- Tequila Works
Made2Game Deadlight Review Score: 7/10
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Reviewed by: Mick Fraser
It seems that, for the last ten years or so, zombies have just been everywhere. From 28 Days Later to the Dawn of the Dead remake, through Zombieland and The Walking Dead – movie and TV fans can’t get enough of shambling corpses and rage-infected monkeys. But gamers seem to be just as enamoured, given the popularity of Valve’s Left 4 Dead titles, the enduring allure of Resident Evil and the recent hubbub surrounding the rather awesome Day-Z mod for ARMA II. Even the gaming horizon is home to some incredible-looking zombie-flavoured treats in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and Ubisoft’s Wii U exclusive ZombiU. So it makes sense for a relatively small indie developer like Tequila Works to turn to the survival horror genre for inspiration; zombies are reliable, familiar and, perhaps above all, no one ever questions a lack of plot depth or character development in a zombie story.
The interiors are well-crafted, but ironically shelter offers no respite. You feel safer outside than in
Which is just as well, because Tequila Works’ Deadlight (the third offering in Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotion after Tony Hawks Pro Skater HD and Wreckateer) is very light in terms of characterisation and narrative clout. And content. And play time. But before you start groaning like the reanimated dead on day release from Hell, we should remind you of the trite but true adage that good things come in small packages. Because in many ways, Deadlight is brilliant. We just wish there was more of it.
Our playthrough took exactly 2 hours, 4 minutes and 38 seconds, and in that time we completed 75% of the content. The remaining 25% (comprised of a few scattered collectibles we missed) took us a further 32 minutes to mop up. All that remains now is the prospect of constant speed runs to try and beat our time and climb the leaderboards but, not being huge fans of speed running games, there seems very little point. As a result, for us, Deadlight was effectively over and done with two-and-a-half hours after completing the frankly whopping 1.96 GB download. Which is a shame, because what content there is is mostly excellent.
Set in an alternate history 1986 (though we’re not sure why beyond the purposes of groovy nostalgia, as the year is entirely irrelevant to the plot, characters or setting), Deadlight is the story of Randall Wayne, a gruff survivor driven to battle his way through post-apocalypse Seattle by his unbending determination to find his lost wife and daughter. When we first join Randy, he’s holed up with a ragtag bunch of survivors – one of whom, Karla, he is forced to execute in the comic-book-style opening cutscene. Immediately separated from the others (ex-cop Sam, war vet Ben and Karla’s sister Stella), Randy sets out alone to continue his quest, hoping to reunite with his companions along the way.
The breakneck fleeing set-pieces are brilliant and exciting, and usually culminate in a cinematic, slow-mo jump off, or through, something
From the outset of Deadlight, we were reminded of three specific games. The first was Chair’s Shadow Complex; the 2D side-scrolling platform action is very similar, and the use of Epic’s Unreal engine compounds the feeling of familiarity, as does the gunplay – though there’s considerably less of a reliance on firearms in Tequila Works’ horror. The second game that sprang to mind was ancient PC classic Flashback; Randy’s lone quest for absolution and reunion reminded us of Conrad Hart’s own mission to restore his lost memory and uncover his past, and the occasional need to run like crazy, leap headlong and pray for a ledge to grab hold of seemed like an evolution of Delphine Software’s 1992 masterpiece. And the third? Playdead’s hauntingly beautiful puzzler Limbo, whose insta-death trial and error gameplay seems to infuse every moment of Deadlight’s runtime.
So often during the first play of Deadlight, you’ll run Randy over a standard-looking floor only to see him fall through it and plummet to his death, or an interior will suddenly shake apart and bury him alive, or you’ll mis-time a simple enough jump and drown in seconds (Randy can’t swim, apparently because his gear is too heavy). Unfortunately, it often seems as though Tequila Works have mistaken unfair instant kills for genuine challenge, as in every other respect Deadlight is one of the easiest games we’ve played in a while. Checkpoints occur after almost every jump, set-pieces (while often brilliant and exhilarating) are few and far between and the puzzles, all of which are environmental, are obvious at a glance. There’s no challenge to your dexterity, not a great deal to think about (jumps are signposted with little grey arrows and Randy will offer thinly-veiled solutions to most puzzles) and no difficulty in the combat besides Randy’s infuriating lack of stamina.
Early on you’ll receive a fire axe, allowing you to defend yourself against the reanimated hordes (referred to as Shadows – no one says the “Z” word), and hitting B will either swing it or push back the nearest attacker. Once a shadow is floored, holding B will deliver a killing blow – however Randy’s stamina is so fleeting that once you’ve put paid to two shadows in quick succession he’ll often be doubled over and panting. While you can run past them, roll to avoid them or – if you’re brave – bodily tackle them to get them out of the way, if you let Randy get surrounded by more than two at a time he’ll likely be pulled down to his death.
The strange storm and its red lightning is hinted at as one of the possible causes for the appearance of the Shadows
Later you’ll find a revolver and a shotgun, both of which come in incredibly handy despite the apparent scarcity of ammo. You won’t find many bullets, but you won’t need many either. By the time guns become imperative, the game is all but over and you’ll survive perfectly well without them until the last five minutes – though they are required on a few occasions to shoot padlocks off high windows.
Despite its lack of real challenge and substance, however, Deadlight manages to impress regularly. Though the secondary characters are little more than background noise, Randy’s plight is at least compelling enough to draw you on, and collecting the lost pages of his diary present an insight into a truly disturbed mind. Other scattered collectibles are either items relevant to Randy’s story or ID cards (which, for some reason, all belong to prolific 80’s serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein and Otis Elwood Toole), and at least give you a reason to explore every nook and cranny – though very few of them are particularly well hidden.
The backdrops are hugely detailed and the comic-book cutscenes are striking if slightly unoriginal – and there’s surprising variety in the environments. One particular stand out section is in the den of the Rat Man, a paranoid survivor whose trap-riddled lair provides the only genuinely challenging segment in the whole two hours. The voice acting, however, isn’t so hot. Randy speaks like an ESPN sports commentator and the supporting cast give mostly lacklustre performances of a script that apparently wasn’t written to dazzle.
Backdrops like this are gorgeous, and one of the reasons we wish there was more of Deadlight to explore
While not greatly derivative of the genre as a whole, Deadlight at times treads so close to The Walking Dead (the show, not Telltales’ game) that we found ourselves wincing, praying it was homage and not just plain plagiarism. More depth in Deadlight’s own narrative would have helped, but absolutely nothing is explained or illuminated. No one knows what the virus is or how it came about, and towards the latter half of the game when the militaristic New Law turn up in their helicopter gunships and are revealed to be rounding people up, it’s not explained why. The focus is entirely on Randall Wayne and so we only ever know what he knows – it may streamline and unclutter the narrative, but it’s an infuriating copout for those who like a little clarity in their storylines. So many zombie-themed games, books and films sidestep the cause or possible cure for their outbreaks that it’s become the perfect get-out clause for lazy writers, and unfortunately Deadlight is no different.
So then, how do you score a game that plays like a small but brilliant part of an unseen greater whole? If Deadlight was intended to be episodic, we could score it higher – and our anticipation for the next instalment would certainly be stoked at this point – but it’s not. It’s just a very small, very pretty game (the 1.96 GB size juxtaposed beside the two hour runtime is damningly indicative of Tequila Works’ focus on stylistic pizzazz over truly compelling gameplay) and while we’d recommend it to fans of Shadow Complex, Limbo or indeed zombie-themed media in general, we can’t in good conscience justify the price versus the content.
Deadlight is gorgeous to look at, lovingly crafted and fun while it lasts – but it’s so, so short and so bereft of new ideas that there’s no reason whatsoever to return beyond earning speed-running bragging rights (if you’re so inclined). It’s a shame, but them’s the facts. Deadlight is one of those games that makes you pray for a sequel, for Tequila Works to take what they’ve created and make it bigger, deeper and more challenging because, as it stands, Deadlight is a shambling shadow of the red-eyed rage monster it could have been. Shiny, slick and grim, yet disappointing.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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