Knowing there’s a real human being behind every killer in Dead By Daylight makes everything a bit more terrifying. Rather than walking through a series of haunted house scares that I know are harmless, it taps into that tiny fear I have of proving myself against other people. When the killer suddenly pops up right behind me, I freak out because that scare wasn’t predetermined. Instead of taking away the tension of horror by making me “powerless” (which you never truly are in a horror game), it forced me into action by putting the outcome of this horror story in my hands as much as my opponent’s.
The setup for Dead by Daylight goes like this: four survivors face off against one of three killers (each modeled after Jason Vorhees, Leatherface, and… I think Pinhead from Hellraiser). To win, the survivors must scour a randomly-generated map to find five of the seven generators powering the two exits and juice them up. They must then open one of the two exit doors and escape. The killer, meanwhile, must hunt down the survivors, whack ‘em a couple times, then carry them on their back to one of the hooks strewn around the map to kill them.
In practice, it plays out like a lopsided game of hide and seek. As a survivor, I know I’m at a disadvantage; I can’t hurt or outrun the killer, so I have to outsmart them by making enough random turns, finding the right windowsill to climb out of, or hiding in the right closet to lose them. These maneuvers might work, but a smart killer will know where you’re headed and cut you off before you can make your next move. I know when to scatter from a generator since I’ll hear a heartbeat get louder as the killer gets closer, but the killer can see where all the generators are. So if they get to a generator and see it’s almost fixed, they can fake leaving an area to lure you back out to the generator then quickly return. Depending on what killer they’re playing as, they can also lay down traps, sprint with a one-hit kill chainsaw, or turn invisible.
Getting out alive is hard. Most of the time, I didn’t make it. But there’s no feeling like making a mad dash for the exit after the killer finds you and getting out alive. Unlike most horror games, the victory is that much sweeter because the game wasn’t designed so that I’d win every time. I actually outsmarted someone instead of just following instructions.
As the killer I have a better chance of winning, but it’s also a little nerve-wracking to know you set the pace of the game. Early on, as I learned how to actually patrol the map and chase your prey effectively, I kept losing track of survivors, attacking at the wrong times (which slows you down), and letting people free themselves from hooks.
I also had a few logistical issues; after hitting a survivor, the killer takes a second to wipe the blood on their arm. I know why the animation’s there — to give survivors the chance to escape — but it’s still a little frustrating. I also had some issues when I came up to an obstacle I wanted to break while chasing a survivor but whacked the thing instead of triggering the “break obstacle” animation, which meant I had to wait for both the attack animation and the breaking animation to play out. This was aggravating, and it put me on tilt a few times. When the killer does poorly, no one’s having fun.
After a few matches I learned how to play around some of these issues, and at this point I can regularly kill two or three survivors per match. In one match, I wanted to see how high a score I could get by only killing two survivors (I’ll explain why in a bit). I had a good run and quickly downed two of them, but the other two kept bumping into me even though I wasn’t near the remaining generators. So I’d down them, but not pick them up. I would wait for their friend to heal them up, then down one of them again. Here the blood-wiping animation became a taunt: “I know you’re not getting away, so I’m taking my time.” I repeated this cycle a few times, felt bad about playing with my food, then put them both out of their misery. It was borderline sadistic, and I felt a little bad about it.
Here’s why I did it, though: Dead By Daylight emphasizes skill and ranking more than really fits its mold. After every match, you earn points for doing well in certain categories depending on your role. Survivors get points for escaping, helping others, doing well at fixing generators, and being bold. Killers get points for every kill, using their killer-specific skills, and destroying the obstacles survivors put in their way. Get enough points during a match and you’ll receive up to two marks towards your next matchmaking rank (points also act as a currency for a temporary and permanent upgrade system). If you don’t get any points, you lose a mark instead.
So say the killer doesn’t do their job, can’t catch anyone, and all four survivors escape without a scratch. That means the survivors don’t get a chance to earn points for healing or rescuing each other. And if the survivors don’t do well, that means the killer doesn’t get as many chances to use their skills, catch the same person multiple times, or break enough obstacles to get that second point. In the match where I managed to kill all four survivors pretty easily, my score only got me one matchmaking mark, which feels wrong. So in that one match, wanted to test if I could get at least one mark by only killing two survivors. No, as it turns out, which I find weird.
But maybe the worst thing I can say about Dead By Daylight is that I’ll have a hard time getting my friends into it. This is the kind of game you don’t need much gaming knowledge to get into (though they’ll need a short primer), and at its best, it plays off of psychology far more than reflexes, which makes it a perfect thing to whip out at parties.
But you can’t group up and play regular matchmaking (yet), there’s no split-screen, and if you want to set up a private lobby, you’ll need five friends with their own copy of the game. Fair enough, but you have to try this game a few times before you get it, and the costs of setting up a game with friends puts far out of impulse buy territory.
Still, Dead by Deadlight gets a lot of mileage out of its premise. The way it gives both survivors and killers enough options to outsmart their opponents is cleverly constructed. And genuinely not knowing whether I’d make it out alive was a feeling I’d missed in other horror games. I’m interested in playing more if it, if only to see what terrifying new strategies killers use on me. After all, if you want a good scare, what better place to look than other people?
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who thinks it’s kinda messed up the tutorial tells survivors they can’t get caught in closets then totally tells killers to catch survivors in closets. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Glixel, and many others. Follow him on Twitter.