All zombie survival games can teach us something; they each have a lesson that is best taken to heart, before you take a bite to the brain. Deadlight, a side-scrolling platformer set in an alternate, apocalyptic 1980s, taught me something very important.
No matter how hard you try, you will die, and it will be frustrating as hell. Every time. Built by indie Spanish studio Tequila Works, Deadlight occupies the strange space between Telltale's The Walking Dead and Playdead's Limbo, in that it isn't quite a story-driven, action narrative, nor is it a minimalistic puzzle platformer, though it tries very hard to be both. This blend of melodrama and subtlety creates a full, yet disjointed story, full of seemingly random items, forced emotion and a gorgeous setting.
Deadlight tells the story of how Canada fell to the "shadows" in the 1980s, an infection (or was it a conspiracy strongarmed by the Russians?) that spreads across continents and turns people into bloodthirsty zombies. Randall Wayne is on a mission to find his family, parkouring across wasteland cities and disgusting sewers, dark memories jarring his fragile mind at regular intervals.
I died and restarted one particular level countless times, trying to push past a horde of zombies to reach a pack of bullets in a small room at the far end of a hallway. This generally played out in one of two ways: I would rush the zombies and be prompted to mash B to push them away, only to work my thumb raw and see no reaction on-screen; or I would try to slice through the horde with my axe, only to find Randall inexplicably facing the wrong direction.
When I finally got down the hallway, I flew right past the filing cabinet that was meant to block the doorway and crouched to pick up the bullets. And I crouched. And crouched. I tried to stand up when the zombies shambled through the door, but found it was impossible to interrupt a crouch animation in Deadlight. In fact, the length of Randall's crouches (bad joints, I assume) leads to unfortunate situations fairly often. It took a few more rounds of me running into the room and dying in a fetal position before I realized the cabinet could be pushed over, but by then I was cursing the screen and ready to buy a corded controller just to be sure I hadn't purchased a pack of dead batteries.
The story takes a turn in the last quarter, forcing the question, "Who is the real monster?" on the player and introducing living, non-zombified people as enemies. Living people with guns. It's not a bad twist, but this late diversion only serves to highlight the bulk of Deadlight's story, which covers at least five plots and a dozen side characters in its two hours of play. The game needs an editing eye. I suggest first cutting the simpering, vulnerable woman companion that shows up at the end and does nothing to further Randall's character development.
Deadlight shines in its detailed world-building: The art direction, IDs, diary entries and pieces of hidden lore are glorious. It's the gameplay that fails to live up to the standard of these beautiful fragments, with unresponsive controls and frustrating scenarios that can't decide if they want to be puzzles or action sequences. That said, I enjoyed Deadlight despite the times I wanted to chuck the controller. Maybe the game was trying to teach me a new, zombie-repelling technique for the living room. Maybe.
This review is based on an XBLA download of Deadlight, provided by Microsoft.
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