At this point, the fact that zombie games are here to stay is a no-brainer (no pun intended). Purists will cry foul that the brain-eating undead have lost all effectiveness as social commentary, and that their allegorical origins have become muddled and lost in the ever-expanding nebula of modern media’s obsession with the impending zombie apocalypse. What, then, should a zombie game represent in today’s gaming scene? Should gamers approach it with a guarded twinge of trepidation or a testosterone-infused bloodlust? With Deadlight, the guys ‘n’ gals at Tequila Works have answered this question by shifting the spotlight a bit; zombies aren’t the vehicle to pump scares and non-stop action into the game, but rather serve as a plot device that backdrops the more striking human drama inherent in an end-of-the-world scenario.
Unfortunately, despite a strong graphical presentation and engaging, if simple, gameplay, Deadlight comes up just a little short in some key areas. The narrative at times flexes itself toward something more meaty, but ultimately doesn’t stray too far from the predictable, and the game’s value-for-money can be questioned when a complete run-through can easily be achieved at a luxurious pace within three to five hours, depending on player skill.
This City Needs You, Mr. Wayne
Seattle, 1986. An unnamed virus has broken out and claimed most of humanity, turning friends and neighbors into mindless, shambling ghouls known as Shadows. The few survivors have formed together into small pockets of desperate hope, clinging to brutal survival. Randall Wayne and the four others in his little band of living are doing what many of the city’s survivors have done: follow a repeating radio message that started shortly after the outbreak, calling survivors to seek out the “Safe Point”, a secure area for him and his band to make a stand and live, somewhere in Seattle. It isn’t long before the group finds itself beset by hostiles, and when The New Law – a group of militarized radicals – shows up to hunt them through the streets and alleys, it becomes clear that the greatest threat they face may come in the form of Man’s inhumanity towards Man.
Deadlight is a 2D side-scrolling platformer, but don’t tell it that! Tequila Works has followed suit with the likes of recent XBLA sports title, Trials Evolution. Backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and it’s heart-breaking to have to remind oneself from time to time that, no, you can’t go back there and explore the city. Whether you’re taking in the view past a pine tree-lined country road to marvel at the Space Needle in the distance or running for your life as an exploding vehicle careens toward you out of the background, it’s easy to see that the developers put a lot of love and care into the visual aspect of their game, lending a lot of depth to its single plane of movement.
While the backgrounds are gorgeous, the action itself happens in a left-and-right scrolling foreground, which is often displayed in blackest silhouette, evoking a strong likeness to the visually striking Limbo. Whether Randall is wading through knee-deep sewage with Shadows in hot pursuit, or jumping out of top-floor office windows in slow motion while being shot at from a machine-gun-mounted helicopter (Matrix, anyone?), Deadlight remains a feast for the eyes. When indoors, it cultivates an interesting lighting feature, where rooms are lit up and blacked out as Randall enters or exits them, focusing the player’s attention to particular areas of the screen, similar to a play as the stage is darkened or lit in sections.
The stylized look does the game no favors, though, when it comes to combat. When there’s no alternative but to engage a band of Shadows, Randall typically has two options in his arsenal – a fire axe for up-close-and-personal melee kills, and a handgun (or, late in the game, a shotgun) for distanced kills. The firearms come equipped with an aiming reticule, and work well enough if you’re given time to aim them accurately. The axe is another matter entirely. The game’s silhouetted plane of action makes hand-to-hand combat iffy, as the dark shapes have a tendency to blur together quickly, and you’re left button-mashing, frantically hoping that you’re swinging in the right direction. A lack of enemy health meters also makes it difficult to know whether an enemy has been disposed of, or is simply taking a moment before getting back up and attacking; when you’re fighting off three or four Shadows at once at close range, all the action bleeds together into a blurry wash of indistinguishable motion, and your best bet is to simply run and push your way out of the mélange. Thankfully, combat typically takes a back seat to escape; you even spend a good chunk of the game stripped of all your weapons for one reason or another.
With all its visual influences from recent games, the core of Deadlight can be traced back to perhaps one of the best examples of survival platforming: Jordan Mechner’s 1989 gem, Prince of Persia. Randall’s basic moveset closely resembles that of the Prince, with walk, run, jump, and running jump all incorporated into the platforming. Grabbing overhanging ledges or lowering yourself over an edge are handled in a similar way; Randall has a stamina meter that serves him when sprinting, but also dictates how long he can hold himself suspended from a window sill or hanging on a power line. Swinging the axe similarly takes a toll on his stamina; let the gauge drop too low (which happens quicker than you think – damn a lifetime of smoking!), and the screen will pulse grayish as Randall’s breathing becomes labored and his ticker threatens to give out on him.
Randall’s need to make it safely to the Safe Point, where he hopes to be reunited with his wife and daughter, whom he hasn’t heard from since the outbreak, is the key catalyst behind the plot; however, I wish I could say that the game explores the desperation of a father searching for his family to its fullest extent. Occasional unavoidable flashbacks and visions of his family punctuate the story at regular intervals, and feel almost like bookmarks to the game’s chapters. However, neither his foreboding memories nor the hopeless situation are paid off in full, due to a largely predictable climax, followed by a very sudden ending.
A lengthy diary of Randall’s is included in the game, with several pages scattered as unlockable secrets throughout the levels. While it is intended to provide some unique back story and insight into Randall’s character, it’s mostly dismissable in the face of the game’s narrative, and at times even leads to making Randall a less likable guy, a loner who shuns society and reacts awkwardly and in anti-social ways to his fellow beings. Not exactly the textbook hero type.
In a failed attempt to give the game some replayability, hidden newspaper clippings, memorabilia, and in one case even an audio tape, can be found throughout the levels; they tell the tale of the viral outbreak – before, during, and immediately after – from the point of view of those who experienced it. These bonus items (which can be viewed from the menu as Randall posts them in a scrapbook – there’s a hard-boiled bear of a man for you!) provide little to no incentive to stick with the game after its unfortunately short campaign. This is due less to the fact that they’re fluff which doesn’t add a whole lot to the narrative, and more because you’ll likely find almost all of them the first time through the game. I was able to complete my collection to 100% with only a few extra minutes of effort after the campaign concluded. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have these pieces of the puzzle here, as I would otherwise complain about the event of the outbreak itself being completely ignored in the game, with no explanation or developing narrative devoted to it.
The Final Verdict
Deadlight is far from a wasted gaming experience. It’s stylish, beautiful to look at, and offers some genuinely fun gameplay while it lasts. The trouble is that it doesn’t last for too long, and the bonuses that might have lent it some extra legs to stand on fail to bring you back to it for very long.
While the shortcomings of the plot can be excused – it’s deeper than most platformers, in any case – the biggest problem in downright recommending this game is its price tag when compared to the time you’ll spend with it. It’s a fun time, and if you enjoy a good survival platformer then go for it, but consider whether you have the coin to spare first. Oh yeah, and remember that it has zombies, too!