It seems that getting away from the undead is as hard for games as it is for those poor souls in horror movie after horror movie. We’ve seen slow ones, fast ones, big, small, freaky and grotesque ones; and it’s beyond getting old, zombies aren’t as scary as they once were, in fact I wonder if they ever were to begin with. The best zombie movies, along with the best horror, asks what people are, and what they could become, when nothing else really matters. Tequila Works and Microsoft games hope to bring a different light to the zombie apocalypse and the platform genre with Deadlight, but is there a light at the end of this tunnel?
It’s 1986 and Canadian Park Ranger Randall ‘Randy’ Wayne is just trying to survive the onslaught of zombies known as Shadows in downtown Seattle. Things aren’t going well, and at the start of the game he’s force to not only kill one of his own group of survivors, but becomes separated as he and the rest make their escape. Using his ranger skills and whatever tools he can attain, Randy makes his way toward the city’s Safe Point, with the hope of reuniting with his friends and locating his missing wife and daughter. The story is about as rote as you can get and besides a strange digression with a hermit calling himself The Rat, it’s as predictable as they come. The twist-ending in particular should be of no surprise to anyone familiar to horror movie and game tropes.
What worse is that the game has the gall to think it can be philosophical at points when it doesn’t have enough of an atmosphere or narrative potency to pull it of. To put it bluntly, Limbo was much better at driving home a depressing and suffocating narrative, and it’s completely dependent on player interpretation. Limbo did this without any dialogue whatsoever, because it held the play don’t show type of storytelling that game’s as interactive experiences should follow as mandate. Deadlight goes the Tell route throughout, which is a sign of bad storytelling in film and literacy, let alone games.
Deadlight is a two-dimensional platform game, that take it cues from classics like Another World, Flashback and the original Prince of Persia. You’ll transverse sections of the city, avoiding zombies by scrambling up and over buildings with Randy’s parkour skills, which include wall jumps and the like. Bizarrely this park ranger cannot swim, with the game stating that his equipment is too heavy, which is as ludicrous as it sounds (why not make the water contaminated or something). Occasionally you’re sent into buildings, yet the basis remain the same, there’s one clear path to victory and no room for experimentation. The game is entirely linear and whilst this can be a fine thing in many games, the game is also extremely short, with the main campaign clocking in at around three hours in length.
You’re given a health and stamina bar, but they next to pointless in their execution, the latter lasts long enough to dash for incredible distances, while the former seems pointless as you’ll survive pretty much anything that doesn’t kill you in one fell swoop, which is most things in the game the majority of the time, making HP seem arbitrary. checkpoints are close enough apart as to not cause much in the way of frustration, but also refill you health to its maximum, further belittling the need for it, it also means makes it easy to get the feeling that the game designers where being overly obtuse with some of the design, with some of the puzzle feeling needlessly fuzzy at times, or, more clumsy in others.
The clumsiness also includes the controls, which work well enough, until you’re asked to be fast, or pinpoint precise with them. Like Flashback and Another World before it, animations must complete to a transition point before the new action takes place, which can lead you to run off a ledge to your doom when in another game you would have jumped the microsecond you had pressed the button. This wouldn’t be a problem, if not for the middle and latter sections of the game requiring you to be precise with your controls under duress, which means that it becomes a problem. The frequency of the checkpoints negates this to a degree, but it feels like a band-aid on the egregious issue.
You’re also given weapons to fight off the hordes of Shadows and to use in various useful ways. The most common – and earliest – weapon you be given is an axe, which can be used to knock down foes and chop through barriers. Do not be fooled though, fighting is always meant as a secondary – or possibly tertiary – way of dealing with the undead, as new Shadows will quickly replace the felled and Randy cannot fight off multiples of them. You also get your hands on a revolver and shotgun, but with limited ammo, these to, are really meant to keep foes at bay, than to turn the game into a shooting gallery. While these weapons are with you for a good part of the game, Deadlight always finds ways of arbitrarily relieving you of your armaments; resetting you back to the armless state you started the game in. It ultimately feels that it doesn’t trust in its own pacing at times.
Not that you’ll need a lot of weapons for the majority of the game, as, being zombies, the vast number of enemies can be beaten by simply placing something lethal between you and them and Randy can whistle and taunt to attract the attention of Shadows to chase him. From precariously place cars, to faulty electrical cables, there are plenty of possibilities, but like the rest of the game, there is always just one way to proceed.
Built on the Unreal Engine, Deadlight provides players with a strongly physics engine and some strong foundation for the graphics. On the other hand, silhouetted graphics in a post-apocalyptic setting is something of a old hat that’s been worn on the XBLA head one to many times. Still it fits in with the mood and the frame rate never fluctuates. That said, there are the occasional oddities, like graphics popping through solid objects and things appearing in foreground when they were falling off in the background. The art-style can make it hard to tell exactly what can be interacted with at times, and the production comes across as being a tad bland and, somewhat ironically, devoid of life.
Sketchy, animated comic-styled drawings provide story branches in-between the chapters, giving the story a bit of a narrative; though the gruff tired voice of Randy doesn’t really suit the character as well as it could. The muted soundtrack fits the theme of the game, and it also provides some more pace during the action chase scenes.
As it is, Deadlight is a passable experience with a price-tag that’ll make you think it should contain much more, much more game certainly. The execution leaves much to be desired that has been done better elsewhere; and while there are fleeting glimpses of good and cool moments here and there, in the end, Deadlight frustrates more than it entertains.