The Xbox Summer of Arcade event has an awful reputation. Okay, maybe “awful” is being a bit blunt. You pay a certain sum of money, you earn a little in return, be it Microsoft Points or a free game. It’s a proposition known to coax a few extra dollars out of spendthrifts and skinflints, and financially, previous celebrations have been a smart investment for Microsoft. But the quality of the games has declined critically over the past years. A gem always shimmers through the rough – take 2011’s Bastion – but Deadlight is no diamond.
In Deadlight, Chernobyl's nuclear fallout impacted more than just Ukraine. The bearded protagonist’s diary implies the plant’s radiation spread globally, poisoning humanity and transforming the populace into “shadows,” named for their lingering presence in the dark and a metaphor for lives ended. These shadows share all but their namesake with zombies, because that’s a concept completely foreign to virtual media. Randall Wayne’s memoirs provide written insight to the months before Patient Zero, when the man lived a quiet existence as a proud husband, father, and park ranger annoyed with the turbulent discord of bustling cities.
The playable narrative has much more trouble concentrating on the multitude of storylines fighting for screen time in a three-hour video game. The plot opens on July 4th, 1986, in Seattle, Washington, with Randall executing a bitten survivor. Before the band of travelers can reflect on their leader's quick thinking, an ambush of shadows sends the group scrambling for safety, at which point Randy escapes to find his wife and daughter. Just when the plot seems to be maintaining a steady pace, gradually introducing new ways of bypassing roaming shadows, Randall finds himself in a labyrinth of booby traps laid by a Vietnam veteran. As payment for “saving” Mr. Wayne, the old man begs Randall to rescue his son, a naive boy not unlike Glenn from The Walking Dead. At the same time, Randall experiences bizarre flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations of his daughter in a pristine birthday gown. The frequent juggling of information is enough to drive the most rational player insane, and even open-minded gamers will find fault with the narrative pandering to its foreseeable twists and sudden, predictable ending.
Cutscenes incorporate graphic novel slideshows.
The melodrama might be more evocative if the voice overs received some tender, loving care. The survivors mutter about the good old days, yet deadpan dialogues lack sincerity. Surprise, sadness, happiness, and even terror bear the same unwavering monotone. Randall appears to be driven by the compassion for his only friends, allowing brief peeks behind his callous exterior, but good luck gauging Randall’s reactions when his moods swing more often than a menopausal woman.
Artistically, Deadlight marries elements of Limbo and Shadow Complex, two prior Summer of Arcade entrants. Wayne’s world is saturated with black-and-white tones and film grain effects to produce a dark presentation thematically consistent with a nuclear apocalypse. Black smoke towers over neighboring suburbs, and the undead feast contentedly on the meat of the living. Zombies enter your tangible, two-dimensional plane from the background and foreground, a chill emanating at the thought of being perpetually surrounded, yet alone. Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Techland’s Dead Island have given zombies a new lease on life, figuratively speaking. Deadlight grabs the reins with an atmosphere equal parts alluring and frightening, and outstanding audio work strengthened by deceitfully calm piano solos.
As a man constantly on the move, Randall leaps with the finesse becoming a Metroidvania title, but Deadlight contains no Varia Suit to ease the sense of survival. Wayne’s three closest companions are the revolver in his holster, fire axe on his back, and the Macgyvered slingshot at his side. Danger awaits any brave soul daring enough to canvass the final resting places of residents hanging from the rafters. Deadlight also condones fleeing over confrontation, but shadows drop after a tried-and-true headshot. Zombies can be dispatched indirectly, too. Sound attracts the mindless infected despite their absence of spatial awareness. A sharp whistle baits them into puddles rippling with electricity, lofty elevator shafts highly averse to keeping bones intact, and other comically amusing situational hazards.
Chase sequences leave Randall no choice but to run, or serve himself up as the next undead appetizer.
Like Limbo, Deadlight relies heavily on platforming as a means to flaunt the environments. The trouble is, Deadlight also borrows the extreme trial and error of its silhouetted cousin. When the platforming works, it’s hard to deny the pleasure derived from stringing together a series of acrobatics like a 2D Nathan Drake, bounding from office windows, vaulting over spike pressure plates, and rolling through an open crawl space to avoid a collapsing ceiling. However, you will fail repeatedly, particularly when the game asks that you time a jump perfectly without an ounce of give. Whereas Limbo’s gruesome deaths invoked a wry smile every time the jaws of a hidden bear trap snapped shut around the boy, Deadlight includes none of that cruel joy of reloading the last autosave. The puzzles never accurately communicate what they expect from the player upon first sight. The next outcropping can be often indiscernible from the remaining scenery, and the trick for navigating about various booby traps only reveals itself after the fifth or sixth restart. Randy carries a certain momentum to his actions, inciting players to overshoot their appointed destination. On the other hand, the shooting plays loose with the controls, leading to many overcorrected misfires.
Randall also succumbs to his stamina, though not as expected. Randall’s endurance rarely interferes while scaling fences or shimmying across telephone wires. In close quarters, however, three to four swings of his mighty axe deplete the entirety of his energy, forcing you to instantly retreat from persistent shadows until the meter recharges. Nevertheless, watching the odd zombie phase through a last-ditch strike only damages one’s patience. There’s an element of trust that comes with this trial and error side-scrolling, but Deadlight does not incorporate a great system of rewards to urge the player forward and experience the bewitching fear of isolation. A strong first act (admittedly strong enough to push me through to the conclusion) introduces a vexing, futureless world in exponential decay, yet the second act’s punishing, pixel-perfect platforming and the third’s abundance of touch-and-go gunplay add to the growing list of concerns.
The completion of Deadlight left me with several questions. Mainly, why has the concept of zombies meets platforming yet to be tampered with? The infected pervade every other video game genre, but Tequila Works finds stable footing in rocky territory. Deadlight feels more like a mother’s heart-warming cookie recipe, not the bag of moldy potato chips left to rot in the recesses of cupboards and pantries. With a dash of gameplay adjustments here and story rewrites there, all sprinkled with a pinch of vocal dexterity, Deadlight could sit alongside the crème de la crème of Arcade titles. As it stands, Deadlight merely bolsters a grim, monochrome presentation with a new and exciting undead perspective.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Tequila Works
Release Date: August 1, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: XBLA (Reviewed)