Developer: Tequila Works / Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15.00 / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language)
With all the zombie video games out there, it’s surprising that there are so few set in the 2D space.. Deadlight looks to remedy that. It also happens to be the one zombie game in Microsoft’s 2012 Summer of Arcade. It’s a game that hits the marks on weapon scarcity, life-or-death running situations, and melee confrontations with zombies. Yet Deadlight falls short when it comes to giving gamers platforming scenarios to puzzle over and a narration-driven script.
Setting the game 145 days after Patient Zero helps instill some mystique in Deadlight’s zombie apocalyptic world. It starts off as if it were a sequel to a game that doesn’t exist. There isn’t much of a backstory though discoverable diary pages help shed light on Randall Wayne, Deadlight’s protagonist. Wayne separates from his gang of survivors in order to find his wife and daughter while everyone else is on their way to a mysterious refuge in Seattle known as the Safe Point.
Wayne might appear to be middle aged and haggard from zombie chases, but that doesn’t stop him from being a solid Parkour performer. Maybe it’s the urgency of being chased by the undead, but he knows how to ricochet against walls in order to get higher on opposite walls. He also knows the benefits of rolling to cushion a high jump.
All this comes handy in Deadlight’s 2.5D world. The majority of the game is spent moving to the right but it also has its share of vertical moments. And while one might want to compare this to Shadow Complex, Deadlight’s bare-bones upgrade system, lack of z-axis gun aiming, and non-linear exploration puts it more in line with Limbo, just without the minimalist artistry.
This game also lacks Limbo’s sense of gratification in solving puzzles. Deadlight does have its share of spatial challenges but hardly any of these would truly qualify as brain teasers. Any puzzle can be solved through very brief trial and error and the game even gives hints on what switch to pull in order to clear the current objective.
This shortage of puzzles is indicative of the Tequila Works’ design ambition in trying to fit many 2D action conventions into a brief 2-3 hour game. The problem is that by the time you master a section, whether it’s a set of puzzles or a gripping chase sequence, the game moves you into another kind of 2D-based challenge without letting the previous section stretch its legs.
It was a challenge trying to see any significance in Deadlight’s 1980’s setting. It feels like an arbitrary time period that neither helps nor hurts the game, though the achievements named after songs from that decade are a nice touch. I suspect Tequila Works’ vision of a ruined Seattle in 1986 wouldn’t have looked much different set in 2012.
These artists did a great job in bringing out the beauty in metropolitan decay. In the foreground, glowing sparks shoot out when generators are activated, dust appears when Wayne climbs on fragile wooden platforms, and underwater dirt kicks up when he disturbs sewer-submerged zombies. The background is equally compelling, with highways packed with abandoned cars, mangled subway trains in cavernous sewers, and a metropolis in the distance that you could only see but not touch.
A fitting complement to these visuals is the nearly pitch black depiction of Randall Wayne himself. Through intended backlighting, Wayne appears mostly as a silhouette, and a well animated one at that. His vertical leap motion could be a dead ringer for the reaching jump by the hero in Prince of Persia. Wayne’s two handed horizontal axe swing looks convincingly deliberate and I’m especially fond of his labored one-armed downward axe chop when he’s low on stamina.
So it’s all the more unfortunate that his dark visage is offset by both a poor script and equally poor vocal delivery. Where things fall short is with Randall Wayne’s narration, which is filled with curious redundancies and failed attempts at being profound. At one point Wayne actually says, “There’s no such thing as darkness, only light that we can’t see.” This is mid 1990’s video game voice acting territory and not the intentional kind.
Tequila Works certainly understands the 2D space and there is some sense of satisfaction in navigating Randall Wayne through miles of hallowed out buildings, a treacherous underground, and zombie-infested roads. They’ve also managed to craft an alternate version of 1980’s urban America that I wanted to learn more about. This is especially the case for a game that could be beaten in one sitting. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but it is when it’s a brisk game like Deadlight, one devoid of genuine challenges whether it’s combat or puzzles.