A dim spark at the end of the zombie laden tunnel.
Ah, it’s definitely summer in the UK. The clouds are spewing tears, the tourists are barbequing lambs to appease the sun gods and XBLA’s most anticipated title in this years’ Summer of Arcade is a zombie-laden platformer where your protagonist isn’t some undead bashing superman, but a middle aged ranger with the raging powers of an asthmatic. Welcome to Deadlight, a zombie game that’s sure to knock your ‘Epic Survival Planz’ down a couple of pegs.
It’s 1986, a time where biological warfare can easily be blamed on ‘Dem Russians’. What’s currently swallowing the west side of the world however, is something that forces politics and any resemblance of normal life into the backseat. The dead are rising from the grave, ‘Shadows’ tearing up the living as soon as they can latch onto them. Survival is now the top priority, and only Randall Wayne seems to realise that. Lumped with survivors who aren’t entirely on board with his concept of survival, his version is at least keeping him alive long enough to find his wife and daughter lost somewhere in the madness.
Cold and somewhat distant with those he comes across, it seems that Randall’s belligerence towards human kind has left him relatively short on supplies. Lucky to pluck a Fireman’s axe in some moments, the apocalypse seems to be toying with his lack of physical prowess. Randall isn’t some twenty something underdog who’s been waiting for this moment his entire life in a bid to prove he’s something when the world has gone to hell. He’s a forty something who acts even older than he is, and constantly being on the move isn’t helping him out. Your stamina bar goes hand in hand with your life bar, and both must be mulled over before entering hairy situations, as a depletion in one will often mean a plummet in the other. Think you can fend off hundreds with that axe? Two half decent swings that will actually down only one shadow pretty much causes your vision to blur and almost leads you to exhaustion. As soon as one grabs you, you’re pretty much finished as others hack away at your torso. The best solution to this of course is picking up a gun.
It soon transpires after lodging just a few bullets in a few brains that cowardly tapping shadows to death was only going to exacerbate things. We’re dealing with The Walking Dead rules here; make any noise and you get a herd of murderous dullards on your case. It forces you to isolate when to fight and when to run, especially when out in the open. Choose to peg it, and you’ll have to find higher ground quickly before you run out of breath. Hang on a ledge thinking you’ve outwitted some on higher ground and you’ll fall yourself. Every time you reach a new area, you have to make a gameplan in either field, and if one approach doesn’t work, it’s usually the other one.
Deadlight uses the element of fear extremely well against you. Yes, the creatures you face are effectively just black silhouettes, but they have a funny habit of cropping up EXACTLY where you don’t want them…and where you don’t expect them. Drop down a pit and a half-alive brain-dead cretin is likely to belly flop your skull into the ground. Run on a car, the alarm goes off. Start breaking down a door and shadows will break it from the other side for you. Tequila Works have mastered the 2.5D plane and bend it to their will brilliantly. It’s just a shame that once you learn its mechanics, Deadlight is split into ‘solely combat segments’ and ‘solely parkour segments’, and very rarely do they blend. Almost the entire middle section of the game rests entirely on puzzle platforming, but with barely anything trying to gnaw at my brain it all seemed like something of an epic stroll through the sewers. Only one notable ‘puzzle’ pitted my logic against my nerves and it was too close to the end for me to wish more tension upon my noggin.
Every time I pick out a flaw in Deadlight, my heart gets a little heavier Despite surviving this far into the end of the world, Randall certainly isn’t the brightest spark emitting from the end of the tunnel. The plot sets up rather conventional sub-plots behind the main one, but sort of dwindle off into a ‘meh’-worthy finale. Nothing is really elaborated on, the true extent of the downfall of humanity is conveyed in such cliché terms and Randall’s bull headed tunnel vision in a bid to find his family seems to make him overlook blatant facts that those paying any attention to the collectables find out ages before. Each comic style cut-scene makes you want to care for what’s going on…it’s only after each that you kinda wish you zoned out.
Randall’s dim-witted approach is highlighted even further every time he opens his mouth. He constantly sounds like Harrison Ford in a Family Guy sketch, reminding us every five seconds that he has to find his friends or…’frins’ as he constantly seems to pronounce it. There’s this totally unnecessary gruffness in his voice at the most daft moments, as if he’s that bizarre signature town hobo trying to warn rats away from his feet as his toenails are laced with his own poop and that Thor will strike them down if they so much as nibble on his dead skin. It’s so ridiculously hard to relate to him, and you’ll soon get sick of his ramblings. Diary clippings found throughout paint an entirely different picture than what we’re given. When reading out his thoughts, I envisioned a inexplicably mentally tortured man with a past I genuinely wanted to explore. What I got was a man enveloped in so much blind panic he’s coating his throat in phlegm at a rapid rate to sound ‘gruff’. Voices from the undead manage to be more effective, echoing in the dim lit and grotty locales adding that aura of tension everywhere you go.
This IQ belligerence even extends to gameplay at times. Everything works pretty smoothly when you’re hopping from rooftop to rooftop, trying to pretend you’re Spiderman in a bid to shut out the horrors around you. When you have a threat even greater than zombies on your tail, however, such a control system where you have to remember such fiddly details in climbing doesn’t work out well. Often in a haste I’d plan out moves to escape certain peril, only to realise that Randall was 5 frames behind me on everything I do, often wall jumping straight back into the grim reaper’s open arms. Sometimes forces against all the sciences and sensibilities we know off simply have a hissy fit. Jumping over a zombie? Ha! That zombie was the ghost of Inspector Gadget! Invisible Gadget arms shall snag you and slam you back down to the floor? Pushing a box? Ha! You shall die…for some reason… and leave nothing but a corpse floating in mid air. Platformers rely on smoothness throughout, and sometimes Deadlight delivers. Sometimes, however, some really questionable cracks start appearing and don’t go away.
If the game wasn’t so forgiving, these clear errors would become extremely annoying flaws. No life system means your free to uncover these technical issues without penalty, and should you be replaying to set a new record time on the leaderboards, the clock resets as soon as you respawn willing to give the obsessive high-scorers one more shot . The checkpoint system is so efficient in fact that it feels like it’s compensating for some dimension breaking murderous oddities. Is it a pro? Yes…but it would be an even better one if deaths were caused by genuine challenge, not volatile glitches.
Every time I pick out a flaw in Deadlight, my heart gets a little heavier. Its competitive time refereeing and dark looming atmosphere hits the sweet spot that entices me into another playthrough. And then its’ over keenness to kill me with pure air and frustrating fence humping controls dismay me from knocking that score up a tad. It’s willingness to engross me in Randall’s tragedy with comprehensive diary extracts preps me for some half decent narrative…before leading me into a dank pit of loose ends for years until all I can hear is the voice in my head beckoning terrible vocal work. It’s not a game that you’ll sneer at wasting 2 hours of your life with. It’s one you’ll replay, work out the kinks, see the potential and then ponder about a sequel. It shows genuine promise, and is a blueprint of a series that could turn into so much more than the standard zombie game you see nowadays. Needless to say, if you enjoyed the classic skipping and hopping of the original Prince Of Persia, you’ll find enough here to warrant a purchase.
The Good: Incredibly tense parkour gameplay, Forces you to rethink your tactics with each undead encounter, Good checkpoint system…occasionally compensates for glitching…The Bad: Platforming isn’t that smooth when it really matters (i.e. a legion of bullets chewing up my shoes), Odd glitches mar gameplay, Terrible voice acting and a story that degenerates into nothing noteworthy