It’s that time of year again when Microsoft trots out some fresh new downloadable titles for its annual Summer of Arcade celebration. Today, we’re looking at the debut title from Tequila Works called Deadlight, a side scrolling, zombie themed “cinematic puzzle platformer.” Set in the bygone time 1986, Randall Wayne must traverse a devastated Seattle in order to find his wife and daughter and a few of his fellow survivors after a zombie plague infects the area. Initially, Deadlight sounds like an interesting twist on the survival horror genre, but it eventually loses any sense of real cohesion as each act presents decidedly different gameplay experiences. Combined with some control issues and frustrating combat glitches, Deadlight is an adventure that’s more aggravating than it should be.
Deadlight is a zombie thriller in three acts. You’ll guide Randall as he makes his way through a devastated Seattle avoiding zombies (“Shadows” as they are referred to in game), militiamen and other environmental dangers in a quest to save his family and fellow survivors. Randall isn’t equipped to take on the undead horde, so running, hiding and situational awareness are his best assets. For those moments when battle is inevitable, Randall can make use of a fire axe and pistol, but both come with their share of caveats. Ammo is incredibly scarce and firing a gun in the presence of zombies will attract them to your position. For quieter kills, creatures can be lured into various traps or be disposed of them by the axe, a weapon governed by a stamina meter that depletes with every swing. Stamina also decreases each time Randall sprints, climbs and hangs from platforms.
To advance through certain areas, Randall will have to navigate through a series of familiar environmental puzzles (that are in no way taxing) including dodging live wires, shifting makeshift platforms around to reach higher areas and avoiding zombie traps. At first, puzzles are sparse as the game emphasizes getting through each screen unharmed. But the entire second act takes place in Seattle’s surprisingly massive sewer system littered with traps that would make Jordan Mechner’s Prince feel right at home. This sequence represents the bulk of the game’s puzzle solving and once Randall gets back on the street where the game eventually transitions into an action set piece.
The sudden shifts in gameplay represents the game’s most defining piece of criticism: Deadlight doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. At the beginning, the game presents itself as a survival adventure along the lines of I Am Alive, but by the final act of the game, you will have played through sequences that rehash Prince of Persia and Shadow Complex. The shift from survival to platformer to run and gun just seems so out of sync with its initial tone and that’s somewhat disappointing. There’s no problem with drawing inspiration from other games, but it becomes an issue when the gameplay isn’t as fluid and comfortable as those it attempts to emulate.
Deadlight’s visuals are its strongest suit. Although designed as a side scroller, the backgrounds offer a depth of field that gives the illusion of being presented in three dimensions (or, “2.5D”). There’s a lot of activity going on in the back and foreground, allowing the player a glimpse of the chaos that surrounds Randall as ventures closer to the heart of the city. Zombies will almost always be on the same plane as Randall, but those hanging around in the background will shuffle towards the screen if he draws their attention. It’s a neat effect and it can be pretty unnerving to see creatures come at you from unconventional directions.
The story itself is presented in a collection of graphic novel-inspired images that highlight Randall’s plight and serve as transitions to the next level. These art pieces are really well done and evocative of the work by Ben Templesmith. As I don’t want to go unnoticed, there’s one cutscene in particular that’s (shamelessly?) lifted from AMC’s “The Walking Dead” nearly verbatim. I really appreciate what Tequila Studios has done with the visuals and it is easily the best component of the game. The imagery of a dead city and the surrounding corpse-ridden towns gives off an eerie, heavy and oppressive vibe usually reserved for post-apocalyptic films like 28 Days Later and The Road.
Deadlight has a number of issues that prevents the game from being fun. Chief among them is that it peaks too soon. The first third of the game is easily the most exciting as dodging zombies and finding ways to attract their attention in order to find an escape route can get really tense. It’s a shame that Tequila couldn’t sustain the survivalist experience as the Prince of Persia-style sewer sequence kills the mood largely in part by uninteresting trial and error gameplay and a significant lack of zombies. The final third of the game prominently features gunplay and contains more than a desired number of chase sequence involving an attack helicopter (there’s only two, but it’s one too many).
Another issue is the unsatisfying combat. It’s clunky, somewhat unpredictable and a particular glitch makes having to deal with a group of zombies rage inducing. Zombies really shouldn’t take more than three axe swings to die, but they do and they can quickly overpower the player if they’re not dispatched efficiently. Using a heavy attack will knock them flat on their face, but that doesn’t mean they’re dead on the spot, requiring even more stamina for a follow up attack that leaves you potentially ill prepared to deal with remaining foes. The glitch I spoke of earlier causes zombies to snap right back to their feet if you follow up a heavy attack with a regular slash or “bunting” maneuver. Put that problem in the context of a room full of zombies and you can see how terrible that can be. Randall can score a one hit kill with the axe, but this feels like more like a random event than a tactic. Guns are helpful, but Randall is slow to lift the gun. If in a confined space (which is often), by the time you’re ready to fire a zombie has had enough time to get in close for a free hit.
I’m reminded of a moment towards the end of the game that highlights just how frustrating and aggravating combat can be: Randall enters a warehouse with an escape route through a second floor window on the opposite side of the roof. A latch keeps the window shut, so you’ll have to hop down to the first floor, jump through a window into an alley an inch wide and shoot the obstruction. You’ll then go back inside, climb up a ladder and jump to the opposite platform to escape. All this has to be done as an infinite number of zombies stream into the room, making a simple task seem like a mammoth ordeal.
The narrative feels lacking, specifically in regard to an event that haunts Randall throughout the adventure (manifesting itself through playable nightmare sequences). The story appears to build up to a reveal and while it would have made sense to feature the resolution where the event occurred, the game waits until the very last moment to resolve Randall’s inner conflict. It’d be fine if there were more game to play after the resolution, but as the ending immediately follows, the conclusion feels like a clumsy and tacked on attempt to tug at the player’s heartstrings.
Deadlight shows a lot of promise but ultimately falls short. Frustrating mechanics and design elements that shift away from its initial premise make for a less tantalizing experience. It’s not all bad however, as the graphics are really top notch and the depiction of a destroyed Seattle is a terrifying and strangely beautiful sight. If you’re the kind of person who needs to absorb any and all piece of zombie-related media then by all means, pick it up. However, yaking the price point ($15) and its issues into consideration, it might be best to wait for it to go on sale.