There are moments when Deadlight feels like one of the best zombie games ever made. In these moments it becomes clear that a zombie game doesn’t have to focus primarily on shooting to be fun. As your shadowy character runs and climbs past the undead in a decimated 1986 Seattle, you feel like this experience is truly unique. What becomes readily apparent, however, is that these moments are over far too fast.
Deadlight places you in the shoes of gravelly-voiced Randall Wayne on his search to find his wife and daughter. Along the way, Randall will see first-hand the best and worst of human nature and offer some insight as to how the world got to be in such a mess. While wading through the undead (referred to as “Shadows”) he meets a small handful of secondary characters who affect the story in their own paltry ways. The story is standard zombie fare—a collage of movies, shows, books, and games that anyone even remotely familiar with the genre would recognize. There are a few twists and turns but if you pay enough attention you will more than likely see them coming. The setting is Deadlight’s strongest suit when it comes to telling a story. Though Seattle could be interchangeable with any other city, the fact that the game takes place in the mid-80’s offers a grounded feel. Cold War references are used to the point where you might think the game will have some sort of “Soviet Twist” but I’m glad developer Tequila Works didn’t take it there. If you want to get the most out of the story, you will want to collect all the secrets and read Randall’s entire diary. If you don’t, you won’t have any insight into Randall’s darker nature (or even his Canadian heritage); you especially won’t get those snippets into the lore of the world that paint an even bleaker picture of the state of things.
Part of Deadlight’s magic is the (mostly) unique style. Without a doubt there are comparisons to Limbo since Randall spends the entire game covered in darkness. The game’s palette remains fairly dark but doesn’t take away from the mood at all. The 2.5 dimensional game teems with life in the background. Buildings burn and fall apart behind Randall; zombies shamble around and eat human flesh; in the foreground a Shadow might suddenly run past. Despite the fact that the graphics aren’t cutting edge, every inch of the screen is packed with content making the world feel alive despite all the death and destruction. The art style is the true champion of the game, bringing you into the world and not letting go. Cutscenes are presented in a comic book style that is washed with blacks and browns but often look pixelated from either a low resolution or some other issue.
Deadlight is a platformer with a heavy focus on jumping and climbing with a light emphasis on puzzle solving . When these elements work, they are fun and fluid. Leaping across buildings and running away from zombies in the various “chase” sequences are fun and tense. Sequences go from tense to tedious when precise timing and jumps are required. When trying to jump directly above you (normally to keep from being swarmed by zombies) you have to place Randall directly below the ledge which is difficult due to floaty movements. Jumps can be just as painfully precise. Some long jumps will require pixel-perfect accuracy and even though it looks like you have successfully leapt over the gap you will still miss your mark completely. In some cases it will boil down to trial and error when it shouldn’t be as such. At times the checkpoint system can be very forgiving in these moments of questionable death; other times you might have to replay entire sections. A few weapons are available over the course of the game but the fighting mechanics are awkwardly implemented. Zombies can’t always be avoided and if you have a gun, aiming with the right stick and pulling the right trigger to shoot is relatively intuitive. Melee combat is beyond frustrating because of your limited stamina and lack of control. You wouldn’t believe how many strikes a zombie can take from an axe and often Randall will swing right into their clutches. In a way, Deadlight lives and dies on its gameplay. Are you going to question why Randall can’t swim and instantly falls dead when he lands in too deep of water? Of course you are, but mostly because it results in having to replay a possible frustrating platforming section. Since it is a game I can suspend my disbelief that Randall is a 30-something acrobatic prodigy who can instantly drown. I know that these concepts are used for gameplay purposes but it is when they become a hindrance to the overall enjoyment of the product that they become questionable. I question why more than half the game is spent in the sewers dodging man-made traps that require those precise movements and forces death on the player. Maybe the answer is that Tequila Works had this fantastic idea and wanted to use any opportunity to implement it, even if it didn’t feel right.
I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy most of my time with Deadlight. Then again, I didn’t spend that much time with Deadlight at all. I completed the game in a little over two and a half hours. According to my stats I spent 51 minutes on Act 1, 1 hour and 26 minutes on Act 2, and 18 minutes on Act 3. In one playthrough I got over a 90% completion on each of those acts. So much more could have been done with this game and as it stands, it feels practically rushed. The biggest chunk of the game is in a section that feels out of place and causes the most frustrating deaths from cheap traps. The first Act of Deadlight is so brilliant in how it creates a believable world with a fun approach to playing a zombie game. It drops the ball by abandoning all of that so soon and replacing it with a level so contrived and out of place. The game could have used more levels and more variety. I had a blast climbing through and around buildings—why couldn’t there have been a large level taking place inside a skyscraper navigating floor after floor of destruction? There are plenty of sources to borrow from that would have made amazing levels instead of one that results in frequent cheap deaths. Still…I can’t say that I didn’t have fun. I enjoyed making my way through Seattle and discovering more about the world while picking up collectible IDs of real life serial killers. There is a moment when Randall has a flashback to the day when zombies invaded his hometown that is actually one of my favorite scenes in a game this year because of how cool and creepy it looked. Pieces of this game come together so well that I want to play it again just to see them for a second time. However, take away all those great things and Deadlight feels like an incomplete game. I commend the developers for doing something new and can only hope that if there is a future for Deadlight then it won’t miss the mark of greatness.
Deadlight was released August 1st, 2012 on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points.