Stan Plepis reviews Deadlight, now available on PC and Xbox Live.

By stanplepis on November 30, 2012

[gameinfo title="Game Info" game_name="Deadlight" developers="Tequila Works" publishers="Microsoft Studios" platforms="Xbox 360, PC" genres="Cinematic platformer, Survival Horror" release_date="August 1st, 2012"]

As December steadily closes in, we attempt to make the approaching apocalypse more atmospheric, chiefly by immersing ourselves in games of the appropriate genre. A good choice for that would make the star of this summer’s Xbox Live Arcade – Deadlight. This unique zombie game has only recently become available for PC.

While a rather common premise may deter some players, make no mistake – Deadlight is definitely one of the more creative takes on the zombie genre. Eschewing the orthodox first-person shooter format, the game is instead a side-scrolling puzzle platformer.

Set in 1986, the game follows the life of Randall Wayne, a Rick Grimes-like character in search of his wife and daughter in a world ravaged by zombies. His back story is told through his diary, the pages of which act as the game’s main type of collectible. As the events of the game unfold, Randall is abandoned by the other survivors and continues his search alone. Luckily, he has the player to guide him through the not-so-challenging puzzles ahead.

Deadlight is a decent example of the good old 2D platformer. While the player may, occasionally, use an axe to punish the zombie who violates their personal space, the game mainly focuses on running, climbing, jumping and generally avoiding the undead menace. Even when in possession of a weapon, the game ensures that combat is always used as a last resort – knocking over a single walking corpse will easily take up all of Randall’s stamina, not to mention that while he swings his axe at one zombie, four others can use that time to close in. Guns are not much better – if the player ever finds himself cornered, the available bullet-to-zombie ratio is downright depressing. If a member of the overly clingy horde actually manages to grab Randall for the Hug of Death, the player can attempt to shake him off, but if a buddy of his decides to make it a group hug, Randall may as well say his goodbyes.

With combat out of focus, Deadlight makes puzzles its primary bread and butter. While Tequila Works’ departure from the traditional violent approach to zombie games is admirable, the puzzles that are meant to serve as a substitute are not exactly a worthy trade. Frankly, the challenges that Randall is set to overcome are rarely even brain-teasing.

It seems that with every obstacle they present, the developers start feeling guilty and decide to make the solution as obvious as it can possibly be. All objects that can interacted with glow, and the path from start to finish won’t ever let you stray far from your linear quest.

In the few instances when gameplay actually does become challenging, it’s more due to frustration rather than genuine difficulty. Chances are, the solution is as elementary as it has been in previous puzzles – its just probably blended in with the dark background.

Eventually, no matter how different the environment is, puzzles blur into an endless cycle of jumping from fence to fence, with an occasional half-asleep zombie horde to keep your mind from wandering off completely.

While Randall can climb a building by only grabbing an occasional open window, he cannot swim at all and won’t survive anywhere deeper than a puddle. This makes perfect sense, of course, especially considering he is a former ranger. I mean, who ever said that rangers have to know how to swim? It’s not like they work in the outdoors or anything.

The decision to make the protagonist hydrophobic was plain odd, as it instantly stripped the game of endless potential puzzles involving water, other than, of course, getting rid of it. That would still leave the game with thousands of other possible gameplay elements to implement, but the developers used very few of them.

Surprising choice of genre aside, art style is what makes the game truly stand out from all the others. From ruined apartments and warehouses to desolate streets and dirty sewers – Deadlight’s environments are simply stunning. While the game is played in two dimensions, the environment is fully fleshed out in 3D. The clever camera knows when to zoom out to give a sense of space and make running and jumping feel more cinematic.

At the same time the protagonist himself is but a shadowed silhouette, moving across the foreground.

The zombies, however, simply abuse this graphical style, transitioning from the background so smoothly that you may fail to notice when another cadaver stops being a prop in the distance and becomes an actual threat.

Deadlight’s movie adaptation wouldn’t have won any Academy Awards – Randall’s story seems to be a mash up of plots from other zombie games and films, but does occasionally throw in some tension or mystery. Its single moment of glory came at the very end, with some shocking revelations that could possibly make up for the otherwise simplistic storyline.

At the end of the day, Deadlight is a good attempt at renovating the zombie genre, which is slowly becoming stale with time, but it’s ultimately an attempt so timid that it is doomed to be overlooked and forgotten altogether. While playing it, I truly felt that the developers could have been so much braver with it, especially seeing as the groundwork for original gameplay and an amazing graphical style was already there.

Nonetheless, Deadlight is solid enough for a game of its length and sure to bring entertainment for several hours of post-apocalyptic fun.

The Verdict