Deadlight is a game that wears its inspiration on its sleeve.
Borrowing elements from past Summer of Arcade hits, Shadow Complex and LIMBO, Deadlight blends the 2D puzzle/platforming action of the former with the gorgeous and haunting visuals of the latter, crafting a unique and unforgettable experience.
The year is 1986, and the place is post-apocalyptic Seattle. The entire city, and presumably the world, has seen the spread of a vicious disease that turns humans into stumbling, flesh hungry undead zombies, or ‘Shadows’. During the ensuing chaos the city has been reduced to nothing more than rubble, a bleak picture of its former glory.
Stuck right in the middle of it all is Randall Wayne, who must make his way through war torn Seattle in search for his wife and daughter. While not being a particularly original story, Deadlight does manage to offer up some unexpected plot twists all the way up to the games surprising ending.
Yet, there is so much more than just the story itself. As you travel deeper into the ruins of Seattle you’ll begin to learn more about the events that shaped the outbreak, and the bleak nature of what’s truly going on in the city. Through stylish cut-scenes, which play out like animated panels ripped straight from a comic book, a deeper narrative begins to take shape, one that shifts focus from Randall’s search for his family, to something a little richer that deals with themes such as sacrifice, the struggle for survival and the evil that men do.
The need to survive extends to Deadlight’s gameplay. When you first begin the game you have no means of defending yourself, instead looking to your environment to either defeat the Shadows hunting you, or as a means to avoid them altogether. As you progress this becomes key to your survival as the game interweaves its brilliant, yet increasingly complex, platforming puzzles with the need to overcome, or hinder, the Shadows.
Later in the game you will obtain weapons such as a fire axe and revolver which while providing you a new sense of power over your foes, that sense of dread that underlines every encounter never truly goes away.
Using your weapons in combat against the Shadows is a mixed experience. While the shooting mechanics in Deadlight are wholly sound, using the right analog stick to aim and the right trigger to shoot; using the fire axe is, well… hit or miss. The basic idea of using the axe is to push your enemy off you if they get too close, and then hack into them while their down.
Sounds pretty awesome right? But it feels a little too loose, like it lacks a sense of precision. When you swing it will not always come in contact with the target, so you’re just left there swinging aimlessly while the Shadows overrun you, and when faced with a large group this will happen quite quickly. I’m unsure if the melee weapon was designed to be like this, as to add to the whole ‘survival’ theme, but it just felt sloppy to me.
Not to mention the cause of some irritatingly cheap deaths.
One of the standout aspects of Deadlight is the games visuals. Developer, Tequila Works have used the Unreal 3 engine to craft a fully realized Seattle that lies in ruins. The bleak and broken world makes for a chilling atmosphere that underlines the entire game, and is especially strong when you finally clamber out of the sewers and cast your eyes on the scope of the destructive that has washed over the city. Despite being set in a 2D perspective the games 3D background has depth, which causes the entire game world to pop out at you with brilliant detail.
While there is an amazing level of detail in the destruction of the in-game world, and enough variety in the locations you’ll visit, there is a problem that creeps up.
Deadlight is as much platforming as it is survival horror. Actually, I’d go as far to say the game is primarily a platformer. The gameplay in that respect is sound, with controls being responsive and tight, albeit some issues regarding precision. Though what becomes frustrating is how the environments tend to blend together due to some same/same colour palette, causing you to be unsure on which platform to jump to or ledge to grab, which may block your progress for a few minutes, ruining the games pacing.
But that is very minor, and Deadlight offers up some excellent set-pieces. One that caught my eye in particular had me slowly climbing up through a dilapidated apartment building. I would need to make my way through each floor, carefully navigating so to not fall down and avoid having to start all over again. Once I reached the top I was faced with a dead-end, having to go back and figure out the way forward.
The puzzles in Deadlight are well thought out, often having you scratching your head. There is a particular sequence during the middle of the game where you take part in a series of challenges set down in the sewers. The mastermind behind it all is a lovey character who calls himself, ‘The Rat’.
The Rat has you evade and navigate through his Saw-like maze, and while offering up some of the best and ingenuous platforming I’ve seen in an Xbox Arcade title, this entire section of the game begins to overstay its welcome when issues such as the games touchy controls and blending environments become a problem.
Luckily, the game is forgiving with its checkpoints.
Much in how the games themes tug subtly throughout the narrative, Deadlight’s audio presence bubbles just under the surface. The soundtrack provides glimmers of underlining fear as you move through the game. It simmers just enough at times to build tension but quiet enough as to hear your footsteps echo, and when events escalate it crashes with a heart pounding pace.
Sadly, the game’s voice acting doesn’t capture the same atmospheric tone as the rest of the soundtrack. The stilted and bland voice acting left me disconnected to the games character so I ultimately didn’t care about Randall, his friends, or whether he would find his family.
Deadlight, despite its shortcomings, offers a robust and enjoyable experience. The world which it’s set in invokes a powerful sense of fear and dread, thanks to its unique blend of 3D visual with a 2D perspective. The visuals create for some wonderful images that will have you stopping every so often to soak them in. With dozens of hidden secrets to find, and the layered narrative the game slowly builds from its rather unoriginal story, Deadlight encourages multiple play-throughs in order for you to see everything.
And you will want to, since Deadlight is one of the year’s best Xbox Live Arcade titles.