Review: Deadlight (XBLA)
Whenever Mr. Cookie Cutter publisher thrusts a game about zombies in our face, you could easily make the reasonable inference that it would involve many guns, probably chainsaws and an unreasonable amount of on-screen prompts and feedback as you mow down waves upon waves of the bloody things in true, po-faced Chuck Norris esque detached fashion.
With Deadlight then, it’s refreshing to see a game that rather than dry humping the well-worn FPS genre tropes; for which the zombies themselves have become practically synonymous with, instead attempts to apply a 2D platforming coating to a zombie survival setting and ends up doing a pretty good job of it.
Well, most of the time anyway.
At its core, Deadlight is a cinematic 2D platformer set in the grungy afterbirth of a late 1980’s zombie apocalypse, where in-between brief spats of zombie butchering, simplistic puzzles are begging to be solved. Initial comparisons may be (and have been) drawn to both Limbo and Shadow Complex, but such comparisons are a tad churlish; Deadlight lacks both the sly ingenuity of puzzle solving in the former and the bombastic, Metroid-Vania style thrills of the latter. Misplaced perceptions aside, what Deadlight is most similar to actually are the likes of early 90’s, rotoscoped platformers such as Another World and Flashback.
Our hero Randall Wayne; a forty-something amalgamation of zombie movie drifter clichés, must navigate his way through the decaying, undead infested ruin of 1986 Seattle. As previously noted, the game is steadfast in its homage to the likes of Another World and Flashback; as Randy sprints, jumps, scales ladders and realistically and smoothly clambers over obstacles with the sort of grace evocative of the protagonists seen in those early 90’s 16-bit side-scrollers.
With the employ of action locked to the 2D plane and the visual focus on the gritty and uniformly nasty its early on that Deadlight’s most immediate quality becomes apparent; the game looks both absolutely gorgeous and wholly convincing in its side-scrolling depiction of the zombie apocalypse. Rarely has the 2D plane been utilised to deliver such an atmospheric and terrifyingly bleak visual showcase as is present here; Playdead’s Limbo is comparable to a limited extent, but ultimately is far too understated when compared to Deadlight, whose visuals look like The Walking Dead graphic novel made into stark, 2D platforming reality.
While the visuals are excellent and the attention to detail staggering, Deadlight arguably pulls off its zombie apocalypse 2D splendour a lot more convincingly when you’re taking your shadowy protagonist on jaunts above ground; running through the dimly lit streets and leaping from rooftops and not when you’re trudging through one of the game’s numerous dismal sewers and subterranean caverns.
It’s in this dreary and bleak scene that our hero will find a constant and considerable source of adversity. As much as the zombies and some of the more hostile breathers present a danger, peril in Deadlight is much more commonly manifested through the environment itself with every rickety bridge and poorly conditioned walkway a potential servitor of a swift demise. Its as much the decay of the modern world that you’re at odds with as much as it is the fetid, decaying animated cadavers of the people who once called it home. Negotiating these environmental dangers really does feel like a genuine thrill.
Every section of the game is effectively a self-contained screen, with arrows indicating the places that you can clamber up and other icons appearing where you can engage in actions such as breaking down a door or climbing down a ladder. Each section that you start on also has your character beginning in a place of relative safety; allowing you to survey the environment and plan for any potential dangers that might stymie your attempt to get to the end of the screen.
Because of the dextrous nature of our hero’s adventure, the controls in Deadlight come under tight scrutiny. And really, Its here that Deadlight’s inspirations come back to bite it on the rear a bit as just like those games that it seeks to emulate, controlling the player character can sometimes be a slightly unresponsive, imprecise and frustrating affair.
It’s because of this that death can come easily in Deadlight, and more often than not it comes from mistaking one sort of jump or action for another. For example, in one situation I found myself needing to jump straight up to grab a ledge and pull myself up, instead I ended up doing a sideways jump across a small ravine and straight onto an electrified floor which killed me instantly. Really, its at times like these that I wish that along with the concession to eschew the sort of heavy trial and error gameplay seen in its inspirations, that Deadlight would have also adopted a more robust and responsive control system too.
Its not all jumping, climbing and running around in Deadlight though; combat does feature in the game and its all a lot more tactical than you might otherwise assume. Essentially, direct combat in Deadlight is achieved through traditional means with melee weapons and firearms, though the ammunition for the latter is understandably painfully limited; which means more often than not, its often going to be you getting up-close and personal with your shambling nemeses and introducing them to your melee weapon of choice.
Thusly when the game permits player indulgence in the melee combat side of things, its very likely you’ll get the same sort of rude awakening that I did – see that status bar above your health bar with the energy symbol next to it? That’s your stamina meter and its not just for show.
Every act that Randall partakes in, be it running, jumping, climbing or swinging an axe into the facial cavity of one of the undead throng, causes his stamina bar to deplete. When stamina reaches dangerously low levels, the screen begins to pulse with a white, ocular hue intruding from the edges of the screen; helpfully reminding you that the old chap is getting tired and that you should let up a little to allow him to regain his breath and movement. It’s a nice little mechanic to have as it forces you to evaluate each potential fight, given that any physical acts that you might take are weighted and must thusly be measured with a conservative eye.
Indeed, very often, you will find yourselves outnumbered by the undead horde and it’s here in these dire circumstances that fighting becomes an impossible option due to your limited stamina reserves; it’s flee or die. Trust me when I say it becomes all too easy to overestimate your stamina as you eye up what seemingly appears to be a small handful of the animated deceased ripe for the kill, only to dive in for the slaughter, run out of stamina and then they end up flossing their teeth with your small intestine. If other zombie games have pre-conditioned you to be careless with your genocide, then Deadlight will punish that behaviour out of you. Quickly and without mercy.
Still, that shouldn’t suggest that the direct way is the only way to destroy the undead because as much as the crumbling and abused environment is a threat to Randall, its of equal peril to the shambling horde too.
Randall can off the shambling, flesh-munchers by dropping cars or other objects on them, taunting them so they stumble toward him and then fall down a pit or get electrified by a charged floor as well as many other fiendishly amusing ways besides. It really helps to reinforce the notion that combat in Deadlight should best be avoided wherever possible and when you simply aren’t able to, it truly pays dividends to be as creative as you can be and take as little risk as possible in the process.
Story-wise there isn’t actually much to tell; Deadlight plays it very straight with a typical focus on the melodramatic and the expected (though the ending has its own little surprise). Cut scenes meanwhile, are told in Walking Dead esque graphic novel style and while a little too rough around the edges, they still manage to appropriate service the overall narrative.
Despite the straightforward, no-frills narrative, developers Tequila Works have tried to imbue a sense of place and personality in the proceedings, with Randy picking up diary pages which chronicle the events leading up to and beyond the attack and bloody ID cards belonging to people unfortunate enough to be eaten by the stumbling dead.
The developers have also made an attempt to supplement the 80’s aesthetics of Deadlight with handheld games that the player can discover and play on. They are largely whimsical fare that bring little of significance to the overall package, but they remain a nice little distraction if nothing else.
Aside from the control wrinkles and the relatively flat story, Deadlight’s main issue for many people will be the length of the game. On my initial playthrough, I was able to complete the game in just under four hours; a figure that is inclusive of restarts and retries. Four hours is not a significant amount of return on your investment of 1200 Microsoft Points and given that the game facilitates very little replayability with the exception of just a few collectibles, it would be easy to understand why folks might wait for a price drop or ignore the game completely.
For those who do the latter then, perhaps they have missed the point a little.
Deadlight is exactly how it appears; its a game deeply reminiscent of those rotoscoped platformers from back in the day and just like the Another World’s and Flashback’s of old, it too is a brief experience that while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, is an experience nonetheless that is arguably worth having. At least give the trial a whirl; who knows you might actually find that you enjoy a zombie game which involves you using your brain for once, instead of being merely content to force you to blow out theirs over and over and do little else.