It sounds so good on paper: side-scrolling platformer / survival-horror set in a zombie apocalypse during the the 1980s, following the exploits of a nearly-gone-insane park ranger as he tries to piece together his memories and survive the “shadows”. Limited ammo, limited stamina, infinite danger. All the constituent parts check out. So how did Deadlight manage to get it all so wrong?
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Deadlight puts me in a pretty awkward situation. For the last five years or so, every game I’ve reviewed has generally been one I’ve wanted to play, and one I paid for myself. But Deadlight is not a game I wanted to play in the first place. After trying the demo on Xbox LIVE, I was sure I wouldn’t buy it. But then along came a free download key via work, and a request for a review.
Not having to pay for something slants your opinion of it. You can be more forgiving of its faults, but on the flip side, you’re not invested. You don’t feel like you “owe” it to yourself to enjoy it, because you shelled out cash for it. Even without this “buyer’s pressure” complication, the game presents its own set of problems.
Deadlight is a pretty terrible game. Wait, no. It’s okay. Kinda. I take it back, it’s pretty god-awful. Except a few bits, which are kind of cool. But overall? Pretty crap. Or it’s just, okay. It depends on how forgiving you are. That’s Deadlight in a nutshell: an uneven experience that is good one second and terrible the next, like a bipolar cat.
So what is Deadlight? It’s a 3D-but-plays-2D side-scrolling “survival horror” (no it’s not) platformer (yes it is) with a plot involving a guy who goes kind of insane after the world is overrun by zombies… sorry, “shadows”. You run and jump, hit things with an axe, and sometimes even shoot a gun. But most of the time, you wonder why the game is so damn mediocre. Especially since the developers claim to be a bunch of alumni from places like Sony, Blizzard and Weta Digital.
To use a tired cliché: Deadlight’s got Good, Bad, and Ugly. Think of them as the three horizontal slices of a pyramid. Like the food pyramid! Do they still use that in schools? Anyway, yeah. Good is up top, and it’s the tiny pointy tip. Bad is the middle, the bulk of the body, and Ugly makes up the foundation. If you’re a “glass half full” kind of person, then you flip the pyramid, with Good being the large base, Bad being the middling middle, and Ugly being the tiny bit up top you can ignore. If you want. It’s a bad metaphor anyway.
The Good: If you squint and turn your head sideways, you can pretend Deadlight is actually The Walking Dead. It practically is, with a slightly different plot, and not having to pay royalties. It’s a visually competent game, and pretty atmospheric during some sections. There’s one scene lifted straight from the live-action Walking Dead television series, involving a desolate highway, that ends up being quite the striking moment, both visually and in terms of mood. The movement system works, doing all that OG Prince of Persia stuff like running, ducking and jumping. You can dive through small spaces, and if you’re running you’ll tackle zombies. If you’re facing the wrong way under a ledge and press jump, the character will automatically turn around and jump up.
The team deserves credit for making the whole linear platforming thing work in a natural city setting without resorting to too much fudging of the environment. There’s lots of diversity too: hospitals, suburbs, skyscrapers, a stadium… The whole thing is tied together with a very Another World vibe. Little scripted sequences play out in between the sequences of action (usually running) and platforming/puzzle-solving. If you go off the obvious path and look for secrets, you can find three old-school LCD games to play (with obligatory Achievements for getting a high score in each). Overall, Deadlight has plenty of small touches that really stand out, like how zombies… “shadows”… will reach up to grab for you if you jump over them. Or how they’ll pull you off ladders if you dawdle. Because the environments are 3D, shadows can amble out of the background from unexpected places, which really works well with the “cutaway” view of the world.
The Bad: The controls are super-stiff, with animations being overly “chunky”. What I mean by chunky, for example: the exact moment between walking and running (which is important for things like the dive roll) is ambiguous. You’ll die more than once, not due to the game being hard, but because of the character not having completed a turn animation, which causes you to jump in a direction instead of straight up. You can overcome this by being diligent, sure. But it feels like the game lets down its end of the bargain too easily. You collect things from the environment, which is placed into a scrapbook for examination. It’s meant to give life to the world, but it ends up being macabre and actually pretty uninteresting. The graphic novel panels for cut-scenes try to ape the Walking Dead graphic novel, and the characters even follow half the token stereotypes, but it comes across as a cheap imitation. The puzzles aren’t hard either, they usually only have one solution, and it’s the obvious one to progress. And nine times of out ten, it involves pushing a crate 10cm to the left or right.
The Ugly: Deadlight costs 1200 MS Points (or “Space Dollars” as we call them). Hate to say it, but Deadlight is worth 800 MS Points at best. If it ever goes on sale for that, then I’d actually say it’s not a bad game to pick up just for the Achievements and the moderate thrills it provides. But be warned: it only took me an hour and a half to finish the game (and I could probably shave 30 minutes off that if I didn’t die so much due to the controls). There are secrets to find, which lengthens things a bit and makes a second play-through sort of interesting, but I’m not that kind of guy.
The real letdown of Deadlight is the voice acting. It’s strange to say, but the triple-dramatic and wrong-inflection-all-the-time voice work actually brings the whole thing down. Any good the game might attempt with its trying-too-hard story of psychosis, is undone every time the lead character Randall opens his mouth. It’s bad enough that the “twist” near the end is telegraphed so hard that you’d have to be brain-dead to not see it coming. If you do end up playing Deadlight, try this: every time there’s a cut-scene (or you don’t have direct control of your character), mute the sound. I’d bet the plot ends up feeling a hundred times better, and the “freakout” cut-scenes (you know, the trite “warpy wrong-coloured world woozy what’s-going-on-whoo” thing that Max Payne popularized) would actually carry more weight.
[Below is Miktar's original string of final summary-smelling words that serve as the bottom line for Deadlight's review and whether or not he thinks you should spend cash on it. Even using witchcraft, high school-level chemistry and lots of angry shouting at nothing wasn't enough to make these words fit into our lovely score box – but they're important, so we wanted to leave them as is right here. The score, plus a quote masquerading as a shortened bottom line, can be found further below. – Ed.]
Bottom Line: If you really, really, really love your zombie games and have Flashback posters on your walls, then Deadlight is an obvious purchase. If you’re “meh” about the zombies but like short, “just okay” platformers, wait for Deadlight to go on sale. If you don’t care for zombies, super-short games or platformers, then why are you still here?