- CLR Rating:
Release Date: August 1st, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Genre: Zombie Apocalypse Cinematic Platformer
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 2-4 Hours
Things to do in Seattle When Your Imagination’s Dead.
Over the last few years, Microsoft’s “Summer of Arcade” event has been a ray of hope during the otherwise fallow summer months of the video game release schedule. With now classic titles like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Braid, LIMBO, Shadow Complex, and Bastion all being released under the promotion’s banner, it’s all too easy to expect at least one truly excellent game to show up during the event. This year, that game seemed to be Deadlight.
Coming from Tequila Works, a Spanish collaboration of various developers with experience at some pretty impressive studios (MercurySteam, Blizzard, and Weta Digital to name a few), Deadlight’s trailers hinted at a new twist on an increasingly tired genre: take the moribund zombie apocalypse and stick it in a classic 2D blender using a nifty silhouetted art style. Combined with the backing of Microsoft as both promoters and publishers, and considering most of the best of titles to come out of this promotion have also been retro throwbacks in two dimensions, what could possibly go wrong?
Well how about the game design?
Yes, unfortunately for Microsoft, Tequila Works, and gamers everywhere, the Summer of Arcade’s four-year run of seminal 2D masterpieces may be on its last legs. Deadlight is mind bogglingly bad, and in no uncertain terms should be played by human beings. It might work well enough for the zombies it features, as it’s so mindless and easily digestible that one begins to wonder if they were the intended audience.
Set for no discernible reason in the year of 1986, Deadlight follows Randall Wayne, former Canadian park ranger and current winner of his local Insane Homeless guy look-alike contest, as he starts off what he insists is “just another day” in the post-zombie world. If “just another day” is code for “sticking to formula” then he’s absolutely correct; Mr. Wayne wastes no time getting right to the banality, as literally the first thing we see him do is to shoot another survivor who’s been bitten (whilst monologuing of course). Bam! One cliché taken care of, what’s next?
Well there’s the easily solvable plot contrivance that neatly separates Randall from his group of friends (who appear to be the cast of Left 4 Dead), “forcing” Randall to hoof it all alone to the military stronghold they’re all heading to – imaginatively called the “Safe Point” – through the ruins of downtown Seattle? See, we’re really off to a good start on the zombie scenario checklist here, oh wait did I say zombie? Sorry, I meant “Shadows”. Because as you might have already guessed, they aren’t actually called zombies. They never are.
So, within the span of its first three minutes Deadlight has already covered as many hackneyed zombie tropes; you can be assured that they’ll keep coming as you progress. You’ll need to “shoot ‘em in the head”, and the “military is evil” (boy are they ever), because of course “man is the real monster”.
When do I yell out Bingo?
Alright, I’m being a bit too cynical too soon; clichés exist for a reason and at least most of them are introduced so fast that they’re quickly forgotten. Besides, the choice of terming the “blatantly zombie” enemies as “shadows” is a solid (if obvious) attempt at congruity between the world building and the game’s art style, a rather unique silhouetting technique that casts everything in the foreground in pitch dark blackness to highlight the decayed yet often brightly colored and beautifully modeled background environments. This visual technique is probably the most impressive aspect of the game, creating an appropriately eerie mood while also highlighting the majority of the interactive objects you’ll use as you run and jump and climb through the recently obliterated seat of the Seahawks.
That’s the other good thing to be found in Deadlight: the general platforming. It’s more Prince of Persia or Out of This World than Mario, so you’ll only be able to jump a couple feet into the air in order to grab onto a fire escape rather than double your height while flipping over a lava pit. And as it’s the popular thing these days, the animations make Randall’s jumping abilities resemble free running, which is a bit anachronistic but more within the realm of possibility than without.
Of course such acrobatic acuity is a bit odd coming from a park ranger. I’ve never heard how wall jumps and landing rolls help prevent wildfires – perhaps basic Parkour classes are standard practice for Canadian civil service?
Regardless, using the dilapidated and crumbling environs of a cityscape as a platforming playground is a solid concept, and the shadowy 2.5D art style allows for some of the otherwise silly elements of the platformer genre to make sense in context. Floating platforms are often just the overhanging roof of a gas station or a fire escape that happens to be in the foreground, for example. And while I’m on the subject of backgrounds, I have to say that it’s just nice to see a game set in Seattle. The city boasts a distinct and unique urban landscape that’s especially refreshing to see, as usually if a game is set in an actual city it’s invariably New York, Los Angeles, or that quaint vaguely British village that shows up in every fantasy game ever: ThatchedRoofingville.
“Platforming through decaying downtown Seattle whilst dodging zombies in 2D” sounds excellent on paper, and at first glance (and for the first half hour) that’s exactly what Deadlight is: a bunch of old ideas mashed up with a solid visual design and relatively well executed. But then events take a turn for the idiotic, and when they do it happens quickly and irrecoverably. Especially since the story folks at Tequila Works seem to think “nuance” is a 1900’s art movement.
First there’s the level design. It starts out boringly obvious – lots of “push the crate” puzzles and easily identifiable “break me!” doors – but that’s to be expected at the start of a game when you’re still learning the ropes. The problem is that it never gets any better, and the only time the layout isn’t duller than picking carpet samples is when it gets as frustratingly obtuse as partisan politics.
Worse is that like that one field trip buddy everybody hated, the game never lets go of the player’s hand. For the vast majority of Deadlight’s running time if a hint tutorial doesn’t show up on screen to tell you exactly what to do (this occurs well into the final minutes), Randall or another character will start stating the blindingly obvious answer to the problem in your path. If neither text nor voice compels you, then it’s usually incredibly simple to surmise the solution to whatever issue is at play, and whatever little joy in puzzle solving you might have had figuring it out is drained anyway.
Except every so often, after breezing through huge swaths of the game the solution to getting out of a crumbling warehouse or past an odd gap will involve an almost autistically specific series of jumps without any room for error, or the thing you need to break to move forward will be hidden so completely in the black ink of the foreground or a screen transition that finding them is like searching for Waldo in a barber pole convention. These few points (they occur about half a dozen times) are overly difficult for all the wrong reasons, and after you succeed the only satisfaction to be had is that you’ll thankfully never have to do that again . . . unless you die shortly after. Then you’ll suffer the wrath of the often aberrant checkpointing, which somehow manages to always put you right before a frustrating section, but is also so frequent that it removes the threat from the game’s enemies.
That’s a bit of a problem in a horror game where the threat of death is supposed to generate an appropriately terrified response. But like a Kristen Stewart film, the only threat present is that of boredom.
Ironically, the inconsistencies seen in the level design are easily the most consistent feature of Deadlight’s overall design. For example, usually a zombie grabbing Randall causes the loss of one health square if you successfully mash the B button, except when the game decides for no reason that it means instant death. Checkpoint reloads refresh your health completely so the many first aid kits you run across are useless (especially since most deaths are instant one-hit kills anyway) and after a gun tutorial that stresses making every bullet count you discover that bullet pickups have an infinite supply . . . so why is it I’m supposed to be conserving ammo again?
Aside from the bruises you’ll get from constantly facepalming, the real problem with all the inconsistency is that it destroys the game’s pacing, because Deadlight prevents natural flow better than the leading maxipad. On more than one occasion, the situation, the music and Randall himself will insist that you need to run forward as fast as you can to avoid some sort of threat, but then, when you should be moving along at a steady clip, you’re tasked with pushing yet another heavy box and triggering a switch with a slingshot, or a red light/green light puzzle or some other bizarrely inserted obstacle while the “Hurry up we’re in a chase” music continues unabated. Worse are the many instances of “thirty seconds of gameplay bookended by three minute cutscenes” moments, especially since in most of these the “gameplay” consists walking forward slowly doing nothing of importance.
But this terrible pacing isn’t just due to the design, it’s also embedded into the overall narrative structure! As mentioned, Randall’s adventure starts out strong, moving more or less in a constant direction for the first half hour. Then the game takes a major detour when, after acting like a complete idiot in a cutscene, Randall’s kidnapped to the Seattle Underground, which is . . . actually kind of cool, in theory. In reality though, the location is filled to the brim with a bunch of convoluted Prince of Persia traps and a rambling madman, both of which take so long to get to the point and are so demented that any sense of progress grinds to a halt while the naturalism the game started with evaporates like Elphaba on a Slip ‘N Slide.
Thus we come to the game’s script.
While I harped about the unoriginal opening earlier, it at least made sense. Once this 2nd Act hits, the plotting completely gives up; things just start happening for no reason, the characters behave more and more bizarrely, and the convoluted conveniences pile up faster than cars in the ill-conceived and short-lived NASCAR Rugby League. Case in point: during another pace destroying cinematic, Randall suddenly jumps into a conveniently operational (and somehow still fueled) ambulance, driving for about ten seconds before randomly crashing the vehicle right next to the exact kid he was looking for several miles away. A kid who thankfully has access to a CB radio in his tiny backpack, calls Randall with it (somehow knowing the proper frequency) so he can tell our hero to climb to a nearby rooftop whereupon – for no reason whatsoever – they’re both shot at by an attack helicopter for several city blocks (!), which leads them in exactly the direction they needed to go anyway.
Brain . . . hurts! Must . . . go on!
Yet such complete nonsense masquerading as plot is nothing compared to the dialogue. It’s an awful triple threat of over expository lines obviously written for the trailers instead of the scene, undeserved and gratingly bleak melodrama that sounds like a gothic teen’s poetry diary, and enough repetition to make Wesley Willis jealous roll over in his grave. While some of this might have been caused by a poor translation, when you consider that Microsoft has very capably translated other games in the past and you combine the awful lines with the lazy plotting, you realize that the much simpler answer is also the more depressing one: no one on this team knows what good writing is.
Now this is a cynical age, and I’m sure there are some who might think that all the horribad writing is intentional, an attempt at replicating the often campy, cheesy aspects of horror flicks. I can assure you it isn’t. Primarily due to the tone, which dwells in such a ludicrously “dark and edgy” melancholy that lumped together with the total insanity, you’d think Frank Miller wrote the thing. Along with line delivery that seems to be directed by whoever was in charge of Capcom’s VO’s in the late nineties, you will find plenty of delicious narm amidst such moldy cheese, especially with lines like “There is no such thing as darkness. Darkness is just the light we cannot see” erupting out of Randall every so often, but the overbearing tonal weight is such that it’s actually difficult to laugh at.
And that’s the biggest problem with the game. Not the vomit inducing writing, the inconsistent design or vapor lock pacing, but that it’s actually tough to enjoy even its good moments, even on an ironic level. Primarily because it’s hard to see such potential go to rot.
Every single aspect of Deadlight, while trite, could have had merit if better executed. The idea of a 2D game covering the zombie apocalypse would work if the focus was on a slow and steady survivalist’s crawl instead of running through the levels quickly, and the combat and puzzles could be fixed with just a little more evaluation to smooth over the inconsistencies. Even the story has one idea that could have been expanded into something clever – that Randall is in fact a remorseless serial killer (an idea hinted at in the game’s journals) and only someone as monstrous as him could survive in such a world – but his insanity is played for overblown tragedy instead, and ends with a completely hollow act of heroism that contrarily denies the more interesting bits of characterization.
“Hollow” actually seems to be the best takeaway here. Deadlight has impressive aesthetics surrounding a center that’s almost non-existent; a perfect example of people who have looked at other games, thought “how hard could that be?” and then attempted without understanding. It’s enough to wonder if Deadlight wasn’t what Yeats was referring to back in 1919.
But if you do find yourself for whatever reason actually playing Deadlight, at least it’s short. I mean, REALLY short. We’re talking three, maybe four hours if you’re going for 100% completion.
Normally such ludicrous brevity would be a factor against a game, and it is here too as it completely invalidates how overpriced it is, but it’s also like ripping off a band-aid: a sharp pain mercifully over before you can dwell on it (besides, dwelling on it was obviously my job). When premature termination is literally the best merit a game has, you might want to give it a pass. You can get a game like Fez for less, and that game might actually blow your mind, whereas Deadlight, well, it just makes you want to blow out your brains.
Oh, and because irony is awesome, the tagline for the game is “Save Yourself.”
Lord knows I didn’t listen, and look where we are now.