The rumors of its demise on the early morning of June 15, 2016 have been greatly exaggerated: Dead by Daylight has spent the last five years coming into its own as one of the best takes on asymmetrical multiplayer out there. Its very distinctive premise – a multiplayer horror game where one person is a monstrous killer who stalks, slashes, and attempts to capture a team of four survivors before they can accomplish objectives and escape – has been copied many times since, but never surpassed. Intricate but intuitive checks and balances and thoughtfully designed characters create an escalating back-and-forth that naturally recreates the tense arc of a horror movie, often ending in close calls.
Part of what makes Dead by Daylight so unpredictable and deep is that it is, in a sense, two separate game modes happening at the same time. For the four survivors, it is an exercise in stealth and teamwork: at the start of each match, they must find and activate five of seven semi-randomly distributed power generators, then open and walk through one of two procedurally generated exits without being murdered. Fixing a generator is a simple task, you simply hold a button, but comes with the risk of triggering an attention-grabbing noise if you miss your timing on randomly occurring skill-check minigames. Skill checks come with little warning and require focus, but you also need to keep an eye out for the killer while you’re doing them, and that split in attention creates some very palpable tension.
The killer, meanwhile, is out to incapacitate the survivors, then pick them up and put them on hooks, where they need to stay until they are “sacrificed” and die. In theory, you have all the power in this scenario: You can attack and the survivors can’t fight back. You even know where the generators are, thanks to their red glowing silhouettes appearing in the distance. But there are still four of them and one of you, so it’s a game of spinning plates: you need to hunt while watching the generators and keeping an eye on your hooked survivors, who can be freed by their teammates. What’s more, the killer plays in first-person while the survivors can use their third-person cameras to check their surroundings and peer around corners.
The difference in perspective is the first and most obvious distinction between the killer and survivors, but there are lots of nuances that create a give-and-take relationship between the two sides. For example, most killer characters walk faster than the survivors, so they will win a plain old chase. They are less agile, though, and survivors can use environmental obstacles like windows to put some distance between them, or stun the killer by knocking over a large wooden palette at the right moment. Killers also have to stop for a moment after swinging their weapon, giving a survivor some time to get away. Since a killer has to hit someone twice to knock them down, a chase can easily become a protracted engagement, and the other survivors can use that time to make valuable progress.That’s one of many ways Dead by Daylight encourages cooperation. When the killer hits a survivor they need to heal, and if they don’t have a medkit (one of five types of gear they can bring into a match) they’ll need a teammate to help them out. When a survivor gets captured, they have a small chance to escape themselves, but stand a much better chance of getting free if someone comes to help.
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And there are a lot of nuances that can only work when you’re coordinating with your team (so even though you can play by matchmaking with random groups, it’s not as fun that way). Here’s a big one they don’t tell you at the start: When a killer sacrifices three of the four survivors, a randomly generated escape hatch opens somewhere in the level, allowing the last survivor to escape immediately without opening an exit. If the killer finds the hatch first they can close it, forcing the survivor to run to an exit. BUT… If a survivor has a specific rare item, they can open the hatch early for a short time. (With coordination, all four players can escape through the hatch). It feels like every aspect of Dead by Daylight is built on this kind of rapport: every point has a counterpoint, and every counterpoint has an obscure clause that allows for a fluke situation where something crazy and memorable happens. And while it can be a lot to learn, it injects a tremendous amount of variation into what should be a fairly repetitive game on paper.
The ping-ponging systems hit back and forth even harder when you factor the characters’ individual abilities. Everybody – survivors and killers alike – gets three unique perks. As you level up, you earn the ability to equip up to four; the starters, plus a set of universal perks you can purchase over time. Many of these are very cleverly designed and allow you to subvert Dead By Daylight’s basic mechanics. One of my go-to survivors, Feng Min, can hide the fact that you missed a generator skill check at the cost of losing a little more progress toward restarting it. Some characters are meant to distract the killer, while others make for natural healers or scouts. For all the potential possibilities that perks and abilities create, every match I’ve played has still felt balanced. No advantage is insurmountable, and even the most powerful perks only work well in specific situations.
For survivors, though, these distinctive playstyles start to lose their character-building quality as you level up multiple characters toward the level 50 cap: As you level up, you can earn the ability to teach each survivor’s unique perks to other characters, which makes them feel interchangeable. As the survivors lose their personas, however, you gain the ability to truly cultivate your own character, mixing different perks with the more subtle characteristics of the survivors’ design. This includes factors like clothing color and even breathing patterns (which can clue a killer into who he’s hunting even before he can see you) can have material consequences in a match, so the perfect character is the one that works exactly as you expect them to.
The wide range of killers, on the other hand, feel mechanically unique regardless of what perks you use. Though they have transferable perks like the survivors, each killer has a weapon and core abilities that are unique to them. They’re built to be played in specific ways and that cultivate different styles, both for the killers and the survivors. There’s a killer who can turn invisible, a killer who can teleport over long distances. One character, the Doctor, can infect survivors with madness, making them randomly see things that aren’t there. Every ability comes with drawbacks, too: The Wraith, who turns invisible, has to ring their bell to reappear before attacking. After teleporting, the Nurse has a short window to attack before getting “exhausted,” which forces her to stop in her tracks for a few seconds. These abilities – the good and the bad – create a set of rules within each match, not unlike the interior mythology for killers in a slasher movie.
Truly, one of the most effective things about Dead by Daylight is the way its systems channel the classic horror films that inspired (and are now a part of) it. The maps are each an archetypal killer’s lair, and while many seem generic at a glance — abandoned old houses, scrap yards, and a dried-out lake with broken-down boats — they all feel very specific and well-articulated. (And, of course, there are now a few famous horror movie haunts as well). After five years, you can see details that seem dated even in the PS5 and PC versions, but the graphics have been updated over time and still look pretty sharp overall.
Some things have flagged as the years have gone on, though. The wait time to get into a match almost always lasts at least a few minutes even though there seem to be a good number of people playing. The waits vary from day to day, and things seem to move faster when playing a killer, suggesting there may not be enough killers to go around. It’s always longer than you’d like on both sides, though, and makes it hard to pop in for just one quick game.
Dead By Daylight Images
Despite all their differences, the two modes of play share a common feeling. Both the killers and survivors face incredible time pressure: For the survivors, finishing generators quickly and efficiently is the best defense against a killer who wants to get in your way. For the killer, a strong team will inevitably finish the generators unchecked, so it’s on you to move fast and disrupt as many actions as possible. That pressure, whether it’s achieved by a looming killer or the need to pin down scrambling survivors, is enough to make simple, often mundane mechanics feel extraordinarily intense. It also creates real, gameplay-based reasons for some of those confounding moments in a horror movie, like when a killer might simply give up on a chase, and ensures that a given match rarely lasts much longer than 15 minutes.
Over the years, Dead by Daylight has steadily added characters on both sides, including a murderer’s row of famous monsters from horror movies and games, including Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Pyramid Head from Silent Hill, and the Demogorgon from Stranger Things. Many of the cameo killers have perks and abilities that strongly reinforce ideas from the stories that inspired them. Take Amanda Young, AKA “The Pig” from the Saw franchise: She has the ability to install bear traps on the heads of downed players, who must then find a way to remove them before the trap kills them even if they haven’t been put on a hook. The idea of capturing a victim, putting them in peril, then letting them flail until they kill themselves captures the spirit of the Saw films, while making for an interesting twist on the standard match “arc.”
Your customization is also guided by Dead by Daylight’s unique progression systems. Based on your performance in each match, you earn a currency called bloodpoints, which you use to purchase and upgrade character perks, plus an unceasing flow of disposable equipment and modifiers in a randomized tree called the bloodweb. Like perks, choosing the gear that enhances your playstyle can drastically improve your chances. The number of bloodpoints you earn in a match also determines whether or not you’ll gain or lose progress towards your survivor or killer matchmaking rank, which does a surprisingly great job at bringing together killers and survivor teams of comparable skill. (At least until you reach the upper ranks, where there are equally skilled players).
Honing your killers’ and survivors’ perks and finding what equipment lends itself to your playstyle can be a quick process of matching bonuses to what you do most often, or an endlessly deep pursuit of navigating and tweaking cooldowns and statistics related to your actions. I found poring over the systems too much offered diminishing returns, though, especially since many skill descriptions allude to statistics without actually presenting numbers. (You can find a lot of this information online if you want it, of course.)