Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Tequila Works
Medium: Digital Download
If Deadlight has any one thing going for it, I’d say it has to be its ability to deliver on the concept of a 2D horror game. And in saying that I don’t think that Deadlight is a bad game by any means, in fact, it’s a pretty well put together piece of interactive horror, that takes a fairly tired concept (zombies) and puts a unique spin on it. You’re not mowing down hordes of undead Left 4 Dead style, and you’re not bashing them over with head with shopping carts and construction cones like Frank West from Dead Rising. Deadlight’s pace is more deliberate, more thought out, and frankly more visually arresting than most games that use zombies as the big bad.
You’re put in control of the lead character, Randall Wayne, a father and husband at the end of his rope, stuck in a post-apocalyptic world with a small group of survivors hoping to find his daughter and wife in the middle of all this mess. He’s traversed through his home of Canada to arrive in the Seattle, Washington area, in the hopes of finding a safe zone advertised as a gathering place for any survivors. The world around him is a literal war zone, littered with corpses both inanimate and walking. It’s not just the zombies that have caused the destruction, but the human race has apparently done a pretty fine job of bombing the hell out of itself in an effort to contain whatever the plague is.
Obviously, setting and concept wise, we’ve seen similar situations in both zombie and post-apocalyptic fiction before. So no, there’s not much new to see in the plot or resolution of Deadlight’s tale. But the delivery mechanism, the actual design of the world, the gameplay, and the way it approaches 2D platforming is certainly a bit more unique. The closest anything really comes to matching it is a style of game that we really haven’t seen for a while, something more akin to classic Prince of Persia, Out of this World, or Flashback for people in my particular age group. Even with that comparison I’d say that Deadlight is certainly faster paced than any of those aforementioned games, so the comparison isn’t entirely apt.
For the most part, Randall is stuck navigating his world with only his feet and hands to help him get along. While you occasionally need to go toe to toe with the undead, dubbed Shadows here, you’ll usually do your best to avoid contact with them. Sometimes this means jumping over or around them, or sprinting through a section where they’ll pour into the foreground from the background, which is a really effective way of making you surrounded and in danger without them become obstacles on the 2D plane.
When you do get your hands on weapons, they become more like last ditch tools to get you past a sticky situation than anything you should really come to rely on. The fire axe that you’ll obtain is actually more useful for breaking down boarded up windows than it is for killing zombies, which are remarkably resilient and hard to put down unless you get a lucky beheading or deliver a final blow when they hit the ground. And while you do lay hands on a couple guns, they almost attract more attention than they’re worth, and ammo is scarce enough that you can’t get away with shooting at everything that moves.
But this is also where some of Deadlight’s concepts start to fall a little short. The scarcity of ammo, and weapons is general, has their impact lessened by the fact that the game likes to take your weapons away from you a little too much. The tale is divided up into three acts, and roughly at the start of act 2 and 3 you’ll get all your weapons stripped away and you’ll need to regain them. So while ammo might be scarce, you don’t really have control of your guns long enough that running out of ammo is all that dangerous to you in the long run. In fact, I never really had an issue with it, and unless you’re literally unloading shots into the abdomens of Shadows instead of their heads, you probably won’t either. And while I understand from a story perspective the sense in having your weapons taken during Act 3, the part that it occurs at in Act 2 feels really arbitrary and more for the sake of not breaking the game and forcing you to make use of a different mechanic.
Also, I feel like the narration in Deadlight is extremely overwrought, and not well delivered by the voice actors. There’s some cringe worthy sections of dialogue that really took me out of the events, and I feel like it would have been almost better to give simple text conversations as opposed to undercutting the otherwise great atmosphere found here. There’s also these optional diary pages that you can find to fill out the missing pages in Randall’s diary along the way, but I’d actually advise you with skipping the diary altogether. I found that it revealed a bit too much about Randall and his overall state prior to the events of the game, and made the ending sequence a little too obvious before it actually happened.
Other issues I have with Deadlight are a little more nitpicky, but definitely issues nonetheless. As an older gamer, I tend to play with subtitles on, generally because it’s hard for me to play with the volume at a high level due to the considerations of others within my house. But the implementation of the subtitles in Deadlight is pretty bad, in that they tend to obscure a significant portion of the bottom part of the screen, and will literally obscure your view during some inopportune moments. If I wanted to play with the subtitles on, I literally had to let my character stand still until the text finished before continuing on. This also occurs from some tooltip style prompts, and when you find some of the collectible, optional material. Placing text or icons in a more out of the way section of the screen would have been ideal.
There are also a few sequences in Deadlight that lead to some fairly cheap deaths, and aggravating moments in general. This occurs with a handful of traps in Act 2, which involves an area that has you navigating a few surprises where you’re given less time to react than seems feasible, causing you to restart the section and passing only because you already know what’s coming. This also occurs in the last bits of the game, which will have you running into a couple foes by surprise that are capable of taking you out in one hit, which is only surprising because the game has delivered an expectation to the player that you can generally survive a bit of damage up to this point, but now you can’t. It’s also the first time you go toe to toe with this particular enemy, and you’ll not know what to expect out of the encounter until you’ve been killed.
Finally, I encountered what I guess I’d label as a bug, which is worth mentioning on the in case it pops up for you and you begin to panic a bit like I did. About five times in the game I came across an error message after one of the comic book style cutscenes ended that told me, and I’m quoting the screen here, “Error Message. Unable to update profile as the storage device containing the active profile is no longer available or is full. Please reinsert the storage device or ensure there is disk space available.” Knowing that I had about 40 gigs of space available and had not taken the hard drive off my 360, I thought, oh hell, there goes my save. But upon backing out of the game completely and then going back in, it actually picked up right where I left off after the cutscene ended. So if that happens for you, at least it’s not as dire as it sounds.
And to be fair, even if progress was lost, and despite some of the cheap deaths I encountered, Deadlight’s checkpoints are extremely lenient and well-spaced. I was never really stuck for long re-doing any section of the game, and I certainly felt like the experience was more about the overall journey than navigating overly tough bits of platforming or combat. And really, that’s what makes Deadlight stand out to me more, the fact that it takes horror and shoves it into a 2D space, and does a pretty good job of it. Deadlight looks absolutely gorgeous in motion, and I adore every bit of it that involves me ducking through open windows into abandoned motel rooms, houses, warehouses, and just seeing the absolutely wrecked world surrounding it all. It feels and looks like you’d expect a post-apocalyptic world to be, but all within a 2D space, which is unique enough to make Deadlight worth your time.