This is Part 2 of a spoiler-free review of Days Gone. Read Part 1 here for gameplay and our overall score!
In Part 1 of this review, we spoke about some of the more mechanical gameplay elements of Bend Studio’s Days Gone. In this part, let’s dive a little bit into the storytelling, worldbuilding – and into the thorny subject of zombie games.
Deacon St. John: Drifter, Killer, Surly Asshole
“Here we go”, I sighed. “Another white, gruff, cynical male protagonist”. Unfortunately, Deacon St. John is all of these things. But, honestly? Days Gone is all the more compelling for it. Deacon isn’t heroic. He doesn’t volunteer for anything, his solution to every problem is violence, and while he’s charming at times, he’s also arrogant and condescending. Deacon is selfish. We’re used to protagonists who, though they may be flawed, ultimately prove themselves the hero we all needed. Deacon isn’t that.
Ultimately, Deacon’s only human. And you know what? That’s refreshing. It’s refreshing to be disappointed by our protagonist.
Days Gone presents a number of compelling thoughts through its story and characters. It questions the validity of violence as a solution to problems. It gives us characters who refuse to bow to the “Us Versus Them” mentality – hugely relevant in the political climate we find ourselves in today. Deacon is the classic rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ gung-ho killer we’ve seen a thousand times, but the world refuses to condone him. Deacon’s allies question his motives and his methods.
Deacon embodies an outdated and overbearing masculinity. He’s brusque, sexist, and refuses to talk about his feelings. Refreshingly, Days Gone is critical of that. He hurts himself and those around him, clinging to a harmful and outdated idea of manhood. This is in stark contrast to one of the supporting characters – a bisexual woman who is stronger and more capable than Deacon in many ways, without subscribing to antiquated notions.
In the end, Days Gone doesn’t want us to be like Deacon. Days Gone wants us to be better than Deacon.
Despair, Grief, Hope, and the Obsession with Days Gone
Bend Studio didn’t choose the name Days Gone from a hat. The game is deeply concerned with grief, the past, and the necessity of moving forward. Deacon is obsessed with the past. Practically everything he does looks backwards; at his life before the pandemic, at wrongs done to him he wants to revenge, at things he could have done differently. Far from presenting this as practical, or healthy, Bend Studio frames this behaviour as destructive and juvenile. Other characters, out of concern, frustration, or anger, call him out on it – often falling on deaf ears.
Again, Days Gone has a lot to say about this, through the mouths its characters. Some characters hide from the past, obscuring it with madness and drugs. Others work towards a brighter future, looking to the past as a lesson. Others still, like Deacon, cling to the past and refuse to engage with the present at all.
“No one saw it comin’ the way I did. By the time they started walking, and then running, it was too late. And I remember – watchin’ the Freaks – watchin’ them all come, thousands of ’em. And all those… Those dumb shits, just got swallowed up. When you see a thing like that, you know it’s only a matter of time before it’s our turn. And nothing’s gonna stop that. But do you know why we keep going?”
“Because what the hell else are we gonna do?”
– Deacon St. John
Zombie Games: Plague, Crutch, Backdrop
It would be remiss of me not to address the elephant in the room. Furthermore, it seems as if many other reviews of Days Gone have latched onto this thought as though it were a lifebuoy and they were drowning. Let’s get it out of the way; zombie games have been done to death.
Cynical writers may suggest that this is because of our collective obsession with violence. Zombies, they suggest, are human-ish, but far enough removed from humanity to be slaughtered without unease. It’s because they’re easy, and they don’t ask hard questions.
I contend otherwise.
Zombie games – and apologies, Bend Studio, I know you don’t call them zombies, but that’s what they are – address the dehumanisation we inflict on one another. The paint a picture of how we strip our enemies of their humanity so as to justify their slaughter. Games featuring zombies, and in particular action games featuring zombies, are a political statement about war.
Days Gone is no exception. Days Gone presents complicated questions about violence as a means to an end, about the Us Vs Them narrative, and about humanity in dire situations. Often, throughout the game, violence works. It brings safety, security, and prosperity. “But”, Days Gone asks, “to what end?”.
Zombie games have a hard time on the modern scene. People love to hate them, and in the coming days you’ll likely see many articles disparaging Days Gone as “just another zombie game”. I encourage you to be better than that, to engage with the threads Days Gone is trying to follow. Membership of a genre that it’s currently in vogue to criticise is not a true fault, and while Days Gone may be far from a perfect game, it has a lot to give.
Ultimately, the “zombie apocalypse” setting is a backdrop. No more than Mass Effect‘s space opera setting served to enable its enormous and ambitious story arcs, Days Gone‘s infested Oregon has a function. It’s a set piece, allowing stories of humanity, masculinity, and violence in extreme situations to be told.
The Bad and the Ugly
I’ve spoken a lot about the positives of Days Gone – you may have guessed that I quite enjoyed it. All of that said, Days Gone has room for improvement in a few critical areas.
The open-world missions – things like bounty-hunting, Infestation clearing, camp raiding – get very samey. While the environment is sufficiently varied to keep it at least somewhat entertaining, they can become wearisome quite quickly. I peppered my storyline experience with jaunts into the open world, and I’d encourage you to do the same to avoid burn-out on the side missions.
The combat, while fun, is basic – the AI is easily fooled, and late-game, individual zombies are a joke to take out, and even small crowds go down easily. New Freaker types are introduced, but they’re easily subverted, and, by the time they are introduced, barely a challenge.
The story is broken into multiple chapters of experience which, somewhat frustratingly, do not affect one another very meaningfully. Missions you carry out in Copeland’s Camp, one of the very first areas you encounter, have little to no bearing on the later-game experience.
All said and done, Days Gone will certainly be a game I return to in the future.