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On 07/30/2012 at 12:00 PM by Travis Hawks
Give zombies (yet another) chance!
If you like any genre of games, you’ll probably enjoy Deadlight… unless you only like Madden or something.
Hey! Remember the ‘80s when those zombie-like creatures took over Seattle and made it into a crumbling and dreary hell hole? Well, even if nothing quite that illin’ ever happened in your 1980s, you can get a good taste of what it would have been like with Tequila Works’ gritty new platformer: Deadlight. Yes, we’re all sick of the shambling undead, but don’t let that scare you off. Deadlight tells an actual story as you puzzle your way through a dilapidated city, sinking axes into zombie skulls while you search for your friends and family. The melding of game mechanics, storytelling devices, art styles, and emotions is done so expertly in Deadlight that it feels like a formula should have been used years ago.
It’s made pretty clear from the start that this platformer is not a Mario knock-off. The game opens with the first of many scenes told through low-color, hastily-rendered panels that exude the brutality of the alternate 1986 Seattle where the game is set. The macabre overtones felt through the entire game are hammered into place when you witness Randall -- who you will be controlling through the game -- shoot a fellow survivor in the head when he realizes she has been infected with the zombie virus. Using the comic-like panels to tell this opening vignette gives your imagination just enough juice to make the scene horrific, whereas a cinematic version would come across as a cheap, gory scare.
As the story spools up from this initial moment, you start to learn how this realistically rendered side-scroller works. You’ll start jumping, climbing fences, wall-jumping, and sprinting your way through obstacles and across crumbling infrastructure to the city’s safe point. You’ve done all these things before in cartoony games (with a few exceptions), but when a zombie grabs you and starts to leach your health away, everything suddenly feels exceptionally urgent and deadly.
At first, you can only push the zombies (called “shadows”) off of you, but soon you find a fireman’s axe which lets you brutally defend yourself. You’ll feel the axe thwunk into the undead chests of the oncoming shadows - a satisfying and disturbing sensation. The axe doesn’t endow you with limitless power, though, as you’re restrained by a stamina bar that quickly depletes with repeated swings. Limiting your ability to wail on relentlessly approaching shadows makes your defenses seem fragile and really ratchets up the tension every time you enter an infested area. The guns you get later are similarly restrained by a limited ammo supply. You’ll never have enough bullets to off every shadow you come across, so deciding which situations require precious lead is a tough choice every time. Tequila Works has done a superb job of making the combat in its puzzle platformer an integral piece of the experience. It feels like it matters and really intensifies the mood.
Deadlight’s puzzles aren’t anything revolutionary, but many of them can make you feel pretty clever when you notice the solution. One niggle that weakens the puzzles (and parts of the platforming) is the flashing cues that focus you on the next ledge you should jump to or mechanism you should trigger. It’s understandable why this was done – with the whole game taking place in dingy, poorly lit corridors it would be pretty tough to notice many of these key spots if they weren’t highlighted. It’s a concession born of necessity, but it’s too bad there isn’t another way. These cues probably kept me from getting stuck on any of the puzzles along the way, at least not for more than a few moments. The only other problem with the puzzles is that there seems to only be one solution to each. Normally, this didn’t bother me, but there was one instance where the only correct way to get through a section was pretty illogical, and I only figured it out after many frustrating failed attempts.
The actual jumping, climbing, and shooting controls also got me stuck a couple of times. I normally don’t get too upset when a game is working against me, but I threw two giant tantrums in the latter half of the game that would shame the snottiest two-year-old at your local La Petite. These mechanics missteps felt especially strange since they involved the same motion (fence climbing) and because I never had any other issues with the controls throughout the game.
Like any good (or bad) platformer, there are collectibles along the way to snag, and most of them are actually kind of interesting here. For one, you can find lost pages to your own diary (apparently scattered across the city of Seattle for some reason) that help to flesh out Randall’s character. There are also a few other clippings and objects lying around that give more of the back story behind this particular zombie apocalypse. The strangest collectibles are three handheld games you can find in rooms off the main path. Fitting with the game’s 1980s time period, the games are similar to Nintendo Game & Watch titles, and can be played once you’ve uncovered them. I got a nostalgic kick from the one game I was able to find, and I think many oldsters like me will too.
As you’re making your way across Seattle, rummaging through the debris, Randall also experiences a couple of illusions, a dream, a nightmare, and a flashback. These moments really make you start to care about what Randall has gone through, even though you’ll probably be initially turned off by his gruff voice and hobo aesthetic. Each of these dream-like segments is played out like the other parts of the game, but perhaps on a sunny day before everything went wrong, or with towering giants in the background as Randall runs in a panic to his own house. Other major plot points rely on the still drawings like the ones used during the opening. Each of these graphical interludes acted as a powerful way to introduce new characters, show how man can turn against man, and completely nail one of the better game endings I’ve ever seen.
Deadlight gave me pretty much everything I could want out of a side-scrolling game, and I didn’t even know I wanted it until I started playing. Everyone who likes to stomp goombas and shoot zombies will find that Deadlight perfectly mixes these two disparate genres together and tops it all with a gripping story in a tangible setting. Get over your disgust at the overuse of zombies and you’ll see how even the most played out ideas can be freshened up and used to make something incredible.