Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Tequila Works have opted for a mix of familiar elements with their debut, combining the perennially popular survival horror flavourings of the slavering undead, along with puzzle-platform elements that have become commonplace on the virtual marketplaces of XBLA and the PSN.
And of course it looks very nice, as all puzzle-platformers should these days.
But this year's Summer of Arcade has been a patchy affair, with the disappointment of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD only partially undone by Wreckateer, and Deadlight is a game that does little to set the virtual marketplace aflame with its quality.
It is, however, a fairly solid affair. You take control of Randall Wayne - a man whose name seems to serve the sole purpose of having gravelly voiced supporting characters raise connotations of Batman - who finds himself separated from a small huddle of survivors following an outbreak of zombification in mid-80s Seattle. His wife and daughter are adrift in the crumbling urban landscape, and his driving purpose throughout the game is finding his loved ones.
It's a clichéd story, told through the eyes of a thoroughly clichéd character, via a script that wallows in supermarket shelves of ham, particularly towards the end. The vocal work, particularly for Randall himself, can often grate, often pushing beyond the gravitas aimed for into something approaching exaggeration. But to be fair to Deadlight, Tequila Works have put in some fantastic work into shaping the world around Randall, with the environment providing a far better indication of narrative than the script itself.
The art direction in the cutscenes is full of dirty, thick black lines, with staccato animations and sudden eruptions of violent colour. Nothing is neat or tidy when the camera pans in close, and it makes for an aesthetic that echoes the apocalyptic mood of the setting. The in-game graphics are highly reminiscent of Other Ocean's The War of the Worlds and Limbo - providing an almost monochromatic feel, interspersed with some occasionally stunning backdrops. The ever-present zombie threat - called "Shadows" here - are shuffling, humanoid blots of inky black, the eyes shot through with white when neutral, and burning red when alerted and hunting Randall.
And these Shadows are pretty damn dangerous. Randall has just three slivers of health to begin with, and much of the early game is spent working out how to distract and run from your Shadowy aggressors rather than engage. An axe brings some melee brutality into play, but Randall is hugely underpowered, and must drop pursuers to the floor before he can finish them off firefighter-style. Even when a couple of firearms arrive later on, ammo is thin on the ground and cannot be relied upon until the very end of the game.
The survival aspect of the game is there for all to see, but there's not really a huge amount of horror at play. For all of Deadlight's moody colour scheme and scenes of dilapidation and destruction, there are none of the pervasive chills of Limbo's first couple of hours, nor the foreboding, dramatic RSC tones of Patrick Stewart to help instil an atmosphere of tension. It's not helped either by the trial-and-error nature of the gameplay, which fails to use the environment to make the player jump, instead encouraging repetition by occasionally making solid platforms unclear, and placing bodies of water in sections where you're sprinting away from zombies. The Shadows themselves can cause issues too, as their ability to slink out of the 3D backdrops into the 2D foreground can prove confusing, provoking the player into swinging at thin air because Randall can't hit anything unless it's perfectly in line.
Part of the issue with Deadlight is that it just has too many competitors who've lit up the 2D side-scrolling genre before. The platforming is just too slapdash and inaccurate to survive in a pool that boasts Shadow Complex and Mirror's Edge 2D amongst its biggest fish. Though the feeling of sprinting at pace along rooftops and smashing through windows is nice, it's nothing you can't get for under a quid should you pick up the fiendishly addictive Canabalt. Even Tequila Works themselves seem to realise that the game of cat-and-mouse with the undead might prove repetitive, but instead of shaking up the gameplay elements or the narrative, you're forced into a series of subterranean puzzle chambers. This would be fine if the puzzles weren't so immediately obvious, and actually taxed the brain.
Something should be said about the game's brevity too. You can complete the game in around four hours; less if you luck through and don't slip up. I don't tend to judge games on length, but this feels like a game in which the shorter running time belies a lack of ideas rather than well-designed pacing. It's a solid ride, and there are worse ways to spend such time, but there are plenty of better ways to spend 1200 Microsoft Points. AFter running through Deadlight once, I can't say that I have any desire to revisit it.
But Deadlight is not a bad game; in fact it's actually a rather solid debut for Tequila Works. But we expect more from a summer frontrunner, especially in a genre where we've seen the bar raised higher and higher over the last couple of years. A serious price tag demands a serious package, and it's difficult to come away from Deadlight without a feeling of dissatisfaction. If you're going to take on a well-worn genre with a well-worn theme you need to do something, anything, to make your game stand out. Sadly, in spite of some nice visuals, Deadlight proves to be painfully average.
- Some very nice art direction
- Survival elements are strong
- Occasional atmospheric moments
- Sloppy platforming
- Cheap water traps
- Constantly reminds us of other games we'd rather be playing
The Short Version: Deadlight is a thoroughly inoffensive game and will surely provide some entertainment for puzzle-platforming zombies fans once the price drops. But in spite of some occasionally dazzling visuals, Deadlight's lack of ambition when it comes to gameplay really lets it down and makes it all-too-easy to ignore.