I’ve been thinking about Days Gone a lot lately. The game’s director, Jeff Ross, made headlines with a recent tweet about the lack of enthusiasm Sony showed to Bend Studio after the game’s release. Ross compared Days Gone’s sales and lack of praise to Sony’s admiration of Sucker Punch’s latest title, Ghost of Tsushima. This comparison caused my mind to wander.
I originally played Days Gone in January 2020, well after its launch, on an original PlayStation 4. With most of the bugs squashed, I enjoyed the game a lot. Perception of Days Gone has seemingly changed for the better, but Sony shot down the pitch for a sequel. Why is that?
What is it about Days Gone that resulted in the lack of admiration from Sony? Was it the buggy launch and the poor review scores that resulted? Do lifetime sales mean less than first month sales? Is it an optics problem? What does Sony want?
I decided to stop thinking about it and perform a post-mortem with a Days Gone retrospective. While deep-diving into the history of the game I reviewed its launch, its sales over time and revisited the game on my PlayStation 5 to play it in its current state.
The History Of Sony Bend
The Oregon-based studio we know as Bend Studio cut its teeth developing games like Bubsy 3D and Syphon Filter for Sony’s PlayStation consoles and handheld devices. After Bubsy 3D flopped, Bend Studio worked on Syphon Filter from 1999 through 2007. In 2009, they released Resistance Retribution – a fresh take on the Insomniac Games franchise for the PSP handheld console- and then, in 2011, they released Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PlayStation Vita.
After the success of Golden Abyss, then President of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida told the creative director at Bend Studio, John Garvin, that they essentially had one favor they could call in whenever they wanted. Bend Studio called in that favor to stop making portable versions of other studios’ games and create a new Intellectual Property for the PlayStation 4.
Fast forward to E3 2016’s PlayStation showcase, and Bend Studio debuted their new game, Days Gone. The studio showed an emotional announcement trailer for the post-apocalyptic biker game and later a ten-minute gameplay demo. The demo briefly showed off some of the game’s motorcycle riding, wildlife, crafting, but mainly the hordes of zombies.
The zombie hordes elicit a World War Z-like panic as they stampede toward the main character. While on the run, the gameplay demo displays the environmental tactics used to kill what the trusty assault rifle can’t. I remember watching this demo and being in awe of how many zombies were on screen and the destructible environments. These features seemed to be what would set Days Gone apart from the other post-apocalyptic zombie games on the market.
Cut to 2017, and Days Gone made another appearance at E3. This trailer showcased more motorcycle riding, investigative techniques, stealth mechanics, traps, environmental interactivity and ended with a colossal zombie bear. Bend Studio also wanted to show how dynamic Days Gone’s missions could be. They offered an alternate playthrough of the same mission but with changes to the weather, dynamic events, and developer commentary.
Initially slated to release in 2018, the game saw a series of delays. First, pushed to February 2019 and later kicked down the road to April 2019. Apparently, Bend Studio needed more time to work on the game, or Sony wanted to give Days Gone a chance, as its February date would have pitted the game against Anthem – a highly-anticipated game that flopped but might have had Sony worried. As it turns out, both could be true.
Leading up to the game’s release in 2019, Bend Studio would only release two other trailers, the first of which debuted two months before the game’s release. Released the day before Valentine’s Day, this trailer focused on the juxtaposition of Days Gone’s gratuitous violence and its emotional narrative by showing the main character, Deacon St. John, hiding behind a pue in a chapel and blasting a man with a shotgun. Only to cut to a flashback of Deacon getting married in that same chapel. The second trailer debuted on March 25th and focused on the game’s story.
Days Gone launched exclusively on PlayStation 4 to mediocre reviews. Some media outlets called it a “bland world” with a “meandering story.” Some went as far as to say it is “deeply joyless” and referred to Deacon’s relationship with Sarah as “overly sentimental.” The game suffered frame-rate dips from 30 FPS at 1080P/4K (w/ checkerboard) on PlayStation 4/PS4 Pro, which made the game feel under-cooked and unoptimized.
Bend Studio supported Days Gone with a series of updates following its release to patch some of the issues players found in the game. By November 2019, Days Gone received its final patch on PS4, and the game was finally functioning well. The consensus surrounding the discussion of the game had primarily turned positive. Days Gone received a PS5 patch in early 2021 that also improved performance.
The game eventually made its way to PC in May 2021 and was met with great critical reception by those that played it. The good folks at Digital Foundry championed the port and made direct comparisons to the game running on PS5.
Around that time, reports of Bend Studio’s pitch for a sequel that Sony shot down started to surface. The studio was fractured and reportedly put to work on a multiplayer project and a new Uncharted project.
In April 2021, Days Gone’s Creative Director, John Garvin, made an appearance on David Jaffe’s YouTube show, and Garvin said, “If you love a game, buy it at… full price… don’t complain if a game doesn’t get a sequel if it wasn’t supported at launch.” Garvin went on to say, “God of War got whatever number million of sales at launch and, you know, Days Gone didn’t… I think the uptick in engagement with the game is not as important as, ‘did you buy the game at full price?’”
In January 2022, Game Informer posted a tweet celebrating 8 million copies sold for Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima. Days Gone’s Director, Jeff Ross, responded by saying, “At the time I left Sony, Days Gone had been out for a year and a half (and a month) and sold over 8 million copies. It’s since gone on to sell more and then a million+ on Steam. Local studio management always made us feel like it was a big disappointment.”
Ross later clarified that he based those sales off a trophy site’s figures, claiming that when he was at Bend Studio, he saw Days Gone had sold 5 million copies, and the trophy data was 5.8 million. Ross said to Game Informer, “Based off the 8 million mark, it matched our telemetry, and so I’m like, ‘good enough.’ So maybe it was 7.7 [million]-ish, maybe 8.2 [million]-ish, I don’t know.”
In an interview with Sacred Symbols host Colin Moriarty, Jeff Ross shared stories of Days Gone’s development cycle and Sony’s response to the game. Ross stated that at one point, Days Gone was meant for PlayStation Vita and ran on the handheld. Plus, Ross noted that the unpatched game released to critics was a mistake that set the tone for the game’s perception.
The history of Days Gone is confusing. A studio that proved their worth, given an opportunity to express their creativity with something new, was shot in the foot by murky circumstances. It seems, at a glance, that if Bend Studio were allowed more than the handful of months given to the studio in early 2019, the story of Bend Studio and their zombie-biker game could be completely different.
Did Bend Studio bite off more than they could chew? Did Sony want Bend to remain a support studio all along? Before we draw any conclusions, let’s do our due diligence and take a look at Days Gone’s story and gameplay to see if there are any shortcomings that we’ve lost sight of with time.
The Story Of Days Gone
A pandemic spreads across the globe, turning the human race into zombie-like creatures, referred to as Freakers—those who avoid this grim fate form micro-communities and do what they must to survive.
Days Gone follows an ex-military motorcycle club member, Deacon St. John, and his friend, Boozer, on their quest to head north and leave their past in the rearview mirror. When the pandemic began, Deacon put his wife, Sarah, on a helicopter for medical treatment and stayed behind to help Boozer escape the city.
Fast forward two years and Deacon has yet to find Sarah, assuming she’s dead. Deacon and Boozer have been working as mercenaries for feuding encampments while trying to avoid the clutches of Freakers and a crazed cult of self-mutilated zealots called Rippers; until Boozer is ambushed by Rippers while he and Deacon are out on a run together. The cult members burn some of Boozer’s tattoos off his arm with a blowtorch before Deacon can rescue him.
With Boozer in no state to ride North, the Mongrels must put their plans on hold. Deacon gathers materials to provide medical treatment for Boozer while hunting bounties for encampments. While out on a job, Deacon spots a helicopter with the same logo as the one he saw on the aircraft that flew away with Sarah. With rekindled hope of getting answers as to what happened or maybe that his wife is still alive, Deacon pursues this lead.
While working for the encampments, Deacon develops relationships with their leaders and the people that live there. He has to make tough choices and often visits a memorial for Sarah to address his emotions. Deacon, haunted by flashbacks of Sarah and bad decisions, often contemplates whether he should have zigged instead of zagged. At his core, Deacon is a good man living in bad times, forced to do whatever it takes to survive. But Deacon can’t help but think he could have done things differently.
Days Gone has an exciting story to tell, but I think it’s hampered by abrupt cuts and pacing issues, particularly at the start of the game. In the beginning, cutscenes feel cut short, and the gaps between the cuts result in a jarring presentation. It’s a shame because these scenes set the tone for the emotional weight in the narrative. Plus, in the middle of the game, everything plays out a lot smoother, allowing the story to shine. But the jank at the beginning may turn people off and hinder the overall story.
There’s also a lot of critical exposition that the player could potentially lose out on by arriving at their destination too quickly. While riding around the open world, Deacon chats with fellow riders or over the radio. I often had to stop riding when I saw my destination to avoid triggering a cutscene and never getting to finish hearing the end of the conversation.
I found the best part of the narrative to be the emotional aspect, but there were times when its execution spoiled the effect. The self-reflection at Sarah’s memorial is excellent but the camera simply facing Deacon’s back while he talks to a rock cheapens what is happening. I can’t help but think that making these moments more cinematic would lift them to a higher plane.
However, the moments where Deacon feels terrible for sending a kid he rescued to a camp that is mistreating her and the flashbacks to times with Sarah show a deeper side to Deacon. The dynamic of who Deacon really is, juxtaposed with who he has to be in this world, is what Days Gone’s narrative does best.
It’s a shame that Days Gone isn’t getting a director’s cut where Bend Studio could include what was cut from the game or smooth out what is there. Polishing the rough intro and pacing could fix many of the issues Days Gone still has in 2022. Even after its series of patches across all platforms, Days Gone remains unpolished. As a result, both its narrative and gameplay suffer.
Breaking Down The Game Play
Days Gone is a post-apocalyptic open world filled with encampments and danger around every bend in the road. The player makes their way through the multiple storylines with third-person shooter action, lite-RPG elements, and stealth mechanics. The game features a motorcycle that aids the player with traversal and inventory management. The dynamic weather system and day/night cycle also affect gameplay deeper than one might think.
Main missions dip into a series of storylines and consist of the richest aspects of the narrative. Sometimes, you’re searching through a crash site for antibiotics to rescue your friend. Other times, you’re sneaking past armed federal agents to eavesdrop on researchers while hoping to get a lead on your wife’s whereabouts. I found the main missions to be diverse and more dynamic than the side missions.
Side missions are usually bounty hunter-style missions where an encampment leader hires you to track down someone who wronged their camp. You arrive at the encampment and talk to the leader where they tell you that someone stole something or shot someone. They then describe the person by giving you a character trait like, “they sometimes collect cigarette butts to salvage tobacco to chew” or “they wear a red handkerchief.”
You leave the camp and go to their last known whereabouts. The person you’re tracking will either drive by, triggering a motorcycle chase where you need to capture the person alive. Or, you’ll follow them to a camp. There you’ll have to kill them and bring back something of theirs to prove you took their life. Some side missions have more exciting aspects than others, but overall they’re fun but easy to complete.
Days Gone’s combat follows the open-world, two-sided coin trope of guns blazing or stealth. I found that I’d start out sneaking into an ambush camp, and once the jig was up, I went full-Rambo on the inhabitants. The gunplay feels good, and the melee combat feels weighty and satisfying while being the last resort. In terms of stealth, I mostly used silencers and picked enemies off from afar but occasionally got up close, and stealth killed a few.
Deacon has three traits that he can upgrade with injectors at NERO sites to aid him in combat; Health, Stamina, and Focus. Health is self-explanatory, while Stamina depletes while sprinting, rolling, and swinging melee weapons. Focus is a bullet-time mode that improves aiming, weapon stability, and recoil.
There are traps that Deacon has to avoid and sometimes repurpose. You must look out for tripwires and bear traps when approaching camps. The former makes noise and alerts the camp of an intruder. The latter clamps down on your leg, causing you to scream and alert the camp. You can disarm both traps, but bear traps can be picked up and repurposed.
Sometimes while stopping for gas, Deacon might be ambushed or clotheslined while driving down the road. The latter hurts Deacon and damages his bike. There are also snipers hiding out on the road that will shoot your bike, causing you to wreck.
At first glance, the motorcycle seems like a simple vehicle to get Deacon from A to B, but there’s more than meets the eye. Deacon’s bike is uniquely essential and feels more like a thankless character than a simple mount. The motorcycle must be maintained and fueled for the trek to the next destination. You can repair the bike on the road with Scrap, or you can pay a mechanic with credits at a camp to fix it. You can find gas through the world in gas cans or at gas stations, but you can also refuel at encampments with credits at the mechanic.
Killing humans provides an opportunity to salvage Scrap, bandages, ammunition, etc., from fallen enemies. I found scavenging to be essential in maintaining my inventory. You can find these same items lying around the world, but that is more time-consuming. Killing Freakers and other infected enemies allows Deacon to collect bounties, which you can turn in at encampments for credits and Trust. But we’ll get into that more in just a moment.
Deacon’s inventory consists of weapons, ammunition, and resources gathered in the wild. Deacon can carry one of each weapon type, and you can find weapons or purchase them with credits from a merchant at encampments. Melee weapons can be repaired with Scrap or upgraded with Scrap and other miscellaneous objects, like saw blades and nails.
Flora and fauna are all over this little slice of Oregon. Plants can be gathered and sold at encampments for credits and Trust. While wood from small trees will craft arrows for your crossbow. Hunted wild animals provide meat you can sell at encampments for credits and Trust. Some animals become infected and, when killed, cannot be harvested, but their bounties are turned in at encampments.
Encampments function as hubs around the map where Deacon can rest, trigger new missions, sell bounties, turn in hunted and gathered resources, and purchase weapons and supplies for the road. Each encampment has a Trust level that builds up by completing missions and turning in bounties and resources. Trust levels grant access to more weapons and supplies from the merchants and better treatment from the camp’s inhabitants.
Hordes of Freakers are sprinkled throughout the map and provide the most enticing gameplay Days Gone offers. Hordes occupy areas like trainyards or barnyards, and once alerted, they swarm on you with unrelenting force. Fighting Hordes is best done by planning out your strategy of attack and using the environmental weapons at your disposal. Shooting a tanker truck or cutting the strap on a large bundle of logs can take out a bunch of Freakers all at once. Wiping out a Horde is so satisfying and is a unique aspect of what Days Gone brings to the table.
Pressing the TouchPad will bring up the four quadrants of the gameplay menu. The four quadrants are Storylines, Map, Skills, and Inventory.
Under Storylines, there are four sections; Active, Progress, Collectibles, and Trophies. The Active section shows you what missions are available for storylines. The Progress section shows the advancements you have made in each storyline. The Collectibles section displays all the different collectibles you’ve found and how many are left to acquire. Lastly, the Trophies section allows you to view the Trophies you’ve collected for this playthrough without exiting the game.
The Map quadrant shows you where you are, your current objective, the time of day, and the weather. It sounds pretty self-explanatory, but there’s a lot of information here. Depending on the section of the map you’re hovering over, there’s a legend that shows you how many NERO checkpoints there are; infestation zones, ambush camps, hordes, etc. You can also see how many credits you have at the encampments for each area.
The Skills quadrant displays the three skill trees that you can upgrade as you acquire skill points. The skill trees are Melee Combat, Ranged Combat, and Survival. By default, the first tier of each tree is accessible. Unlocking two skills in the first tier opens the next tier, and so on.
The Inventory quadrant displays a lot of information at a glance. Here you can see how much gas is in your motorcycle, as well as its repair status and its inventory. You can also view how much Scrap you have, bounties collected, and the amount of meat and plants gathered; not to mention the credits for each camp and their Trust level.
There are also four sections under Inventory: Gear, Supplies, Materials, and Crafting. Each provides a menu where you can view the contents of each section of your inventory.
The dynamic weather system and the day/night cycle affect the game more than one might think. The weather affects the handling of Deacon’s motorcycle and can seriously hinder your ability to chase down a bounty. Also, seeing the landscape change with the weather is a beautiful sight to behold.
Similar to Dying Light, the Freaks come out at night. Driving to another destination after nightfall is a mission within itself. You never know if you’re going to run into a roaming Horde, so resting until morning is the wisest option.
Days Gone’s gameplay is where the game excels, but unfortunately, it remains buggy to this day. The core gameplay loop is satisfying. If you can overlook the technical hiccups along the way, Days Gone is a lot of fun. Its lack of polish holds back an incredibly competent game.
For example, there’s a particular mission where you have to track down Boozer after he drunkenly wanders off. After an emotional moment between the two, a Horde comes down on the duo, and you have to race off to safety. The cutscene ends, and you’re on your bike with the Horde drawing nearer, and my bike would hardly move. It wasn’t having trouble starting, and my controller wasn’t on the fritz; instead, it felt like I was encountering a bug. Or the game was throttling my movement (pun intended) to make the moment feel more intense.
I know that’s just one example, but situations similar to that happened periodically throughout my playthrough and are indicators of Days Gone’s lack of polish. It’s unfortunate that these issues still exist even after Bend Studio’s post-launch patches across all platforms. While I can overlook them and still enjoy the game, I think these issues are something Sony can’t look past.
Days Gone Rides Off Into The Sunset
While I enjoy Days Gone, I think I understand both sides of the story after revisiting the game in 2022. I can see why Bend Studio is proud of the game and wanted to make a sequel, but I can also see why Sony wanted Bend to be a support studio.
I think Days Gone is a beautiful game, and it’s fun to play. While the story isn’t blow-your-socks-off great, it’s good and has moments that work well. After spending years working on handheld versions of other studios’ games, I think Days Gone is more than just another game to Bend Studio. Days Gone was their game and their opportunity to become more than they had been in the past.
I can imagine it’s tough to put so much work into something you’re proud of, have it launch in a rough state, work on it until you can’t anymore, and see so many people enjoy it, to have Sony say it’s not good enough.
However, after playing Days Gone in its current state on PS5, it lacks the polish that every other PlayStation exclusive has. Particularly around cutscenes. Cuts are abrupt, and it feels like Bend Studio cut large chunks at the last minute. It gets better as you get further into the game, but there are still moments that remind you that something isn’t right. Particularly on the gameplay front.
In terms of its open-world design, Days Gone reminds me a lot of Ghost of Tsushima. However, Sucker Punch’s execution is sharp, and Bend Studio’s looks dull, especially if one compares the two. When you look at what Days Gone does right (visuals, gameplay, open-world design). Then how it misses the mark (story, pacing, and overall polish); it makes a lot of sense to me why PlayStation would want to task Bend Studio with support work.
Whether time or designing for a console instead of a handheld were factors; it’s unfortunate that Bend Studio won’t get another chance. But it seems like Sony was happy with the capacity Bend Studio was functioning in. They gave them a chance and the game didn’t meet their standards.
I think it’s clear to me now what Sony is looking for in their first-party games. They want compelling narratives with great gameplay and characters, but most importantly, polished pacing and presentation. All those traits must come together, or it’s not what Sony wants in their exclusive library.
If PlayStation is known for incredible first-party exclusive games, they can’t afford to miss the mark. Recency bias is real, especially in video games, and the negatives always outweigh the positives. I don’t think Sony wants to gamble on that. Even after its post-launch support, I don’t believe Days Gone lives up to the quality Sony is looking for in their exclusive library. It’s a shame we’ll never see what Bend Studio could have done with a sequel.