Review: “Dead people… Corpses. They don’t impress me any more,” says the protagonist of DEADLIGHT, which is an interesting point to make in a game based squarely within the over-saturated zombie-slaying market. Does this one do enough differently to warrant yet another foray into the genre?
Deadlight is likely to draw many comparisons to films like The Road, and no doubt games like Limbo. It’s not difficult to see why initially, and it certainly borrows heavily from them, but take a step back and you’ll see that it does more than enough to captivate and gratify purely on its own merits. It is – for the most part – a stunning piece of work.
Set in 1980s Seattle, the game opens with you indifferently murdering one of your own band of survivors after they’re bitten by what are referred to here as “the Shadows”. Of course, they’re zombies, and classic ones at that: slow, stupid and relentless. Presented in a highly stylised comic book format with fantastically drawn single cells, this scene serves to start you off as ambiguously as it can, in order that you try and find out the answers for yourself, and draw your own conclusions on the character.
Once you’re in control proper, the first thing likely to strike you is that this is a painstakingly beautiful game, in the bleakest possible sense. The attention to detail is meticulous and, as you move through the levels, it feels as though every single frame could be a work of art in its own right.
A 2D platformer at heart, Deadlight makes perfect use of its parallax scrolling graphics, much like Agony did on the Amiga. Well, I couldn’t possibly compare it to Limbo again, could I? Cleverly, however, the Shadows can operate on a third dimensional plane, and it certainly adds to the tension when you realise that those ones fighting over a corpse in the background are not just window dressing. It’s a remarkably eerie game, helped too by the fantastic sound and some intelligent design choices.
“The gravedigger builds the strongest house”
You’re as good as helpless when facing more than two Shadows, so a lot of running and context-sensitive environmental traps will be employed to begin with. It highlights your uphill struggle as a character, and your fear as a player controlling him. While you will encounter firearms a bit later on in the campaign, they’re given not-particularly-intuitive controls, and you’ll realistically flounder and panic the first few times you use them.
A special mention too must go to the script writing, which is as smart and nuanced as that in any top-billed American television serial. The dialogue is smart and the characters are interesting, though not entirely cliché-free. Randall Wayne is an interesting protagonist, however, constantly referring to himself in the third-person and clearly on the verge of a breakdown. He’s a lot more complex than he could have been.
The game itself takes place over three chapters, each one distinct from the last. Unquestionably, the highlight is the very first one. Its generally slower pace, haunting musical score and better quality puzzles led me to believe that I was playing a damn near perfect game. Sadly, however, by the time the third chapter rolled around, it was very clear that I wasn’t.
“There’s no glory in killing the dead a second time”
Without wanting to spoil anything, it’s safe to say that it becomes a lot more fast-paced and action-focused. Obviously this was done to build to a natural crescendo and have the player going out on a high, but the series of trial by insta-deaths does little to keep the flow. At times the game even goads you into killing yourself by leading you to believe you’re about to make the right choice. It’s a little unfair, and not all that necessary, though there is a more-than-generous checkpoint system in place, so your frustration shouldn’t be too far off the meter.
Deadlight’s length is the biggest disappointment. I breezed through it in around two hours, and that was with a lot of game journalist dilly-dallying and pausing to scribble illegible notes. In a way this is a double-edged compliment, as I was so consumed by the game that I yearned to spend more time with it. But still.
There are a few odds and sods to permit a second playthrough, assuming you didn’t find them all the first time. Collecting the scraps of Wayne’s diary is certainly worth it for the read, and there are – bizarrely – some ’80s videogame hand-helds to be discovered, which are fully playable. It’s interesting, but it adds little.
It’s a great shame that it descends into such arcadey fare, then, and that it’s never out-and-out terrifying, but its artistry and atmosphere alone are more than enough to make up for it. Deadlight is ultimately rewarding, though not quite the masterpiece it could have been. I would still urge anyone to unplug the phone, switch off the light, and play it.
Deadlight, from Microsoft Studios and Tequila Works, will be available on August 1st for Xbox 360.