Deadlight is the latest release in Microsoft’s annual Summer of Live Arcade promotion, and the debut game from Spain-based development studio, Tequila Works. I first had the chance to play Deadlight in Boston at PAX East this year, but all the lights and sounds of PAX didn’t really give me the opportunity to truly appreciate the game. As a result, I came away from my hands-on time feeling intrigued, but not necessarily enthused.
Having had the chance now to sit down and play Deadlight in its entirety from the controlled comfort of my own home, my impressions of it have changed dramatically.
Deadlight’s story revolves around a pretty standard scenario – it’s the zombie apocalypse. What is less typical is the setting and time period – Seattle, 1986. You play as Randal Wayne, a man in search of his friends and family. He’s a gruff but clichéd, no nonsense former park warden who, for some reason, can’t swim. One would think that someone with the knowledge and experience of a park ranger could at least learn how to stop himself from drowning.
When I first heard that Deadlight was a zombie game, I rolled my eyes a bit. “Sure, that’s what we need – another zombie game”, I thought. As it turns out, Deadlight is actually more about avoiding said zombies than it is about mowing them down en masse. Zombies, or “Shadows” as they’re called in-game, are kind of like an environmental puzzle. You’ll need to do a lot of manual platforming, hanging on ledges, pushing boxes, creating barricades, and sometimes just plain running for your life – anything to keep yourself out of the ever hungry grasp of the Shadows.
Your options are not just limited to fleeing the hordes, however. You’ll also get a few weapons – a revolver, a shotgun, and a slingshot – though event these are largely used for puzzling purposes. The slingshot in particular does no damage to Shadows at all, it’s only used for hitting objects to solve environmental puzzles. Ammo for the pistol and shotgun are scarce, so even when you’re facing down a large group of Shadows coming in from all directions (including the background), your best bet is still to clear out one or two of them and then just run for your life.
One thing you’ll likely notice about Deadlight right off the bat is how nice and stylish everything looks. The silhouetted foreground combined with incredibly detailed backgrounds that are full of activity give it an aesthetic that is sure to draw comparisons to both Limbo and Shadow Complex. More importantly, the post apocalyptic setting actually looks and feels believable, which is quite an achievement for a 2D sidescroller.
Deadlight’s great atmosphere is hampered somewhat by incredibly hokey voice acting. Randal’s lines often come off as sounding contrived and obvious, and his frequent expositionary monologues will grow tiresome pretty quickly. It’s not a deal breaker or anything, but when combined with the just-average story, it can definitely spoil what are otherwise bleak and beautiful moments in the game.
The other downside is that Deadlight doesn’t have a lot of replayability. There are some scattered ID cards to collect (usually with the names of infamous serial killers like Gacy and Bundy), as well as pages of Randal’s journal, but once you’ve seen it all, that’s pretty much it. There are also a few liquid crystal handheld games to collect that fit in well with the time period, but those are merely momentary diversions. The game only clocks in at around 3 hours, so it would have been nice to have more reason to replay it. That having been said, the game does not outstay its welcome by being overly lengthy and is engaging from start to finish with no filler, so is it really such a bad thing that it’s three hours long?
In spite of a few shortcomings, I’d still recommend Deadlight. Even if you’re like me and feel like zombies need to go away for a while, Deadlight proves that when handled correctly, an undead apocalypse can still be a compelling setting.
Deadlight will be released on August 1st, 2012 for Xbox Live Arcade at a price of 1200 MS Points ($15).