Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Tequila Works
Thanks to Microsoft for providing a copy of this game for review.
With any platform exclusive title comes a certain degree of expectation from gamers: they want that exclusive to be as great as it possibly can be so that they can brag about it to everyone else. And so it is with Tequila Works first ever game, an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive titled Deadlight, a side-scrolling action-adventure game set in 1986. Sadly this exclusive isn’t one that 360 owners can brag about to everyone else. Rather it’s just a solid title bolstering the ranks of formidable Arcade titles that already exist.
The most striking aspect of Deadlight is also its most obvious. Tequila works have clearly worked hard to give this side-scroller an incredibly atmospheric and moody graphical style, using a mixture of light and shadow to do so. Our hero, the boringly named Randall Wayne, and everything in the foreground are almost always hidden in shadow, a dark silhouette against the deep and detailed backdrop of the city, giving the visual style a nice contrast. There’s a real sense of depth to the background which is something a lot of other side-scrollers often fail to portray, something which largely comes down to a great use of light and plenty of detail. People will doubtless be quick to declare that Deadlight is a rip-off of Limbo, but the simple truth is that it isn’t: Deadlight has its own unique look and style, though there’s no denying that it’s got a Limbo-esque vibe to it. Let’s be honest here, though, Limbo is hardly the first to usw a graphical style based around light and dark, either, so everything is good. And Deadlight’s style is at its best when combined with the slick animations at work: at its core Deadlight is primarily a platformer, and so the smooth animations as Randall runs through buildings and across parks combine with the dark and grimy art-style to create a game world filled with character, with personality, with darkness, with fear and with a few hints of hope. Stand-out moments included the underground warrens of the mysterious Rat, the lashing rain that beats down on you as you cross streets and the simple joy of seeing a park, of seeing a tiny touch of color in this otherwise bleak landscape filled with death and decay. This is without a doubt where Deadlight is at its strongest: at portraying aworld of pain and intensity, brought to life by a talented team of artists and code monkeys.
There’s good reason for Deadlight’s dark world and misery, though: the Shadows, horrible creatures that roam the streets looking for humans to infect and turn into one of their own. Yes, from this brief description you’ve probably already come to the conclusion that Deadlight’s shambling Shadows are actually just zombies with a new moniker, and you’d completely and utterly correct in that assertion. Though the game never actually refers to them as such, the Shadows are zombies in every sense of the word. The infection began around half a year before the game begins, and in that time the infection has left the city of Seattle in which the game is set as a wasteland, inhabited by people simply trying to survive, such as our Randall Wayne and a militia known as the New Law who have seemingly set up a safe point. These Shadows, these monsters, are completely brainless, shamble around the environment and want to bite your face off. Zombies. And since this another game featuring the zombie apocalypse it would be easy to write it off straight away, but happily Deadlight plays it smart, only occasionally asking you to confront the shambling hordes head-on, instead encouraging you to avoid them as much as you can or use the environment and their own stupidity to dispatch them.
And as daft as it sounds to refer to the zombie hordes as Shadows, I can’t help but give some kudos to Tequila for trying to give them a little bit of a new spin. The name Shadows is obviously a reference to the idea that these undead beings are a shadow of their former selves, shadows of the once humans that walked the streets, loved other humans and led their lives. Sadly apart from their unique name there’s nothing else to separate the Shadows from plain old zombies.
As for Randall Wayne, he’s just trying to find his family in this postapocalyptic world. From the start it’s clear that Tequila were aiming to make Randall that guy we’ve seen in many a zombie flick: you know, the hardened survivor that does care but also doesn’t hesitate to make the hard decisions like blowing off someones head who has just been bitten before they can go all zombie? Yeah, him. The opening scenes set this up with Randall mercy-killing an infected woman from the group of people he has been travelling with. As opening sequences go it’s not exactly the best way to get me to form a connection with the character I’ll be playing as, especially since Randall doesn’t seem to be that bothered about his the fact that he’s just put a bullet through her head. Before long he gets split-up from the group and has to head out on his own, aiming to both reunite with his friends and find his lost family. Randall is an ex-ranger, something of a social outcast and has such a deep, gravelly voice that for the first 20-minutes had me completely and utterly convinced that I was actually playing as Sam Fisher and someone had somehow anciently send me a review code for a top-secret new take on the Splinter Cell series. At the most basic level it’s easy to sympathise with Randall’s simple wish to be reunited with his family, but past this initial connection he’s not a particularly likable lead character, a fact made worse by some inconsistent voice-acting. His journey to be reunited with his family is ultimately a pretty generic tale, but it does have its moments. Worthy of mention is encountering the strange Rat, a man who has been living underground since before the outbreak began. In this bleak world he’s the most interesting and unique character you meet. Another solid point is the games ending, which while coming abruptly and with zero build-up, is still a neat twist.
However, it’s a twist easily ruined by the game itself. You see, scattered around the games levels are lost pages of Randall’s diary that you can collect and read, providing exposition on Randall, his family and the world that the games primary form of storytelling, which is narration, doesn’t fill you in on. Exactly why or how his diary pages can be found inside boxes and such around Seattle is rather bemusing, giving you the general impression that he’s already wandered through the entire place ripping out pages, but they do help to make Randall and his world a touch more interesting, especially since they make it clear that our Mr. Wayne isn’t right in the head, before or after the zombie Armageddon. The problem with these diary entries, though, is that by reading them it becomes apparent fairly quickly what’s going on and what the twist at the end will be. Don’t read them and the ending will be a great twist in the tale, read them and you’ll get more exposition and a more detailed story but you’ll have a less satisfying ending thanks to the diaries foreshadowing. It’s a rather strange contrast and one that leaves me with only one possible view: if you’re going to play Deadlight, do so without reading the diaries, then go and play it a second time, reading the entries as you go. Sadly, though, I doubt you’ll really be bothered about playing a second time.
Ultimately it’s not the overall narrative concept that fails: it’s one we’ve seen before, but there’s really nothing wrong with that. No, it’s in its execution and characters that it fails. There are a few moments during the game when Randall interacts with others, in particular one section with an old friend, that should have been perfect moments to give Randall some depth and to allow us to become closer to him, especially through some memories of his family, but they don’t. In fact, even the section with Randall’s friend doesn’t come off as genuine. Even the dialog is pretty standard affair, giving the gruff narration little emotional impact. In fact, it’s really the diaries entries that serve as the best form of storytelling here, along with that Rat character who I would have loved to have seen more of. And that’s a shame, because the story and characters should have been working in harmony with the lovingly crafted bleak world and the stellar backing track to create something unique. Really, though, it’s world that takes centre stage and holds up everything else, and that includes the gameplay.
You see, despite that fact that Randall is caught up in the middle of a zombie outbreak, Deadlight is, as previously mentioned, primarily a platformer with environmental puzzles thrown in to th mix. When it comes down to navigating the environment Randall is pretty handy: he can sprint, jump, wall-bounce, climb, roll to avoid damage from heights, barge through doors and shimmy across lines. The thing about Deadlight, though, is that it’s platforming at its most basic. There’s just one route through Deadlight’s grimy world and the game ensures that you always know exactly what it is. Because of this there’s no fear of not knowing whether you can make a jump or not since you know that’s the jump you’re supposed to make. At first this feels fine, like it’s simply guiding you along the way in preparation for bigger things, but as the game progresses it starts to feel more and more like you’re just going through the motions, playing through a written script in which you have no say. It’s platforming, but with very little skill required, and that takes a lot of the fun out of it. That’s not to say that there aren’t good moments to be found, though: there are moments in the game where the platforming comes together in fast paced sections, and while you’re still just playing your part in a script it’s hard not to enjoy the faster areas. Unhappily, though, even these get a lot of the joy sucked out of them by leaden controls. Randall feels heavy and unresponsive to control, and that led to quite a few moments where I found myself quite literally cursing Tequila Works as I was gunned down by a helicopter I was supposed to be outrunning, simply because Randall was refusing to pull himself up and over a fence, the lazy sod.
Likewise the environmental puzzles scattered around the levels are pretty simple affairs. At most you’ll be required to shift a box around or perhaps, during the Rat section, dodge some traps, but it’s rarely challenging work. Again the linear route and obvious highlighting tend to take away from of the already basic puzzle solving, leaving it feeling pretty bland. There’s also one or two moments in the game where the puzzles go from being amazingly simple to downright annoying in a flash, but never in a good way. Sometimes it’s courtesy of the games lovely art-style, because it can occasionally be tough to make out what is actually in the foreground and what isn’t. Several times I found myself trying to grab a ledge only to find that there wasn’t actually a ledge there, it was in the background all along, taunting you like some sort of thing that likes to taunt you. There were also a few moments where traps were seemingly designed to troll you, such as pressure plate traps that activate if you walk on them but not if you roll on them. Sure, a trap like this won’t take you long to figure out, but it’s sort of frustrating that the game breaks logic like that in what feels like a cheap attempt to trip the player up rather than make them stop, scratch their head and have to think their way through complex puzzles.
Occasionally you’ll also get a chance to use the environment to slay the Shadows, dropping things like cars on their heads or even using Randall’s taunt ability to goad them over the edge of a drop. Again, this is entirely scripted and made quite obvious to you, but there’s something very satisfying about luring Shadows into a trap and watching them get impaled by spikes otherwise intended for you and your face. At other times you’ll need to confront the hordes a little more directly, though thankfully the game doesn’t force you to do this too often. At the most basic Randall Wayne can rugby tackle zombies or button mash to throw them off of himself when they get a little too handsy, but along the way he can also pick up fire axes to help deal with the theat, although really they’re not hugely useful as Shadows can take a major beating before they go down. No, for quick Shadow slaying Randall needs to get his hands on some serious firepower, and being an ex-ranger he knows how to handle it. Throughout the game you’ll occasionally pick up a revolver or shotgun, with ammo being scarce to encourage you to aim for the headshots as that takes down the pesky Shadows in a single hit. Firing these beauties is as simple as aiming with the right stick and pulling the trigger, but combat in this manner or by fire-axe and hands is never really all that satisfying. You just blast a few zombies and move on. There’s no sense of excitement about it, except for those few moments when you’ve missed a Shadow and are desperately hammering away at the reload button as fast as possible.
Tequila Works have succeeded in crafting a dark, almost depressing world for Deadlight that conveys the sense of danger and desperation almost perfectly, but when it comes to the gameplay there’s really very little here that stands out as anything amazing. Instead, this is an enjoyable platformer that never gets above being just decent.
+ Awesome art-style.
+ Neat ending twist.
+ Great backing music.
- Simple platforming.
- Simple puzzles.
- Occasionally annoying deaths.
Moody, atmospheric and certainly dark, this is a damn good-looking game. The shadowed foreground contrasts beautifully with the deep and detailed backgrounds.
Some great backing music. The voice acting jumps between solid and passable.
An enjoyable enough zombie tale, though the twist ending is ruined somewhat by the foreshadowing in the diary entries.
Every element in Deadlight’s gameplay is simple and unspectacular, but still solid and mildly enjoyable. Don’t go into it expecting anything other than simple mechanics and you’ll be fine.
It took me around three hours to polish the game, and there’s not a whole lot of reasons to go back and play it all again.
The Verdict: 6.5
Tequila Works first ever game is something of a mixed bag. In Deadlight they’ve created a fantastic looking game whose world is filled with depth and character, but at the end of the day this is a simplistic platformer with zombies. Enjoyable, but nothing special.