Deadlight Review: Undead or Unalive?

What better way to mark the midpoint of the 2012 Summer of Arcade than with a game where you chop up zombies? Deadlight aims to satisfy your undead killing desires, wrapped up in a side-scrolling action platformer. Overall, the game plays well and offers some fun entertainment, but some questionable design choices and a shaky story mar what could have been something greater.

Platforms: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Tequila Works
Genre: Puzzle Platforming Action… With Zombies
Release Date: August 1, 2012
ESRB Rating: Mature

Spanish developer Tequila Works’ debut title takes place on July 4, 1986, 145 days after a mysterious infection has turned the populace into rambling zombies, or “shadows” as they’re called in the game. Randall Wayne, a Canadian forest ranger, is desperately trying to find his lost wife and daughter, and heads to Seattle where they may be hiding in a rumored safe zone. Along the way, a zombie attack separates him from his small group of fellow survivors, and he spends the rest of the game trying to find his friends while collecting information on the whereabouts of his family.

The story unfolds through his diary entries and some very cool graphic novel-style cutscenes. The story starts off strong, but falters in the middle where it takes some odd turns. Fortunately, it is saved by a great surprise ending. Zombie movie fans will be able to pick out strong influences from popular films like 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and several others.

Like the story, the gameplay starts off strong. You are no super soldier, and spend large portions of the game completely unarmed. This means you must rely on your platform puzzle solving skills to climb, jump and shimmy your way around the zombies rather than attack them head on. Eventually, you can arm yourself with a fire axe, but even then, taking on anything more than two zombies will pretty much ensure a gruesome death. Each swing of the axe burns stamina, so mashing the melee button will quickly leave you exhausted and unable to defend yourself – not a good thing when you have half a dozen zombies making a beeline towards you. You will also find guns, but the extremely limited ammo and awkward aiming means you should only use them very strategically (or in times of screaming-like-a-little-kid desperation).

The gameplay peters out in the middle due to some repetitiveness, but thanks to some great level design and enjoyably tight controls, the overall platforming action is still a lot of fun. Randall Wayne can jump and climb with the best of them, and you will have a blast traversing the devastated city of Seattle. About the only criticism I have is that it isn’t always clear where the “safe” landing zones end and the background begins, so you’ll have to make more than a few leaps of faith. Fortunately, a generous checkpoint system means you won’t have to replay long sections when you inevitably guess wrong.

There is a lot of trial-and-error as some levels are a bit tricky to figure out, and repeated deaths in the run-like-hell escape levels are a little frustrating. But overall, the game isn’t that difficult and can be easily finished in an afternoon. So be aware: while it’s a fun game, Deadlight is also very short. I finished it in three hours, even while taking my time looking for collectibles and admiring the outstanding scenery and artwork. There also isn’t a lot of replay value, with finding every collectible really the only incentive to go back.

Yet, a bizarre decision with some of the collectibles may turn you off from gathering them at all. Among the things you can find are ID cards of the zombies’ victims. But for some inexplicable reason, the names on these cards are those of notorious, real-life serial killers, some of whom have only recently been convicted of their crimes. Robert “Willie” Pickton? Really? At best, it’s jarring and pulls you out of the game experience; at worst, it’s completely tasteless. Regardless, there is no reason for putting in the names of real serial killers in a game about zombies – it’s as if the developers decided to shock just for shock’s sake. Bad decision, guys.

You can also find some 8-bit handheld games that you can play, but with no instructions and poor design, there is no reason to play them more than once. Again, there’s no reason for these mini-games to be here, and they just seem oddly out of place.

Also out of place is the portrayal of Randall. He should be a sympathetic character that we can relate to as the everyman fighting for survival, but instead, he is gruff, angry, overly opinionated, a little unstable, and basically unlikable. The actor playing him sounds like your typical brooding action hero with a gravelly voice and very little emotion. Throw in some truly corny lines (“The darkness is a lie. It’s just a light we can’t see” – seriously?) and you really can’t connect with him or the story. This is a shame, because it feels like a huge opportunity to really draw the player into this dark, post-zompocalypse world was wasted.

So overall, Deadlight is much like the undead themselves: not quite dead, but not quite alive either. The gameplay is solid, even when things get a little slow and repetitive in the middle. The artwork and music is top notch; in fact, it’s a shame some levels can be completed in mere seconds because that’s way too little time to appreciate their beauty. Unfortunately, some shaky writing, inappropriate main character portrayal, questionable inclusion of serial killers, and little replay value mar the whole experience.

Is it worth your hard-earned $15? For the gameplay, artwork and great ending, sure – even with its short length. Short and sweet is certainly better than long and dull, and the gameplay trumps the shortcomings – but only by a little. Just hold your nose when it comes to some of the writing and those tasteless collectibles.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Deadlight was provided by Microsoft for the purposes of this review.

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