this Dead Space remake were to be able to play through the game once more (hopefully with a jump scare or two) in a way that didn't feel ancient and clunky. The Dead Space remake far outstrips those minimal expectations, and though it may be premature a cliché to say it's raised the bar for remakes, it's certainly established a dominant foothold in 2023 and in the upcoming string of horror remakes fans have to look forward to. It's again not perfect, but it strives to be better than the original, and that's something other remakes should look to copy.

Rating: 4.5/5

A PS5 review copy of the Dead Space remake was provided by the publisher. Dead Space releases for the PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC platforms on January 27th.

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