Oh Deadlight, why did you tease me so?
You started off great. Your opening act was absolutely perfect at setting the mood. The use of shadows in the foreground and spooky imagery in the background really made the world you wanted me to experience feel both dense and somber. The feeling of an ever present danger of surprise attacking zombies made every moment feel tense and meaningful. I was seriously geeking out from the possibilities.
And then you had to go and spoil the ride.
There were times I envied the zombies
I can see what developer Tequila Works was aiming for here. This is a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer that puts more focus on the setting than on the spectacle and on surviving rather than fighting. It will bring forth memories of such classics as Heart of Darkness, Out of This World, and Flashback. Or if you need a more modern example, Limbo mixed with Shadow Complex.
Deadlight is set in Seattle during the mid 1980s, probably to help get rid of the presence of modern communication methods. Why do I say this? Because the driving force of (the main character) Randall Wayne’s motivation is to find his missing wife and daughter which is made all the more difficult without the internet and cell phones. One would have to be pretty cynical to label this as the easy and lazy way to build tension. It’s too bad for Deadlight then that I seem to have leveled up my cynicism at least twice as a result of playing the game.
But, hey, it’s not all bad. The presentation is pretty damn impressive. The amount of detail in the background set pieces is fantastic. I often found myself enjoying those moments when I didn’t have to resort to fight or flight. I’d just take a bit of time to soak it all in with my eyeballs, while my ears enjoyed the somber soundtrack. The world they’ve built is top notch.
It's too bad the same can’t be said for the gameplay. The first thing that rips you out of the moment is how the character reacts to water. He sinks as if he is wearing iron boots and there is a magnet at the bottom. I know water death is a possibility. With all the zombies and stuff around, it isn’t like the water is probably all that safe to drink or swim in. However, a human is still a human. We are a bag of skin full of mostly water and pockets of air we call lungs. Take it from a guy who has been through lifeguard training… humans tend to float better than they sink, even when wearing clothes and having a few weapons with them. So yes, death by water is a touch ridiculous as portrayed here.
But what becomes painfully obvious is just how horribly the whole thing controls. Right around the second act, you suddenly have to make it through a gauntlet of instant kill traps that showcase just how frustrating the mere act of controlling the character is. In almost every case, you have to have pixel-perfect character placement to succeed. If you make Randall jump without being at the exact place the game wants you to be, he will perform what I started calling the fail-jump. That is, he will make a jump that is around half of his maximum jumping distance. So if you are a (character-relative) foot off from where the game wants you to be, you will end up missing the other side by around five feet. This for a while will make you assume you simply can’t make the jump from there, leading you on a wild goose chase for the “proper solution”. It starts to boil down to a game of finding the hotspot that will allow you to get to the next section.
No whammy no whammy no whammy ...
Beyond that, combat is sluggish and feels very unresponsive. You will usually be armed with an axe to help you get through the zombie hordes. Attacking with the axe feels so hit and miss… rather literally. Numerous times the overhead swing would clip through an approaching enemy which would result in getting tackled to the ground by said randomly intangible zombie. Yes, the business end of the axe should do the most damage, but why is the handle made of a ghostly material that passes through enemies? Granted, the game puts more focus on avoiding combat than engaging in it, but sometimes you are forced into it. It is in those times when your back is against the wall that you want to be able to actually rely on the game’s mechanics to make it through.
It all boils down to the frustrating way in which death is used. See, the fun of Limbo, Heart of Darkness, and similar games is that death was informative. If you didn’t solve the puzzle correctly or at the right time, try again. Death in those games was varied, creative, and in a macabre way a part of the fun. In Deadlight death is not your guide, it is the casual slap in the face as a means to punish you all in the name of difficulty. It is the worst sort of challenge; one where you must fall victim to a deadly situation before knowing of its presence.
This is made most obvious by the chase sequences that litter the game. At points in the game you must simply run from a huge horde of zombies or other danger. As you make a mad dash rightwards, you must make timed jumps over obstacles and past deathtraps. You also often have to run through hordes of zombies that will force you into a button-mashing sequence if they happen to grab you. Canabalt this isn’t. As tense and frightening as these sequences were probably designed to feel, in practice they feel like poorly stitched together segments full of cheap death. The more you play the less you feel like you are in control of the situation, which means you don’t feel as if failing is really the fault of your abilities rather the game just being cheap.
It just smacks of lazy through and through. Do any of you remember in the early days of free roaming 3D games when machines were less powerful so the draw distance was less than stellar? The better games paced the game to take advantage of the “thick fog”, or were designed not to punish the player for things they couldn’t have possibly seen coming. The worst games did stupid spin jobs on the game’s flaws, saying they were features and that they were done intentionally to make it more challenging. That is what this game feels like to me. Instead of fixing the flaws in the collision detection and character placement, it uses them to attempt to give you a sense of difficulty and pad out the game’s length. It's the “kryptonite fog” from Superman 64 all over again.
Or as a realtor would say, "it's a fixer upper".
In most puzzle-platform games, one of the key driving forces to continuing on is to the story and the solving of any mysteries. Perhaps I’ve just been over exposed to these sort of “deep, dark philosophical” stories, but I found the whole thing lacking. The philosophical points the story tries to make feel more like pseudo-intellectual first-year-in-a-liberal-arts-degree speak. The voice acting is a sort of paint-by-numbers checklist of troubled, angsty, and grizzled. As much as Mr. Randall Wayne talks of his missing wife and daughter I don’t hear a man worried for his family, I hear a voice actor reading a script with a gravelly voice.
Ok, I’ve beaten on this undead abomination enough. In all the ways that matter to me personally the most (gameplay, character connection, and fun) this game just dropped the ball. Yes, it's pretty to look at. Yes, the use of shadows and music are appropriate for the setting. Great. Good for you. Have a banana sticker - it’s scratch-n-sniff.
I didn’t have fun, though. The game is five hours long and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. You took a great concept, great aesthetic, a true level of promise in game design and just unloaded a sawed-off shotgun right in its face. There are too many other great games of this type to waste your time on this mediocre experience.