Deadlight Review (Xbox360)

So it turns out our natural tolerance level for zombie-based entertainment is somewhat never-ending. After the success of Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, The Walking Dead, Dead Rising and various other games that adhere to a rather literal interpretation of their respective titles, you might have suspected that people might get bored, that the novelty would wear off and we could shelve the festering flesh until the next generation. Deadlight developer Tequila Works begs to differ however, testing our resolve even further with a side-scrolling zombie adventure that’s as stylish as any on the Microsoft download service.

In a nod to Resident Evil 4’s deliberate obfuscation of its primary antagonists, the world of Deadlight is set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war with creatures known as ‘shadows’. These are - handily enough - shuffling undead humanoid organisms with glowing red eyes that can only be permanently taken out of action with a blow to the head. They feast on the bodies of the recently vanquished, and are as dangerous as you can imagine they would be. Taking on one or two with a fire axe or a gun is manageable in itself, but as soon as they get up close, you’re done for.

I'm sure that isn't painful.

Increasing that tension is the fact that our primary protagonist is a decidedly normal park ranger by the name of Randall Wayne. In the space of a few short months he’s seen his family and friends ripped from him as the outbreak takes over his home town of Seattle (the game is set in the year of 1986), fostering a burning desire to be reunited with them and emboldening a caustic and cynical attitude to everything that stands in his way. This is a man who’s world has fallen apart around his feet and has witnessed the very worst of humanity in the aftermath. He’s not a superhero and won’t be taking on legions of the undead with automatic weapons; he’s fragile, deadly only when absolutely necessary, and needs to be kept out of harm wherever possible.

In that approach alone, Deadlight is an interesting take on the zombie action genre within the field of videogames. It shares a similar set of storyline beats to that of The Walking Dead, where the real danger often comes from fellow humans rather then their shuffling by-product, and true to Resident Evil form, there’s a mysterious subplot bouncing around the background that might involve a shadowy organisation. It’s an action game at its heart though, and one that involves some almighty nods to the likes of Shadow Complex, Limbo and Canabalt, along with retro classics like Prince of Persia and Flashback.

And it turns out that if you fuse elements from all those games, you end up with something vaguely Metroid-Vania in style, but with a pacy twist. You control Randall as he navigates 2D obstacle courses filled with booby traps, platforms and some fairly basic puzzles; pulling blocks, flicking switches, killing or avoiding shadows and navigating to the next chunk of story. Unlike its contemporaries though, there’s no backtracking here, no mini-map and often only one route to take. Platforms and exits are highlighted with a small white arrow, so your task is often simply figuring out how to get up to a window or underneath a door, and the solution is almost always contained within the same screen.

There's a beautiful attention to detail throughout.

As a stylistic choice, that keeps Deadlight moving along at a fair old lick. One section might see you jumping across cars and above rooftops as you clamber away from Shadows or a chasing helicopter, whilst the next you might be in a full-on dash to reach an escape vehicle or a safe house. Those out-and-out chase sequences have a real air of Mirror’s Edge or Canabalt about them, but with a few too many surprise traps and picky controls to make them quite as tight an experience. Combat is best left to a last resort, as swinging your fire axe will only stun a shadow until you can knock them down and take off their skull, whilst ammo for the two guns is in extremely short supply throughout.

Unfortunately, whilst that base gameplay is decent enough to sustain an intriguing opening 45 minutes, Deadlight quickly feels like it’s padding out its content with overly-engineered traps and instant death sequences that require far too many restarts. For a game that only takes a little over two and a half hours to complete, that’s enough of a problem to compromise the experience as a whole. Sure, there are leaderboards to contend with, speed runs to achieve and secrets to uncover (most of which are fairly easy to find), but once you’re done with Randall’s quest, there’s not a whole lot to draw you back in.

Which is a shame, as the universe that Tequila Works has created is a beautiful one. The art style in Deadlight is a sight to behold, coming across as a mix between Limbo’s shadowy shading and something like Half Life 2’s grimy realism. Water pools on streets, dirt clogs the doorways and the debris of a crumbling Seattle litters every scene. It’s an environment and setting that deserved something with a little more meat, and a game that allowed you to soak up the atmosphere rather than simply clambering and scurrying along to the next scene.

The story too, is a little underwhelming, and offers little besides a fairly chaotic mess of well-worn zombie-movie beats. There are times when you think Deadlight might raise itself up and become something special, but by the end you just won’t care about Randall. The staccato nature of the trial-and-error gameplay juxtaposed with the relentless pace kills off that initial bond with your character, and some suitably terrible dialogue pulls the trigger on the rest.

As one of the ‘chosen few’ Summer of Arcade titles, it’s easily to come away from Deadlight more than a little disappointed. There are sparks of inspiration here and a beautifully realised setting, but beneath that veneer of intrigue lies gameplay that just doesn’t cut it with the best. There’s just about enough to enjoy in this broken version of 80’s Seattle, just expect to be frustrated in digging out the treats.

Top Game Moment: Leaping over the rooftops, helicopter in chase.

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By Gale47 (SI Core) on Jul 31, 2012
I would love to play this on my PC.