Thursday, 1 November 2012

Review: Deadlight

Here Lies a review I wrote for Critical Gamer about the XBLA (and now available on PC) game Deadlight. Its a mix bag of a game and though I remember shouting bad words at the T.V. quite a few times while playing it I also believe it to be a pretty unique vision of the inevitable zombie apocalypse. Visually stunning and quite scary/tense in places. Check out my thoughts after le break. 

Zombies are such a popular subject these days that its even becoming a cliché to mention how popular they are. Therefore it's probably best to stop going on about clichés and just treat the zombie game as if it were a genre in itself; I mean would we complain if a racing game had cars in it? The point really is that zombie games can be quite different from one another despite having that same common, flesh-eating factor. Deadlight, a side-scrolling platforming game, and the first game for Tequila Works (a Spanish studio with some very experienced developers involved), diverges from the rest of the horde in several ways. Tequila takes a stripped down side-scrolling puzzle-platformer approach, making survival and jumping your main concerns within this beautifully ruined setting. Unfortunately the trail and error approach of Deadlight's traps and puzzles coupled with a few other issues can leave it feeling needlessly frustrating in certain sections despite the game's overall sense of style.

Deadlight tells the story of one man's desperate struggle to find his wife and child amidst an apocalyptic vision of zombie hell. It also tells the story of a player's desperate struggle to stop themselves exploding with frustration after listening to the same piece of audio twenty times before dying again, and again. Its a hard issue to approach, seeing as difficulty is so often what maintains a game's longevity, however it's possible in certain circumstances to criticise it and here it can feel detrimental to the experience. I say 'can' because on the one hand difficulty is essential to Deadlight's very traditional approach to the subject.

There's no voodoo here but the zombies are of the shuffling variety and, while this gives the player more chance to take a pot shot or two, running away is often the best method of survival. The game begins by dropping the player into a desperate situation where Randell Wayne, the protagonist, has lost the party of survivors he was travelling with to find his wife and daughter. Setting off to search the ruins of Seattle, Randy picks up a variety of weapons including axes, revolvers and even a sling shot. However this descent into hell delivers very few bullets and often leaves you very little time to use them.

Ammunition is therefore a resource which you spend only in the worst case scenario – even in comparison to survival horror classics such as Resident Evil or Silent Hill, Deadlight feels particularly miserly. But this makes every encounter with the shambling dead threatening and exciting. The sparse 'stamina' given to you for melee attacks also forces you to think carefully about each individual blow you make. Combat is therefore never a gung-ho activity, but due to the tension created through your relative weakness each small victory feels like a satisfying achievement in the face of over whelming odds. Therefore avoiding combat is an important part of the game's platforming sections. There are some great sections where managing the position of your enemy through 'taunts' lets you strategise a way across an open space.

Other sections invoke modern games such as Trine or Limbo in their use of puzzles, with one slightly offbeat chapter sees you navigating an underground labyrinth of traps. Others feel more like classic adventure game Another World, where you have to run, jump, vault and shoot very precisely to make it out alive. These sections can be great fun but they also require quite a bit of trail and error to master – as was the case with both game mentioned above. Unfortunately Deadlight frustrates this trial and error system through its often clunky, unresponsive controls (“I was pressing A!!”) and its check pointing system which at times leaves you repeating the same audio or visual clip over and over and over again – causing narrative events to quickly loose all meaning. Games such as Limbo made trail and error fun by quickly placing the player right back into the puzzle, ready for you to jump straight in. Deadlight frustrates this system by turning quick repetitions into slow cinematic moments which begin to lose all meaning after their twentieth iteration.

The sometimes clunky controls are probably the worst offenders in this respect. At times Randy simply ignores commands as if he'd just given up - leaving the player dumbfounded, having to replay the section again. At other times the game feels too lenient. Some jumps, which were noticeably just short of target, cause the player to clip onto a ledge – as if instead of making the jump you simply reached a 'zone' surrounding it. This of course doesn't ruin the whole experience but it does make the otherwise slick presentation feel slightly clumsy and undermines the more meaningful difficulty found in the combat.

Its a shame because visually Deadlight is an exemplary piece of apocalyptic art. The depth of field given to the scenery is at times breathtaking in its ruin. Seattle looks like it's really been through the mill. Littered high-ways, rubble-filled apartment blocks, dripping sewers; hope is noticeably vacant throughout. The shadowed foreground also works well with the game's themes and narrative – shadowing everything in a darkness and de-humanising the remaining population. Unfortunately that same narrative is also a little weak. The story is the same old zombie theme of reaching the 'safe-house', while the humans become just as dangerous as the dead. Characters are also never fully developed, with the exception of Randy who simply plays the rugged every-man with a heart of gold.

Visually Deadlight is stunning, with the weighty combat giving the experience a sense of vulnerability and desperation. Regrettably too often the platforming, which makes up a majority of the game, feels clumsy and at times frustrating – deadening the impact of certain locations and events. That said Deadlight is a very worth while entry into the zombie cannon and any fans of the subject shouldn't think twice about giving this slice of despair a go.

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