By now, you pretty much know the drill: They never sleep or get tired, so you’d better run. And then run some more. And then run again. We’ve had this particular page of the Zombie Survival Kit burned into our brains since the Night of the Living Dead, but it comes in awful handy in Deadlight, a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer that gnaws big chunks of its aesthetic off the limbs of Limbo and Shadow Complex. It comes close on several fronts, but never quite achieves the singular excellence of either of those titles.
In an unusual and interesting choice, Deadlight is set in Seattle circa 1986, and things like smartphones, Starbucks baristas and social media are at least a decade away. All of which makes the fact that the world’s been hit by another of those viruses that—you guessed it—has reduced most of the population to mindless flesh-munchers that much more isolating and scary. In the midst of the chaos, Randall Wayne has been separated from his wife and daughter, and must parkour through the wastelands to reach the supposed safety of an urban survivor’s zone. Silly Randall. Don’t you know these things are never what they seem?
The game’s art direction is, in a word, incredible. Whether it’s the tattered shreds of billboard flapping in the winds of a gathering storm or the dark figures of Shadows (the zombies of this world) emerging from the hulks of abandoned cars in the deep 3D background to begin relentlessly stalking you, the environment is appropriately bleak and jaw-dropping, heading to depths that almost seem to threaten the visual bounds of the third dimension. Of course, the game’s run-jump-run dynamic doesn’t always give you time to stop and chew the scenery, so when you get the opportunity to glance around before you launch that running jump over the barbed-wire fence, do so.
Given that Randall, the monsters who stalk him and key environmental objects appear as silhouettes against these still-life quality backgrounds, the moments where darkness descends cause extra issues. In one particular sequence, I didn’t notice the water tower I needed to knock over to quench a blaze blocking Randall’s path—or the telephone pole I was supposed to be clambering up to avoid the shadow horde that emerged after I’d doused it–until the red-and-white brightness that accompanies the “you just died” screen illuminated it for me. In this game, death offers plenty of teachable moments, many of which involve madly pushing buttons in the dark.
The controls, however, aren’t always a willing student. Deadlight’s puzzles demand a fair amount of precision. Including countless sequences when you’ll have to hit the ‘X’ button to perform an action like kneeling down to collect an important object, while several shadows sprint down your neck. You can’t interrupt the action, and that means you’re likely to stand up again surrounded on all sides. Urgh.
Some of those found objects will be weapons, but happily, Deadlight never stumbles into Resident Evil territory—the fireman’s ax is far more useful at bashing through padlocks and boards that block your way than it is at fending off even a single attacker. Try to go all Paul Bunyan, and your stamina gauge will bottom out faster than Zynga’s stock just crashed. The .38 special—another nice ‘80s era touch—is only good for solving puzzles, not laying waste to the gibbering masses.
Deadlight is steeped in lots of little ‘80s touches, from the spinning cassette-wheel icons that tell you the game’s saving data to the fact that all the game’s achievements are named after ‘80s songs. Oh, and the IDs you find scattered around the environment? They all belong to actual serial killers. Whatever that signifies.
Some of Deadlight’s elements are puzzling, and not in a good way. Finding lost pieces of his horror manuscript in the middle of a Seattle forest made sense in Alan Wake, because that game hinged on the blurred lines between reality and nightmare fiction. Randall finding lost pieces of his diary in the locker of a trashed storage facility he happens to stumble into while dodging shadows? That’s stretching a gaming convention well past its breaking point and somehow hoping we won’t notice. Like an increasing number of video game characters, Randall apparently never completed swimming lessons at the neighborhood pool: He dies instantly in deep water, which makes for some fairly frustrating sequences set in the sewers, where the stuff’s all over the place.
The game’s often frenetic pace means it’s over in the space of about 5-6 hours, but there’s rarely a point—even when bashing your head against the most frustrating puzzles–where you won’t want to keep pushing forward, just to see what other visual treats Deadlight has in store for you. It isn’t the perfect zombie game, but it’s still a creepy/beautiful race for your life.
+ Gorgeous art direction
+ Lots of clever ‘80s touches keep the action grounded
+ You’re always underpowered, leading to tension and thrills
– Controls aren’t always precise or responsive
– Dark visuals, cheap traps lead to annoyance
– A few dopey design decisions
Platform: Xbox 360 via XBLA
Developer: Tequila Works
Release Date: 8/1/2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review code provided by publisher