The zombie apocalypse: a shadow of its former self.
Reviewed on the Xbox 360 by Mark Dicks
You’re trapped in a pawnshop with the front door buckling under each incessant thump. To add to this discomfort a fellow survivor has just perished beside you. The unsettling outdoor moans grow louder as you rummage his corpse for bullets. Shooting the latch off the ceiling trapdoor creates an opening for rest bite. The front door bursts open accompanied by an ensemble of groans. Quickly you act, kicking off the wall and upward to narrowly escape the pursuing human monstrosities. This is an all too familiar scene stripped from the stagnating library of zombie lore. But do hold on, what if I was to tell you this whole scenario panned out whilst observed in a 2D perspective? Survival horror with a sideward twist.
Take the grizzly silhouetted trail and error from Limbo, the side-scrolling strictness and enemy manipulation from Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, then rustle it up in a flavour shaker branded by The Walking Dead (sorry Jamie!). The resulting mixture should taste something just like Deadlight. A platformer in where you get to outsmart the undead presented in a visually striking way does sound appetising, wouldn’t you agree?
Set in the fictional epidemic downfall of a 1986 Seattle. You take the reigns of Randall Wayne, a gruff thirty something Canadian who’s a fan of mountains and venting his personal troubles in a blotchy diary. All sixty pages of it are there, although not mandatory amongst the anecdotes, disturbing doodles and typical “today I did’s” (from the perspective of a man watching the world crumble around him) there are more innards to be discovered about the protagonist and world he exists in. If you do your homework you should find this backstory to be a valued inclusion. I’m glad the choice was there because the jarring sonic identity of Mr. Wayne was a bit of a tone spoiler to say the least!
You jump into the action after the unfortunate disbanding of a survivor group you were cobbled together with. Your ultimate goal is to reunite with your wife and daughter whose whereabouts since the outbreak still remain a foggy detail. The characters tumble into the expected genre trappings. There’s even one soul who uncannily resembles a particular baseball cap wearing pizza delivery boy (that’s a prompt for you to play ‘guess The Walking Dead character game’ by the way). The gurgling zombies or be that ‘Shadows’ as they’re named act how you would expect. Shuffling toward loud noises ring a bell? For a game whose story elements rank in as a prominent force, it saddens me to admit that they fall so deep into unoriginal territory!
Anyway, let’s put the plot to one side for now.
What this game does do differently however, is its engaging approach to environment action throughout its side-scrolling presentation. All Randall’s movement is glued to a single plain but that doesn’t mean everything else has to abide by the same rules. You’ll pass snarling Shadows snatching at you from foreground car wrecks. Distant warehouse doors will burst open followed by shuffling hoards that leak into Randall’s personal space. It’s all there to make you think twice about your safety as danger streams from every visual plain! The 3D backdrops become characters in themselves dressing up a wonderfully realised world of ruin in a washed out palette. This contrast works seamlessly with the blackened foreground whilst sound effects add identification to the silhouetted interactions. A sombre score married with modernised tension builders envelopes and rounds off a stunning representation of a world that’s now a shadow of its former self.
Navigating through Seattle is a classic run and jumping affair with a few commando rolls thrown in for good measure. Some of the context sensitive interactions and edge detection I found to be a tad finicky. You’ll have to be pretty snappy with those double jumps. But hey, nothing repetition can’t fix eh?
There’s meleeing to be done but a wilting stamina bar soon proves to be vital. If you’re caught scrapping for too long it can all become rather overwhelming. Performing the playground favourite ‘off ground it’ most of the time will get you out of these encounters unscathed. Puzzle solving and firearms also make an appearance. Shifting crates around doesn’t really result in stumping your progress. Nor do you really want to be hanging around rattling off a barrage of analogue stick headshots. It’s clear the game leans more toward speedrun perfection. Instead, what is an intriguing concept is using your surroundings as an actual weapon. Remember me mentioning Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee earlier? With a tap of the Y button you can get Randall to taunt his foes. For the observant player a quick whistle can cause a dawdling pack to shuffle off the opportune ledge. Dispatching Shadows doesn’t have to be all brute force and bullets!
As for the game’s length, you’re looking at around three to six hours for the first playthrough, which is split into three Acts made up of subsequent scenes. There’s a definite second round there if you fancy mopping up all those missed collectables (well unless of course you’ve been super clinical in round one). Some are worthwhile especially the playable homages to the Game & Watch generation! After that, retrospective plays only really depend on how much you enjoy spoiling your leaderboard ego.
Tequila Works have carved out something compelling for side-scrollers here. There’s certainly a few design choices I would of preferred to have seen altered; like ironing out more of the cliché narrative creases, having a re-evaluation of the lead (although my cringing personal taste is to blame there), tightening elements of the control scheme etc. However, Deadlight unlike the platforming norm has succeeded in making a cinematic sense of place. It’s a visual triumph that draws you into its grim unfolding drama. Let’s face it, we’ve all probably lost count of how many times zomb… er… Shadow infested post-apocalyptic worlds have been depicted in games. Deadlight is an example of a welcome step outside that undead formula box, it’s just a shame the other rigid infected leg held it back from a two-footed success!