Deadlight is a game that would have felt fresh and original eight or so years ago. Since then, however, the worlds of movies, television, and video games have been inundated with every sort of post-apocalyptic and zombie fiction imaginable. That is why it is disappointing when a game like Deadlight arrives and makes little attempt to bring anything new to the table when it comes to its art or its storytelling. Deadlight (or in this case, the Director’s Cut for the PS4) dutifully checks off every box for the zombie fiction genre. It does attempt to bring something fresh to the genre with its parkour/platforming style of 2D side scrolling gameplay, and it has some success in this area. Still, a few design decisions keep the game from ever hitting a solid groove. It is an attractive and competently designed game, but there is not enough here to keep it from being defined as a “me too” affair.
Stop me if you have heard this one before – a mysterious virus has afflicted the human race, society has collapsed, and now small pockets of survivors are fighting to stay alive. The dead walk the Earth as “Shadows”, this game’s version of zombies (As a side note, have you ever noticed that in post-apocalyptic fiction zombies are never known as “zombies”? They are known as “shadows”, “biters”, “walkers”, “things”, etc. It’s as if nobody in these fictional zombie worlds has ever seen any zombie fiction and they have to invent a new term to describe victims of the phenomenon). You play as Randall Wayne, a rugged forest ranger in search of his wife and daughter. You have found another group of survivors, with whom you search the city of Seattle for what you believe to be the last remaining “safe point”. Along the way, you fight or avoid shadows, and you eventually cross paths with the fanatical New Law – this game’s version of the fascist paramilitary group that always shows up to impose order after the zombie apocalypse.
Deadlight dedicates a fair amount of attention and effort to its storytelling. It has a lot of well-drawn cut scenes to tell its story, but in the end, it is a painfully predictable experience. Everything from the background information about how the plague started to the events that transpire in the game are probably moments that you have seen a few times before or that you can see coming from a mile away. You get separated from your group. There is a crazy hermit character who lives in a trap-laden hideout, a concept very similar to Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm level. There is a mission that involves breaking into the hospital to find some medicine. The tone, the dialog – it feels stale. The storytelling still could have been an asset to the game, but Randall is an uninteresting character and nobody else in the game gets any development. The flat voice acting for these characters doesn’t help the cause. One of the collectibles in the game is Randall’s diary pages. Normally, in a game like this, I would make a point of collecting these pages and reading all of them, but in this game, I just didn’t care. To be fair, this game was originally released almost four years ago, so at the time it was not as clichéd as it feels now. Even then, it wasn’t particularly effective at what it was trying to do. The Last of Us, for example, had many of the same elements, but its story and characters were much better.
Deadlight’s gameplay is solid, and it even features a few terrific levels and some memorable moments. It was clearly inspired by the original Prince of Persia and, to a lesser extent, the Assassins Creed series. You navigate side-scrolling levels, running, jumping, climbing, and grabbing ledges and objects, as needed. You can do a short run up a wall to grab a high ledge and, later in the game, you learn to do an acrobatic wall jump. When you have to fight, it is usually against the black zombie Shadows. In the spirit of a survival horror game, you can’t fight more than about one or two zombies at a time with your axe before you get overwhelmed. You can accomplish more with a pistol and a shotgun, but ammunition is appropriately rare. The Shadows aren’t the game’s only danger though. The occasional helicopter from the New Law makes its appearance (usually initiating some sort of chase scene), and the levels are loaded with all kinds of environmental traps like electrified water and spiky pits.
Deadlight’s most satisfying moments come when all of its platforming, puzzle solving, and parkour elements come together nicely. There are some well-designed environments, and like any other game that relies on running, climbing, and jumping, it feels great to get into a rhythm and keep moving. Randall is very acrobatic and can perform some pretty impressive feats, especially when he is running at full speed. The survival horror aspects of the game have some tense moments too, like when you are facing a horde of zombies and you are down to your last few bullets. Usually, in this type of situation, you either see a Game Over screen or you look for a way out. The animations in this game are slick and seamless, almost as if it were a big-budget AAA title, which looks great but comes with the typical drawback. The controls can be slow to respond, often lagging behind your input because the game is busy completing an animation. In some cases, this means certain death. A lot of the controls are context sensitive, which means, like most games with context-sensitive controls, Randall will often do one thing when you mean for him to do another. This problem can also be an annoyance, but at least the game isn’t worse than others (like Assassins Creed) in this regard.
Like a lot of games that thrive on parkour, the game needs a good rhythm to keep going, and in this area, Deadlight often falters. It isn’t a problem with the execution, so much as with the concept of having a fast-moving character running left to right when you can’t see very far ahead of you. Many of the challenges that require a speedy approach and a jump require a couple of tries because you can’t assess what is in front of you fast enough to react to it. This is especially problematic for a complex maneuver like wall jumping. The game occasionally tantalizes you with some great running, climbing and jumping sequences, but just when you are starting to feel good, you hit a wall that you didn’t see coming soon enough or you have to stop because you don’t know where to go next.
Part of this problem also stems from the game’s visual design. The environments are all rendered in 3D with most of the details in the background, but everything in the foreground is almost a solid black. The backgrounds themselves look marvelous, often portraying a bleak but breathtaking view of this post-apocalyptic world – if there is any criticism that you can’t level at this game, it would be that it is visually uninspired. Its visual style works artistically, but it has a downside – sometimes you can’t see what in the heck you are supposed to be doing. Since Randall and most of the usable objects in the environment are shrouded in darkness, it is often difficult to see which ledges or objects you can grab onto, and which ones you can’t. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between something that is right in front of you or something that is just a few feet out of your plane of existence. Sometimes, you can jump to your death when you think that you are going to land on a ledge. This problem is ultimately Deadlight’s biggest gameplay issue.
An example from the trap-laden sewer level illustrates why Deadlight can be frustrating at times. There are a few ledges that are controlled by levels or buttons that you have to find on the level. When they are in their down position, you cannot land on them, but when they are in their up position, you can. The problem with this area is that the ledges in their down position look almost exactly like boxes. At least a couple of times, I found myself jumping for what I thought was a “box”, only to fall to my death because it was a ledge that I couldn’t yet grab. To its credit, the game is very generous with its save points, almost never requiring you to replay more than a minute or two of the game. It can still be a frustrating experience, usually due to its occasionally unresponsive controls and the lack of details in the foreground.
Deadlight is, for the most part, a well-paced game that doesn’t linger very long in any one area or on one activity. It is also a rather short game, clocking in at about five hours, which is rather underwhelming for its price. Still, even with the short length, it was a game that took me maybe ten sittings to finish because I was just never drawn into it. I never got into the game’s story, and the gameplay only drew me in for short bursts. It isn’t a bad game, but it is one that doesn’t offer enough in its gameplay to make up for its by-the-numbers setting and story (which ends somewhat abruptly and unsatisfyingly). There is perhaps enough to like in Deadlight: Director’s Cut to give it a shot if you find it on sale. For the most part though, it is a middling experience that you probably won’t be eager to revisit.