The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tired of the zombie apocalypse? Sure. But ‘Days Gone’ can still provide hours of entertainment.

Days Gone. (Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Days Gone

Developed by: SIE Bend Studio

Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Available on: PlayStation 4

Is there any energy left in the idea of the zombie apocalypse? How many times can the end of the world come down to pockets of bedraggled survivors vs. swarms of flesh-eating monstrosities? As someone who long ago stopped watching “The Walking Dead,” and generally has little interest in zombie-related fare (excepting “The Last of Us”), I wasn’t keyed up to play “Days Gone.” I never expected it to wring any fresh ideas from one of the most strip-mined veins of contemporary pop culture. The few dozen hours I’ve spent with it haven’t given me a reason to amend that assessment but I’ve been surprised at how easy the game has been to fall into. Its core gameplay loops are pleasing enough that it’s been a snap for me to set aside my lack of interest in the game’s setup and simply enjoy going through the motions of eking out survival in another picturesque wasteland.

Set in Oregon, “Days Gone” follows the wanderings of Deacon St. John, an emotionally guarded biker who, at the beginning of the story, is still grieving for Sarah, the wife he lost at the onset of a pandemic that transformed most of the human population into zombies or what the folks in the game call “freakers.” (As the developers have taken pains to point out, “freakers” are not undead like the classic zombies from George A. Romero’s films.) Together with his best friend Boozer, Deacon prowls the roads running odd jobs for a small number of independent camps, each of which operates according to its own ethos. Of the camps that Deacon works for, one tries its best to remain aloof from outside squabbles, another is known for its slave-labor working conditions, and the other for its truther ideology that holds the federal government responsible for the world-altering calamity. Though Deacon would prefer to keep each of the camps at arm’s length, various circumstances draw him closer into their orbits.

For all of their differences, the people that Deacon interacts with share a deep sense of trauma. (Tellingly, Deacon himself is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.) Wandering through the camps you will hear hushed stories of what people have done to survive. Though I can’t say I’ve been stunned by any of the game’s narrative beats, I’ve appreciated how the developers have tried to leave some things unsaid. The character models in “Days Gone” are detailed enough to convey nonverbal cues. At one point, Deacon and a man named Schizo come across the remains of a person who spent his last days trapped in a mineshaft eating the remains of his friend. When Schizo asks Deacon if he’s ever had to result to cannibalism, Deacon says that’s one line he hasn’t had to cross. Though Schizo affirms the same, his equivocal look clearly arouses Deacon’s skepticism. Everyone, including Deacon, has ample reason to lie in the game’s Hobbesian world.

In addition to the camps that Deacon works for there is another one shunned by all with good sense. The Rippers are a cultlike group that esteem the zombies and are given to using blowtorches on themselves and others. After a run-in with the Rippers leaves Deacon’s best friend seriously injured, his thoughts turn to exacting revenge. When he isn’t scrapping with the Rippers, zombies, or any of the other murderous bands of drifters that happen along his path, Deacon preoccupies himself with assisting a man he happens upon who works for a shadowy government organization. Deacon tries his best to tamp down any burgeoning sense of hope, but still helps the man spy on his colleagues in return for information about Sarah’s fate.

“Days Gone” is certainly easy on the eyes. The dynamic weather and lighting systems nicely accent the game’s tree-dappled environments. To effectively traverse the landscape, it’s necessary to keep Deacon’s motorcycle well fueled and in good shape. Gasoline can be acquired at camps and abandoned gas stations while bike repairs can made using scrap materials from abandoned cars or places where people once or still congregate. I found that the practice of maintaining the bike grounded me to the world in way I hadn’t expected. Though I wasn’t above using the fast travel option when I could, I enjoyed striking out to new places — driving up switchbacks and past sparkly bodies of water, keeping an eye out for good scrap. The game efficiently generates a flow state.

Deacon can make use of melee, firearm, and explosive weapons as well as traps. It’s possible to stumble across different groups of enemies, sometimes fighting each other, which can lead to some fun combat scenarios. Once, on motorcycle, I was chasing another biker when I ran out of ammo. So, I swerved into his bike and sent him spilling across the road just as an infected wolf jumped toward me and I turned in such a way that he arced over the bike. Moments like that reminded me a bit of the madcap energy of the Far Cry series.

“Day’s Gone’s” provides an entertaining experience that tries harder to make you feel than it does to make you think. The characters and their inner conflicts may not stay with you, but the act of seeing them through their adventures could keep you happily engaged for quite a while.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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