Deadlight: review

  • Format: Xbox Live Arcade
  • Unleashed: 1st August 
  • Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
  • Developer: Tequila Works
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://deadlightgame.com/

Zombies are such a popular subject these days that it’s even becoming a cliché to mention how popular they are. Therefore it’s probably best to stop going on about clichés and just treat the zombie game as if it were a genre in itself; would we complain if a racing game had cars in it? The point really is that zombie games can be quite different from one another despite having that same common, flesh-eating factor. Deadlight, a side-scrolling platform game, and the first from Tequila Works (a Spanish studio with some experienced developers involved), diverges from the rest of the horde in several ways.

Tequila takes a stripped down puzzle-platformer approach, making survival and jumping your main concerns throughout the game’s beautifully desperate – and painfully short (just a few hours) – playing time. Unfortunately the trial and error approach of Deadlight’s traps and puzzles coupled with a few other issues can leave it feeling needlessly frustrating in certain sections, despite the game’s overall sense of style.

Deadlight tells the story of one man’s desperate struggle to find his wife and child amidst an apocalyptic vision of zombie hell. It also tells the story of a player’s desperate struggle to stop themselves exploding with frustration after listening to the same piece of audio twenty times before dying again, and again. It’s a hard issue to approach, seeing as difficulty is so often what gives a game its longevity; however it’s possible in certain circumstances to criticise it and here it can feel detrimental to the experience. We say ‘can’ because difficulty is essential to Deadlight’s very traditional approach to the subject.

There’s no voodoo here but the zombies are of the shuffling variety and, while this gives the player more chance to take a pot shot or two, running away is often the best method of survival. The game begins by dropping the player right into a situation where Randall Wayne, the protagonist, has lost the party of survivors he was travelling with. Setting off alone through the ruins of Seattle to continue the search  for his wife, Randy picks up a variety of weapons including an axe, revolvers and even a slingshot. However this descent into hell delivers very few bullets and often leaves you very little time to use them. Ammunition is therefore a resource which you spend only in the worst case scenario – even in comparison to survival horror classics such as Resident Evil or Silent Hill, Deadlight feels particularly miserly in this respect.

This makes every encounter with the shambling dead threatening and exciting. The sparse ‘stamina’ given to you for melee attacks also forces you to think carefully about each individual blow you make. Combat is therefore never a gung-ho activity, but due to the tension created through your relative weakness each small victory feels like a wildly satisfying achievement in the face of overwhelming odds.

Therefore avoiding combat is an important part of the game’s platforming areas. There are some great sections where managing the position of your enemy through ‘taunts’ lets you strategise a way across an open space, while other sections invoke modern games such as Trine or Limbo in their use of puzzles. One slightly offbeat chapter sees you navigating an underground labyrinth of traps set up for reasons apparently only understandable to those named Rat. Other sections feel more like the classic adventure game Another World; where you have to run, jump, vault and shoot very precisely to make it out alive. These sections can be great fun but they also require quite a bit of trial and error to master. Unfortunately Deadlight frustrates this style of gameplay through its often clunky, unresponsive controls and its checkpointing system which at times leaves you repeating the same audio or visual clip over and over again. Games such as Limbo made trial and error fun by quickly placing the player right back into the puzzle, ready for you to jump straight in. Deadlight fails to do this, turning quick repetitions into slow cinematic moments which begin to lose all meaning after their twentieth iteration.

At times Randy simply ignores commands as if he’d just given up – leaving the player dumbfounded, having to replay the section again. At other times the game feels too lenient. Some jumps, which were noticeably just short of target, cause the player to clip onto a ledge – as if instead of making the jump you simply reached a ‘zone of success’ surrounding it. This of course doesn’t ruin the whole experience but it does make the otherwise slick presentation feel slightly clumsy and undermines the more meaningful difficulty found in the combat.

It’s a shame because visually, Deadlight is an exemplary piece of apocalyptic art. The depth of field given to the scenery is at times breathtaking in its ruin. Seattle looks like it’s really been through the mill. Littered highways, rubble-filled apartment blocks, dripping sewers; hope is noticeably absent throughout this varied landscape. The shadowed 2D foreground, which masks the player and all other human characters, also works well with the game’s themes and narrative – laying a shroud over the last of our dying civilisation. Unfortunately the game’s story itself is a little weak. It’s  thesame old zombie themes of reaching the ‘safehouse’, degrading human morality, and grizzled family men. Characters are also never fully developed, with the exception of Randy who simply plays the rugged everyman with a heart of gold.

Visually Deadlight is stunning, with the weighty combat giving the experience a sense of vulnerability and desperation. Regrettably too often the platforming, which makes up a majority of the game, feels clumsy and at times frustrating – deadening the impact of certain locations and events. That said Deadlight is a very worthwhile entry in the zombie world and any fans of the subject shouldn’t think twice about giving this little slice of despair a go.

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Written by Joe S

A student of all things you can sit down and look at. I live in the West of England (between the Severn and Bristol) where I spend my time watching short, confusing films about landscape and attempting to write on the subject of videogames.

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