Within the gaming world, PlayStation exclusives have a reputation for offering quality gaming experiences that are often cinematic, narrative-heavy, and visually stunning. With the arrival of the PS4 in 2013 came several PlayStation exclusives that would further solidify Sony’s reputation and win countless accolades.
Examples of ground-breaking PS4 exclusives include God of War (2018), which rebooted the beloved series while breathing new life into it with stunning visuals, and a Leviathan Axe that is addictively fun to use. It is one of the highest-rated games on Metacritic. Ghost of Tsushima, developed by Sucker Punch Productions, has you playing as a samurai in a picturesque recreation of Tsushima Island and is only the third Western game to be given a perfect score by Famitsu.
However, there is one PS4 title that stands out among PlayStation exclusives due to the less than favorable reception it received upon release. Days Gone, developed by Bend Studio, is an action-adventure game that tells the story of Deacon St. John, who lives in a dystopian society where a pandemic has turned much of the population into frenzied zombies that roam in hordes. The version of the game you can play now is vastly different from the one that was available at launch, which makes it a good demonstration of the fact that developers can turn a disaster into a dream.
So how was Bend Studio able to transform Days Gone from a glitchy mess panned by critics to a masterpiece that is arguably one the best games to play on PS5 right now? To find out, we will have to tell a story that begins long before the game’s release.
Acquired by Sony in 2000, Bend Studio is an American video game developer that is less known than many of Sony’s other first-party studios. They are mostly known for the Syphon Filter series, which spans six games.
The relative small studio got a chance to truly prove themselves when they were given the opportunity to develop Uncharted: Golden Abyss, a PlayStation Vita spinoff of the highly popular Uncharted franchise developed by Naughty Dog.
They rose to the occasion and produced a stunning game that remains one of the best titles on the platform. Uncharted: Golden Abyss brought all the action and graphical quality of the console games and managed to squeeze it into the PS Vita. Furthermore, the game made use of all of the Vita’s unique features, including its camera, its touchpad, its gyroscope, and its touchscreen.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss was released in 2011 in Japan and in 2012 in the rest of the world. It was well-received, managing to snatch a score of 80 on Metacritic. It did not feel like a cheap spinoff but instead packed enough content to allow it to stand shoulder to shoulder with the main series games. With the success of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Bend Studio had shown themselves to be a team capable of competing with the best. The reveal of their next project would demonstrate that their ambitions were running extremely high.
Dead Don’t Ride
After their success on the PS Vita, Bend Studio began work on their next project, which would release on the PS4. Production began in 2015, and the project had the working title of Dead Don’t Ride. In a 2015 interview with Gamasutra, creative director John Garvin gave a few hints about how ambitious their next project would be. He admitted that they was just “a small studio in central Oregon”, but they wanted to “push the PS4 somewhere it’s never been before”.
The game got its first reveal at 2016’s E3 event. Bend Studio had renamed Dead Don’t Ride to Days Gone, and it showed all the promises of being PlayStation’s next masterpiece. Gamers were treated to a breath-taking reimagining of Oregon, complete with tall pines, melting sunsets and a wilderness alive with animals. The protagonist is Deacon St. John, a gritty biker with enough of a rascally charm to make him likeable. In the trailer, he explores the Old Sawmill, an abandoned structure teeming with hundreds of zombies (which are called Freakers in the game). Deacon must rely on his guns, molotovs and thinking skills to use the environment to his advantage and somehow be the last man standing.
The trailer demonstrated that Garvin was not playing around when he claimed that they wanted to push the PS4. Seeing that many enemies on screen at once was certainly a sight to behold. In an interview with IGN, the developers explained a bit about how they managed to make the Hordes.
Hordes can consist of up to 500 Swarmers, which are your average Freakers. To do this, a few tricks had to be pulled. Firstly, the Swarmers found in hordes have “all the bells and whistles” removed, leaving them with just the essential features. The hordes would not be impressive if they were all clones of each other. However, it would be too taxing to the PS4 to have hordes of vastly varying Swarmers too. To solve this problem, a happy middle ground was reached. They only use eight models but tweak their scale. This creates a huge difference because by changing a Swarmer’s height, you also “alter its gait, changing its movement speed”.
All these tricks went a long way to creating the massive hordes seen in the game. But would it be enough to wow critics?
Zombie Fatigue and Glitches Galore
When the game finally released in April 2019, it earned itself a score of 71 on Metacritic. This score indicates mixed reception. While this certainly does not mean the game was loathed, it does mean it failed to achieve the acclaim PlayStation exclusives usually do. So what went wrong?
One of the reasons critics did not warm up to Days Gone is because it came after gamers had been treated to a slew of zombie games for years. Games like The Last of Us, Resident Evil 2 remake, The Walking Dead and many others had inundated the gaming world with endless variations of zombies. By the time Days Gone showed up in 2019, it was easy to write it off as just another zombie game. Hence, when reviewing the game, USGamer complained that “the zombie apocalypse is well-trodden territory and the open-world spin of Days Gone can only differentiate it so much”.
Not everyone complained about zombie fatigue, however, and some critics felt that the game’s take on the undead monsters was unique enough to set it apart from the crowd. However, there were very few who could ignore the numerous glitches present. Bend Studio had been ambitious in their vision, but it often felt as though Days Gone was pushing beyond what the PS4 could offer and, in their pursuit of an ambitious masterpiece, failed to provide a consistent baseline experience. This is reflected in Gaming Trend’s review, where they complain that the game is “riddled with minor bugs and a few major ones”, and Critical Hit’s review where they claim that the game “feels in rough technical shape”.
My own experience with the game on the base PS4 was fraught with issues. I would crash into invisible cars and encounter entire chunks of road missing. There was a particularly frustrating moment where a couple of enemies spawned underneath a house, making it impossible to complete the mission without restarting. Framerates were also a constant issue, and approaching the various camps would almost guarantee that my framerates would dip drastically. I could also expect framerate dips when going full speed on my motorcycle or when encountering particularly large hordes.
The fact that I kept going to the end of the game is a testament to how good its narrative is. Though the main plot tells the story of Deacon St. John’s attempt to find his lost wife, it also features several subplots of betrayal, guilt and brotherhood.
Road to Redemption
Despite the less than stellar reception, the game sold well. Upon release, it was the bestselling physical game in the UK and went on to become the bestselling game by Bend Studio. However, the developers were well aware of the criticisms the game was facing.
It would have been easy for Bend Studio to call it a day and move on to a new IP. However, they continued working on Days Gone, fixing up bugs and adding new features. Challenges was a free DLC released the game. The DLC sets tasks for you to complete in order to earn rewards. Subsequent updates also added more difficulty modes.
Months after its release, the game was in a much better state compared to its launch. However, it still was not without its minor glitches and framerate dips. Fortunately, Bend Studio was not quite done with Days Gone yet.
Days Gone Enters the Next Generation
The arrival of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S in November 2020 marked the beginning of a new generation of gaming. Both consoles had robust backward compatibility, which allows them to take advantage of the extensive libraries of the previous consoles. However, many developers are going back to old games and touching them up to allow them to take full advantage of the new consoles. This is true of games such as Ratchet and Clank (2016) and God of War (2018), which both received 60fps upgrades.
Bend Studio also decided to enhance Days Gone for the PS5. The update allows the game to run at 60fps with dynamic 4K. Finally, it feels like Days Gone has reached its full potential, and Bend Studio has delivered the masterpiece they also hoped to. Deacon’s bike can be revved to the max without sacrificing framerates, the gameplay feels satisfyingly responsive at 60fps and encounters with hordes feel even more action-packed. The improved resolution makes Oregon’s beauty pop out, and it is a pleasure to ride the dirt roads and appreciate the needles of light poking between pine trees.
During a time when the PS5’s library might feel a bit skeletal, Days Gone manages to provide an experience so impressive that it is quite easy to forget that it is not a native PS5 game. Critics have noticed the monumental leap forward the game has taken, and review sites such as Eurogamer describe the upgrade as “transformative in terms of fluidity and response”.
Best of all, Days Gone will not be limited to the PlayStation platform for much longer. As Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan revealed in an interview with GQ earlier this year, the game will be one of a number of PlayStation titles that will be finding their way onto PC soon. This is great news, as it means more gamers will get to enjoy a wonderful story wrapped in an exhilarating gaming experience.
Days Gone is a reminder that a bad launch does not have to be the end of the road for a video game. Bend Studio managed to take Days Gone and prove that it was a masterpiece in the making that had, perhaps, been revealed to the world a little prematurely. In its current state, however, the game gives great hope that the studio can produce epic creations of a caliber we have come to expect from PlayStation exclusives.