Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a welcome increase in stunningly beautiful side-scrolling games with different and succinct hooks that have flourished on the downloadable platforms. Whether it’s the chilling yet charming Limbo, the slightly more obscure Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, or the mind-bogglingly Fez; Deadlight was aiming to maintain this winning streak and achieved it, but only with partial success.
The obvious draw is a visual style that is something to marvel at like a zombie to a brain-platter. A collective variety of distant destruction and near-field terror mix sweetly with the vivid but harsh comic-esque art style that utilises darkness as well as any other. Zombies, or Shadows as they’re known within Deadlight, will rush towards you from the distance (essentially making it a 2.5D platfomer that won’t let you move depths), turning what you thought was just scenery into part of the here-and-now, as smoke billows into the sky from destroyed parts of the city and houses are left derelict and wrecked. It’s a undoubted graphical treat that will have you salivating for something else, something perhaps with a better game to accompany it; the problem is Deadlight’s looks are far too good for what lies beneath.
Almost everything other than the glorious appearance is subject to some serious critique. If it’s not the abysmal plot (and the blatantly obvious plot “twist”) or the hit-and-miss aspect of the platforming, it’s the joyless combat or the terrible voiceover work. “Quick my friends are in danger” apocalypse survivor Randall Wayne barks, as you attempt to save his friends over the few hours you’ll spend with Deadlight – which is about as sophisticated as the dialogue ever becomes. There’s a core story arc that’s pulled along by a string as you chase it never really knowing why other than that’s what you’re supposed to do. Characters lack any real likability and are even anti-empathetic and, for a game set in a world where few characters remain, that’s becomes somewhat of an issue. There are an extensive collection of diary pages to find which add to the fractured narrative, but at no point do you find yourself actually wanting to make sure that Randall gets to the end. The problems don’t just stop there though.
As a survival horror game Deadlight attempts to use light – or the lack of it – to create tension (read: to allow zombies to attack you), but it causes havoc with the platforming aspect of the title, which is ultimately where the crux of the game breaks apart. Any possibility of atmosphere and tension that developers Tequila Works tried to create was ripped apart by the trial-and-error nature that ultimately frustrates. Too often are platforming sections not obvious enough, whilst sign-posting is nearly altogether absent and checkpointing is too sporadic for the number of deaths that will occur.
However, when it does get the feeling of being in a zombie apocalypse right, Deadlight nails it. Whether it’s the blind panic of fleeing or double-tapping half a dozen zombies that have backed you into a corner, you want to steer clear of them as much as you can; a big part of this is due to the frustrating nature of combat mind which clunky, inept and best left aside. This fear dies down as the game wears on though, as the continued recurrence of death due to poor platforming takes the edge away.
Journeying through abandoned environments, a sole survivor in a world now doomed to die out, watching like the pages of comic book turning with every set of strides; these moments are when Deadlight makes sense and it is wonderful, it’s just a real shame that they’re so few and far between. All too often it’ll meander along, respecting pre-written gaming mechanics rather than attempting some new and fresh – or even getting them right.
Loading times are far too lengthy for a game of this size – and one that insists you’ll have to revisit them time-and-time again, combat is rarely entertaining, and cheap, unavoidable deaths plague a game ridden with narrative boils. Deadlight is a true beauty on the outside, and if you can stomach endlessly retrying segments plagued with terrible checkpointing, then it’s well worth a go. However, underneath the glistening exterior lies a broken being, much like the Shadows that too often ruin what could have been a compelling experience.