Do you remember as a child you used to not swear or say bad things? Or rather, I guess, you weren’t allowed to swear or say bad things. Of course, nothing was really stopping you even then from being a pint-sized jerk; curse words or not, the intent was there. Getting around the rule-breaking of dropping f-bombs was kind of the fun of childhood kerfuffles. In fact, you would take such a roundabout way to call someone a poopyhead that by the time you got there, it wasn’t really worth it anymore.
I guess it’s kind of the same thing now with “zombie.” It’s become almost faux pas to mention or include such a trite convention in your video game that it would be better to call them something—anything!—else to avoid the ire of gamers.
But the intent is still there, as it is with Deadlight, the debut XBLA title from developer Tequila Works. They call the slow shamblers of this post-apocalyptic world “Shadows,” but they are effectively zombies: infectious bite, stilted and stumbling gait, and a voracious hunger for stinking flesh. This poses a problem for protagonist Randall Wayne, a park ranger traveling the 1980s Canada/Washington area in search of his wife and daughter.
And even for a park ranger, someone I would assume to be necessarily physically fit, Randall is quite agile. Taken on from a 2D perspective in a 3D environment à la fellow XBLA title Shadow Complex, Randall must jump massive gaps, climb seemingly insurmountable walls, and shimmy along collapsing building struts while shoulder-charging through boarded windows and barricaded doorways. It’s actually a little Prince of Persia in that way; you’ll hang from ledges, run up and jump off flat walls, and dive under rapidly closing doors. The way Randall moves is also fairly reminiscent of the Jordan Mechner classic as it feels but doesn’t necessarily look rotoscoped.
And much like how single encounters were presented there, Deadlight also removes the Rambo-style power fantasy of most zombie games. These are not simply brainless fodder for your shotgun or nail bat but rather things to be feared and avoided altogether. One Shadow is manageable, but large clumps are signs that either you made a mistake, you need to run, or that you are about to die. You have an axe that helps facilitate the hand-to-hand combat, allowing you to push around and finish grounded foes, but more powerful armaments like shotguns and revolvers are in short supply. This, in addition to the fact that combat often yields nothing but lowered health and wasted resources, smartly forces you to avoid conflicts in favor of seeking higher ground and closed doors.
Much of Deadlight‘s action is actually quite smart. The first third or so is actually dedicated to teaching you how the world works, its internal logic that (thankfully) is very close to real logic. You block doors by knocking over things in front of it; you avoid things that look electrified; and the like. And the methodology with which the game doles out information also deliberately informs you of how to play the game and how to feel about being in this world.
It’s just that some of it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Even by the end of the game, after a lot of things clear up and you can connect the dots more clearly, some things just don’t make sense. The fact that pages from Randall’s own diary are littered about the game is going to bother you for a long, long time.
And the action of the game itself is also a bit muddied. The terrific first act of the game teaches you to be slow but forceful, methodical but purposeful. And then by the end of the game, you are being chased by a helicopter.
And this wouldn’t really be much of a problem if the game handled more consistently. Your pace is well-suited for the slower parts of the game, but once things ramp up, you’ll be left wanting. It seems that sometimes the game demands pinpoint accuracy from you while other times it will very visibly nudge you a few pixels either direction to help you make a jump. Deadlight is a game that definitely puts favor in animation priority, but that will quickly frustrate you in certain sections.
Checkpointing, though, is rather rampant, almost to the point of Limbo frequency, an apt comparison given the silhouette aesthetics. It almost encourages a trial and error style of gameplay, but unlike Limbo, the trialing through the errors isn’t as fun. The silhoetting actually gets problematic at certain points, as you don’t know when Shadows coming in from further or closer planes will be open for attack or still immune to my two dimensions of futility.
Speaking of aesthetics, the visuals of Deadlight is one of its strong points. Everything you can set your eyes on is just so god damn on point. While you’ll see recycled assets (as with any game), they definitely don’t feel recycled. At times, I felt like I was really wandering through an abandoned building, one that was once full of people, each one living their own life. The abandoned thing is easy, but pulling off the wanton, unfortunate abandonment is quite the treat when done right.
Which also goes for most of the story. You can see some of the holes and very clearly where it stumbles at various points, but when it gets going, you are really going to feel it. It’s extremely ambitious and a prime example of reach exceeding grasp, but it is so interesting to see how it plays out that you’d be remiss to ignore it. You can see the potential set up by the first hour (out of the three to four that it’ll take you to finish) of the game, but by the end, you’ll wish they’d realized it fully.
There are some very nice payoffs in regards to the story, but I’m talking about more than that. The way the game teaches you to play, to navigate its inner workings, and puts you in potent learning experiences both in terms of story and gameplay, but the stumbling blocks you encounter inhibit you far too frequently. The ambition and the heart—the bleeding, dark, 1980s heart—is there, but now Tequila Works needs to fully realize what we see in this game and what they can clearly see in themselves.
They get around so many things without saying them outright (zombies, Limbo, Prince of Persia). This keeps the intent inline without explicitly saying the claimed words, and as with the childhood workarounds, a little extra flair is thrown on top. Stinker becomes Stinky McStinkerson, meanie becomes big ol’ meanie, and zombies become the ambitious but flawed Deadlight.