After a rough launch in 2016 and many years of updates, Dead by Daylight has evolved into one of the best horror games you can play today. When everything works there's literally no game like it--where else can you play as iconic film and TV characters like Ash Williams or Nancy Wheeler as you run away from villains like Ghost Face, Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers? The premise might seem silly, but Dead by Daylight turns it into one of the most thrilling multiplayer experiences around, pitting one terrifying Killer against four hapless Survivors as they scramble to escape the map alive.
As the Killer, your job is to sacrifice the four Survivors to the Entity, the malevolent god in charge of the nonstop forced competition that is each "trial" in the game. And while you're outnumbered, the odds are heavily lopsided in your favour. You move faster, you have access to more immediate information, and, most importantly, you're the only one capable of dealing any damage. The Survivors can't do anything to harm you--at best, they can slow you down--while you're equipped with a wide array of offensive abilities.
With twenty different Killers to choose from (so far), there's no shortage of entertaining and diverse playstyles. The Hillbilly charges around the map with his chainsaw, the revving of the limb-lopping tool acting as a terrifying warning of what's to come. The Trapper discreetly leaves bear traps on the ground, catching any Survivors who aren't watching where they're going in a crippling vice of metal teeth. Silent Hill's Pyramid Head leaves a trail of horrible barbed wire anywhere he drags his giant blade, and he can send anyone who steps in it to his own special sacrifice areas.
Killers find themselves holding most of the cards when it comes to playing, and that's the way the game likes it. Being a huge threat is a real treat, and it's how Dead by Daylight creates the tense atmosphere it needs to succeed--Survivors know they're outgunned (literally, if the Deathslinger is in the trial) but they do their best to live anyway.
To survive in Dead by Daylight, the four players without murderous intentions need to escape the trial. The exit gates are locked and unpowered, and to open them you and your team need to repair five generators littered around the randomly-generated map. The only thing complicating this is the Killer, who really doesn't want you to leave.
Repairing generators is easier said than done, of course. There's a risk associated with it, and there's a tension created by needing to pass skill checks--timing-based events where a dial spins around a circle and you need to hit a button when it reaches the right spot (think Active Reloads from Gears of War, except the target area moves every time). If you fail it, a loud bang will directly alert the killer to your location. Successfully turning the generator on will also alert the Killer, as will dropping a pallet (which slows the Killer down as they lumber towards you), climbing through a window too fast, and helping other Survivors who have been indisposed--there are a lot of ways in which the Killer will know where you are.
On the upside, you'll have an idea of where the Killer is too. Survivors play in third person, as opposed to the first-person perspective of the Killer, affording them a great deal of extra visual information. And when the Killer nears, their Terror Radius kicks in and a thumping heartbeat warns Survivors of their impending arrival, to great effect. It combines with the game's dynamic metal soundtrack to quicken the pace of your own heart, your awareness of your imminent doom growing alongside the volume of the heartbeat.
If the Killer catches you, they'll likely dump you on a sacrificial hook and leave you to dangle while you bleed out. Your teammates will be forced to agonize over risking the wrath of the Killer to save you or to leave you there to die while they work on the generators. And as you hang, helpless, you'll have a bird's eye view of exactly how bad things are going.
It is extremely unlikely that you'll escape as a Survivor, and that's part of what makes Dead by Daylight so exciting. The way it fills you with dread while still making you unable to look away is the sort of dynamic only the masters of horror ever really nail. Too often the genre leans into other tricks to get by--excessive gore, jump scares, titillation--but the classics all focus on that perfect moment where the viewer clasps their hands over their eyes to find some brief respite--only to split their fingers apart so they can see what happens next.
The thumping heartbeat, the staccato soundtrack, and the knowledge that the odds are terrible engulf you in an impending sense of doom, but the tantalising idea that you might be able to get away compels you to keep playing just one more game.
From 2016 To 2020
When I first reviewed Dead by Daylight in 2016, the one-versus-four multiplayer game was lacking in a lot of ways, but it's come unbelievably far since. Behaviour Interactive took its fair game and worked hard to turn it into something that is now played by millions. Games that were player-hosted and often laggy messes--especially when you were matched against Killers half the world away--now run beautifully on dedicated servers. The player population is up thanks to cross-play. And where you once had to randomly queue to try and join a game alongside your friends, Dead by Daylight now allows party matchmaking by default.
That said, Surviving With Friends (as partying up is known) is highly controversial and highlights the inherent wrinkles in a game like Dead by Daylight. This is supposed to be a lopsided affair, a tense showdown between a solitary Killer and four crafty Survivors where both sides know one thing to be true--the Killer is almost certainly going to get their prey. It's the thrill of gambling at a casino, except instead of a dealer hitting you with a King on double sixes, it's a lady with a decapitated pig as a facemask hitting you with the reverse bear trap from Saw. Either way, the house is always supposed to win.
Outside of a couple of largely meaningless gestures, Survivors can't communicate with one another in-game, and that's what partying up changes. Once Survivors are able to communicate (through external voice chat programs like Discord), the ability for the Killer to divide and conquer becomes significantly more complicated, and it can negate a huge portion of the atmosphere the game is built upon.
However, Dead by Daylight has managed to survive as long as it has over the years because it cleverly leans into being lopsided. The more time you spend with the dozens of different Killers, Survivors, and maps, the more you get the feeling that it's not supposed to be balanced at all. Instead, by featuring 20 Killers, all with a wide variety of playstyles and management techniques, the sentiment of the game in 2020 is to just have fun with it. Enjoyment is more important than victory.
That doesn't mean that the game isn't constantly being improved, however. Even beyond the quality-of-life improvements, Dead by Daylight has introduced a wide array of gameplay fixes and tweaks to make things more fun for both sides. One of the more common issues that cropped up were "infinite loops." Killers move around 15% faster than Survivors (not accounting for sprint burst perks and the like) which means that, over a long enough distance, they'll always catch a survivor. But early into the game's life cycle, players found a way to change those odds. By using window ledges and pallets, Survivors were able to find areas where Killers wouldn't ever be able to catch them.
Behaviour did a good job of removing them as best they could--changing the map layout logic where necessary and implementing Killer Perks to readjust the odds in other areas. And when those solutions don't work, there's another on the cards. The Entity simply blocks the window in question to force the survivor to go elsewhere. Problems still crop up sometimes, but when they do, they're best solved by a community of players who understand a key element of what makes Dead by Daylight fun--the game is better when both sides are having a good time.
A bit of role-playing makes these fantasy scenarios infinitely more interesting than just playing efficiently and killing everyone on sight. Dead by Daylight capitalises on this dynamic by incentivising those actions through the scoring system. Killers who eliminate all the Survivors the first time they find them will walk away with a large chunk of points, certainly. But those who toy with Survivors--who perform a variety of actions like targeting more than one Survivor at once, chasing them around the map, chopping someone down only to put them on a hook and then leave (allowing them to be rescued)--will find they're able to rack up even larger scores. And they'll do it without even necessarily killing all the Survivors.
The same goes for the other side. It's obviously a cinch for a coordinated group of survivors to constantly bait a Killer into long chases while those not being pursued repair generators to escape, and it's a quick way to knock out some games. Or you could take a bunch of solo-focused anti-slug perks (being downed causes a player to slither on the ground like a slug, and being left in this state is called being slugged) and a Skeleton Key and wait for enough teammates to die so you can make a quick escape through the Hatch. But the game is more thrilling and tangibly rewarding if you play into the theme of the game instead. If you take perks that help your teammates when they're in trouble, or if you lead the Killer on nail-bitingly close races through the map, you'll also find that you earn more points. Dead by Daylight directly rewards traits like Boldness and Altruism, and just as it's possible to earn a 'success' without landing a kill as the Killer, a Survivor can die and still come out ahead points-wise.
Those points can be used to level up your characters, unlocking new perks and items to take into games. The more you play a particular Killer or Survivor, the more you unlock for them. Eventually you reach a point where you can unlock perks to make them available for other Killers or Survivors, encouraging you to step outside of your comfort zone if you want to build out characters in different ways.
As the game currently stands, these points also feed into a ranking system which defines the quality of player you're up against. Behaviour Interactive flirted with changing this system while I was writing this review--introducing skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) briefly before removing it again. And while its implementation was a bit premature, SBMM seems like a system that would benefit the game in the long run. Dead by Daylight gains nothing by showing players their rank as it does currently, and it actually incentivises overly-competitive behaviours in players who find themselves chasing 'pips'--the system used to define progression in the ranking system itself.
Something it hasn't really improved since launch is the tutorial, and that's another area where the community around the game can help point in the right direction. While the current tutorial teaches players the absolute basics, concepts like loops and the points system, which quickly become crucial to success in the game, are left for players to figure out on their own or to learn from other sources. And by outsourcing this opportunity to emphasise the pageantry at the heart of Dead by Daylight, there's a missed opportunity to foster the attitude required to get the most out of the game.
At launch, Dead by Daylight suffered because of its reliance on peer-to-peer hosting and absent social features, but over time it rectified these issues. And while a brief and premature tussle with skill-based matchmaking turned the new player experience into a bit of a horror show (a problem which is now fixed), thanks to its community of players Dead by Daylight is without peer in the asymmetrical competitive multiplayer arena, and has grown into one of the most robust horror experiences around.