Deadlight – Review

Title   Deadlight
Developer  Tequila Works
Publisher  Microsoft Studios
Platform  XBLA
Genre  Survival Horror, Platformer
Release Date  1st August, 2012
Official Site

Going to E3 this year was a huge accomplishment for me, both personally and professionally, and a fantastic achievement that I never thought I’d be able to call my own. E3 is a truly untameable beast – spitting acid, fur-balls and other fluids at you the entire time. The key is admitting that you just won’t see everything the show has to offer, as it’s an impossibility for a single person to achieve. Realising this, I made an incredibly short list of games I had to see at E3 without fail; one of those games was Deadlight.  You may have read my preview (and if you haven’t, then shame on you), but it was a title I enjoyed immensely and had to force myself to stop playing, as I was worried I’d spoil too much of the game for myself. I came away suitably impressed and eager to get the full release, which landed on the XBLA on August 1st.

Zombies are hardly a new breed of enemy to the industry, having dominated the majority of genres for this last console generation at the very least. They are to this generation what Nazis and aliens were to the last, used in spite of other options because they were popular. That is fine though, provided the game doesn’t feel stale and old. A zombie game now needs to do something different to make it stand out from the hundreds of others.  In steps Deadlight, which puts you in the shoes of Randall Wayne – a regular park warden who finds himself in Canada amidst a viral outbreak during 1986. After learning of a safe zone being organised by the Army in Seattle as a last refuge from the zombies or ‘Shadows’ as they’re referred to, Randall heads off in search of his wife and daughter, whom he became separated from in a town ironically named ‘Hope’. The story is hardly original, but it provides enough propulsion to get through the three-to-five hours of gameplay.

Randall Wayne is a fairly standard character as far as zombie outbreaks go – he certainly isn’t the clichéd gun-toting superhero that seems to populate the majority of zombie apocalypse scenarios this generation. He isn’t a war veteran or whiny office bitch, just a simple guy trying to survive and find his family. He has a grizzly, almost-guarded exterior, feeling the need to keep his distance from the majority of people, commenting that they ‘only either let you down or die’. How this man ever managed to get a wife and father a child does seem slightly odd at times, but maybe he wasn’t always such a miserable sod; apocalypses will make even the blindest of optimists slightly grumpy, I reckon.

Randall also narrates a good portion of the story and chimes in with his thoughts every so often, which produces some thought-provoking moments and leaves something to be desired other times. What he does say can be very straightforward to the point where it comes across as blunt. At one stage, he comments that “My mind is playing tricks on me”, then casually continues on his journey without a care in the world, forgetting the fact that he just saw an apparition of his daughter appear in front of him. Other times, especially during some of his flashbacks, Randall’s words come across as haunting, revealing a truly tortured man who longs to find his family and ensure their safety.

The story is not only told through Randall’s speech but through some very striking still art that mirrors itself perfectly alongside the main story. Deadlight is a gruesome title in places and this is reflected in the violent strikes of crimson that echo round the screen during some of the cut-scenes, as Randall takes to killing Shadows that get in his way. The switch between gameplay and the art is never intrusive and it reminds me of the excellent pieces we saw in Infamous on the Playstation.

XBLA users have been lucky enough to say they’ve had some outstanding 2D side-scrollers this generation; Shadow Complex and Limbo are the obvious candidates and their influences can be seen in Deadlight. While Limbo’s are purely graphical, the 2.5D environments from Shadow Complex are revisited in Deadlight. This can make for some highly entertaining and terrifying gameplay; after all, there aren’t many games that allow zombies to move in all directions, but you to only move in one. What may seem like a safe environment soon becomes a dangerous one, when you realise the hundreds of Shadows from the background are moving into the foreground. Even worse is the realisation that you cannot do anything about it until they’re, quite literally, next to you.

This blind panic is something you’ll experience plenty of times, as Deadlight takes on a more fight or flight stance when it comes to combat. More often than not, you’ll be running away and even that provides its own problems for players. There is always the potential for Randall to trip and fall over debris in the road while running, leaving him vulnerable to any undead fucker who wants to throw themselves on him. This can sound frustrating but it’s a perfectly reasonable mechanic that only occurs if the player is too focused on running away from a mob of undead. Pretty much like Randall or anyone else would be? Someone check the tick-box for realism!

Realism certainly plays its part within Deadlight’s world, again re-enforcing the notion that Randall Wayne hasn’t entered the apocalypse arena and instantly become some buffed-up, gun-wielding, combat expert, as you find with a large amount of titles. Dead Island, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil… all of them find people who, in a general scenario, would be no better equipped to survive than you or I. Deadlight is a joy to play because, whilst you can hold your own against one or two Shadows, it becomes incredibly tricky to take on any greater numbers.

And you will take on greater numbers, even in the opening stages. Deadlight is comfortable throwing trios of Shadows at you from the word go; quite an unrelenting force so early on in a game. However, this very real and present threat is one of Deadlight’s greatest assets – being thrust into the heart of the end of the world, rather than being eased in gently. Right from the start, Wayne will need to run, jump, roll and generally throw himself away from all dangers – undead, human or environmental. I can’t fault the controls for Deadlight, so the platforming elements are spot on, and although you’ll miss the occasional drop, more often than not this will be down to player error.

If Randall isn’t escaping danger then it’s probably because you’ve got to kill something in his path, or because you’re frantically trying to work out a puzzle as death closes in on you. This will happen and it never feels unfair or unjust, like the game is punishing you for not thinking quick enough. Chances are you got distracted by the enemy and the obvious puzzle solution is dancing in front of you.

Keeping a cool head is key because, despite his imposing figure, Randall isn’t super-human. Your main weapon will be a fire axe, liberated from a corpse early on in the game. This will serve as both an offensive and defensive weapon, provided Randall has the stamina to wield it. Some of you may scoff at his stamina bar and feel it shackles the player and forces the need to run away more than the clever enemy placement and level design. To those people I say this: have you swung a fire axe recently? Have you tried to rip one out of a person’s skull? Were you out of breath last time you went to the fridge to get another beer? Yeah, I thought so too. Save your criticisms for when you can take a power-nap without needing to take a rest after.

In all seriousness, the stamina bar and general focus on melee combat is another excellent part of Deadlight, as you will find yourself fighting enemies on regular occasions. Sometimes it will be to get to a switch or a wall to jump to, other times it’ll be for one of the many collectables or diary pages. Randall can give a few hefty swings of the axe before he starts getting tired, and when he does the screen will start to blur and you’ll be able to do little more than push the enemies away. They may trip or just stumble back a little, and if you’ve not decapitated them while they’re on the floor then they’ll just get right back up. If you get surrounded by Shadows they won’t give a shit what your health is, they’ll literally throw themselves on you, which can result in an instant death. If this seems unfair, I again refer to the stamina argument. If you’ve got three fully grown adults with no care for their own welfare trying to pull you to the floor, would you be able to stop them? I didn’t think so. You can hammer a button to get them off you (we’re referring to game now, people, don’t go pressing buttons if you’re being assaulted in reality, call the police), but if you get crowded out, you’re probably fucked unless you can get out of there fast.

Naturally the stamina bar defines how much running you can do, and Shadows can move at pace if they want, so it becomes a balancing act of keeping an army at bay while getting to safety. To be blunt, it is handled superbly, the later addition of firearms only adds another layer of panic and tactic to an already sound formula. Firearms may seem like a welcome inclusion, but we’re only talking about a six-shooter and a pump-action shotgun. Although they provide instant death for whatever comes near you, they attract double what you’re killing and ammo is extremely rare. Guns provide a last ditch option to buy you some time, and then it really is time to Foxtrot Oscar.

Running is something you will do plenty of during this game and although there are health and stamina power-ups to find, I explored when I could and only found one stamina boost. Deadlight never punishes you for not finding them, but it does make the scripted sequences a little easier to contend with. I certainly won’t spoil them for you, as they are some of best moments in the game and break up the general gameplay very well.

I’ve mentioned individual areas that make this tile excellent: combat, realism, gameplay mechanics to name but a few. However, the real star of Deadlight is the very world that Randall inhabits and has to traverse. As gamers, zombies or not, we’ve been treated to a real variety of apocalyptic situations over the years, and I can safely say that this is one of the best. Everything looks utterly ruined; houses and skyscrapers burning in the distance, Shadows trapped in hundreds of cars stuck on a freeway, desperately clawing at Randall as he walks past. The juxtaposition between the light of first dawn piercing the skyline, radiating down onto a group of Shadows tearing the guts out of their last kill is truly chilling to watch.

I’ve mentioned Limbo as a graphical influence to this game and while I can draw that comparison, it does Deadlight a disservice to suggest it lacks originality, because it really doesn’t. This is one of the prettiest games I’ve seen as a download only title. Everything about it is stunning: the background, the foreground, the enemies, the buildings, the burning cars and the dead bodies. All of them mix into a perfect crescendo of destruction that portrays a world that is dying.

The majority of developers don’t consider the little things that make a big difference. Immersion is key for any game, especially one that is mimicking a world similar to our own. The way Randall Wayne throws himself through doors, stumbles as his foot catches something, his body language as he gets tired from swinging the axe and resorts to using just one arm all portray a living, breathing person. His desperate flailing and kicking at Shadows when they pin him to the ground highlights a man who reeks of survival but looks evermore like he is just too tired to continue. Graphically, Deadlight is beautiful but it is these subtle touches that make it outstanding.

Beautiful is a term that can equally be applied to the musical score. It isn’t often that I let a game sit idle in the menu just to listen to its music (the last time was Sonic the Hedgehog), but the haunting tones of Deadlight’s opening menu means I have to forgo playing the game just to listen to the music. The voice acting is also of decent quality, although as I’ve already mentioned, Randall Wayne doesn’t have the best dialogue throughout the story. Other than a chap you meet in the sewers, he really is the main speaker of the story. Funnily enough, the man in the sewer isn’t the full ticket, but I don’t think it’s difficult to find someone to talk like they’re insane – just look at the internet.

While there isn’t much to make you come back to Deadlight once it’s finished, there are plenty of collectables, including missing pages of Randall’s diary that are well worth finding. I waited until the end to read it so that I had as many of the blanks filled in as I could. It was a nice feature to have, as well as the various newspaper clippings, doctors’ reports and other items you can pick up on the way. There may not be much replayability otherwise, but this is something you’ll want to play right until the end for a rather interesting twist on the normal storytelling conventions that really serves as the cherry on top of this delicious title.

  • A fresh take on an overused concept
  • Engaging, entertaining combat
  • Frantic, panic filled gameplay
  • Stunning visuals
  • A brilliantly crafted world that is the real star of this game
  • Randall Wayne can't swim
  • The character exerts his dialogue a little too much at times

Deadlight is a fantastic game, and I want you to ignore the cons because they're so minor that I've had to pick two things that really make no difference at all. I didn't care that there were water puzzles because this man can't swim; I died a few times in one and it really wasn't a problem as it was purely due to my lack of attention. Sure, some of the dialogue feels a little forced but, as I've said, it's such a minor thing that I barely noticed it.

Deadlight is an absolutely outstanding debut from Tequila Works; combining entertaining gameplay with an original look and feel. Few developers have had the same initial success in the past, but it is this incredibly detailed world that has made its mark on me. It's this view of a world that is slowly dying - one that has gone to hell, depicted not only so graphically but so honestly that it really makes Deadlight a title I can recommend to absolutely anyone with an interest in videogames.

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One Comment

  1. Ian Ian says:

    Good review. Makes me consider rushing to the living room and buying it!

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