Like the zombies (or shadows, as they are called) that populate Tequila Works’ game, Deadlight inspires grim fascination with its detailed take on the apocalypse, but shambles awkwardly forward until arriving at an abrupt end. Taking inspiration in design and gameplay from classic Xbox Arcade titles such as Limbo and Shadow Complex, the simple inclusion of zombies should surely equal an exciting, atmospheric romp. It succeeds in part as great production values and a new point of view – quite literally – help create a fresh take on an overpopulated genre. Zombies are becoming passé but Deadlight manages to reignite the spark of life, even if it is only for a few minutes.
Presented as a 3D side-scrolling action adventure game, you play as a rugged survivor of another zombie outbreak, on the run to locate your family. The story starts in media res with Grizzly Adams (not his real name; he is in fact called Mr Wayne but his bearded visage is totally mountain man) as part of a group of survivors under siege from the undead. Soon enough the team splits and you must continue alone, searching for your family while attempting to reunite with your disbanded party. Tools and weapons are scarce while zombies are plentiful as you make your way through crumbling Vancouver, meaning you’re more likely to flee than fight through the horde. When you aren’t escaping the undead there are occasional puzzles to solve and collectable items to root out Hang on to your trusty axe, underused slingshot and often-empty guns; there’re zombies to escape from!
From the outset Deadlight paints a gloriously apocalyptic picture – the 2D plane succeeds in imbuing depth into each environment. Everything is 3D modelled yet your point of view remains fixed - some call it 2.5D - allowing the game to have current-gen graphics while harking back to previous side-scrolling greats. It’s a bold choice to use for such a story driven game that is almost survival horror. With the edge of your TV framing the environment, Deadlight can at times feel like you’re watching the collapse of humanity as presented on stage or enclosed in a Viewmaster. Helicopters crash and loom towards the foreground, zombies staggering through barricades, arms outstretched. It’s a unique take on viewpoint that hasn’t been used before; zombies can only approach your character from behind or to the side, jumping from monster closets and shambling around corners. The 2D plane also encourages use of platforming skills – Grizzly Adams is sprightly for his age, able to double jump off walls and fall great heights (as long as he rolls at the bottom) as he traverses rooftops and walkways. In some ways Deadlight’s pacing suits the subject matter – the game puts emphasis on constant movement, mimicking the rush of escape. Certain moments require precision timing with any mistake resulting in instant, gory Limbo-esque death. However, the controls can occasionally lose pace with your intended input, resulting in a trial and error tactic that can become frustrating.
The puzzle aspect of Deadlight is a simple and occasionally disappointing one. Inspirational source Shadow Complex revelled in the bigger picture, each new pickup opening a new part of the map. Deadlight is linear to the extreme – endlessly moving forward (or right, to be precise) – with puzzles requiring about as much thought as composing a shopping list. More often than not a puzzle can be solved with a button press and might often be stumbled upon by accident. Veterans of Limbo or Shadow Complex will have taxed their brains enough to find Deadlight a walk in the zombie-infested park.
Other than a few times where the route forward may be unclear, Deadlight is a straightforward story that could take as little as a few hours to complete. Longevity comes from various collectables, including diary pages, upgrades and the occasional handheld console. These consoles unlock a selection of mini-games, offering your character and yourself a break from the depressing end of humanity to play a spoof Guitar Hero. Diary pages unlock further insight into the story – the first page you collect alerts you to the fact there’s a near-complete sixty page book to read. Deadlight’s story deserves to be fleshed out (pun wholly intended) and the diary pages do serve to add context, albeit in a throwaway manner. Mementos can also be picked up from bodies – some in hard to reach, secret locations – and are added to a scrapbook viewable from the main menu. They feel a little like collectables for collector’s sake, seemingly there to eventually unlock an achievement or two. Leaderboards tally up scores that add a degree of competition to each level, allowing points to be compared between friends and top players.
Deadlight moves at a nippy pace for the first two acts with the second introducing more puzzle elements. Vignettes bridge the gap between sections of level as well as the three main acts, each animated in a motion comic style that has been seen in countless other games. The writing is laced with cliché, both in story and delivery, but it suits the game’s B-movie atmosphere. Throughout the game there are scattered dream sequences that allow the developers a longer leash to experiment with the environment and the method of storytelling. It’s a shame they are very short sections of the overall experience, one lasting less than a minute. Unfortunately, things fall apart in the third act. The story lurches into odd subject matter that, even amongst the zombie outbreak, feels unsettling. Gameplay moves almost exclusively into ‘run like hell’ mode, making the last act feel short in comparison to the more measured first two. To top things off, the finale sneaks up unannounced and the game is over before you know it. Any sense of pacing feels truncated, as if there were an epilogue that is yet to come. Even the subtitles begin to develop a serious bout of misspelled words.
In terms of production value Deadlight excels – the grim, decaying cities are full of incidental detail, the backgrounds replete with choking smoke rising into the blood-red sky. The soundtrack contributes to the creepy mood, at times moving even into the poignant and grandiose. Aside from the gravel-toned protagonist the voice acting is hit-and-miss – made worse with characters who like to state the obvious, repeatedly. The choice to use a 2D plane of view really adds a unique quality amongst the cavalcade of zombie-themed offerings, although it does make it occasionally difficult to judge just where on the plane an enemy is standing.
With its stunted ending and a pervading need to delve deeper, Deadlight feels as if you’ve turned on a television episode mid-season. Other than the three hours it takes to complete, it feels like you’re playing catch-up with a series that’s been cancelled before the full run is filmed. The ending feels rushed, unresolved and manages to taint the enjoyable first impressions you might hold; what felt like a solid game worth your money becomes cheapened. That’s not to say it’s unworthy of your time – it just happens to feel that 1200 points buys you a whole lot of atmosphere and not enough challenge. Even the achievements are doled out rather liberally with only a few linked to worthy endeavours.
If you’re a fan of zombie fiction Deadlight will serve you well, quite literally offering a different take on the genre (even if the story is sub par). The decision to present the game as a side-scroller is a bold move and it pays off, to an extent. However, anyone looking for a complex, ultimately satisfying bite of fiction will be underwhelmed and left starving for more. In a way, Deadlight is exactly that: dead light. The gameplay is solid yet prosaic, the plot a mishmash of horror stereotype that relies too heavily on clunky exposition. It looks great and is fun to experience – you’ll just wish that it had more meat on its bones, that there were more to chew on in the end.