The zombie outbreak has become a pandemic on the pop-cultural level. Nothing seems to stem the tide of hoards of scuffling, limping, human-flesh eating and incredibly stupid undead monstrosities from spreading across the gaming spectrum. They are blown away with guns, beaten with blunt objects, cut to fleshy ribbons with blades but every so often a new survival-horror video game featuring zombies will appear ready to devour the flesh of the living. Deadlight is one of those games. Deadlight from developers Tequila Works and publishers Microsoft Studios has been released for Xbox Live Arcade for some time but it has only recently made its way to the PC. Does Deadlight offer something unique to the zombie survival-horror fad? Or is it just a carbon cut-out of what has been done before?
This game is set in Seattle Washington in 1986 where the outbreak of a deadly virus has triggered the zombie apocalypse. The virus has reanimated the dead and killed most of the populace. Randall Wayne has been separated from his wife Shannon and daughter Lydia during this catastrophe. He joins a few survivors consisting of his friend Ben, Sam a Police Officer and two sisters: Stella and Karla. Randall kills Karla due to her being bitten by the zombies. Randall then gets separated from the group during an attack by a hoard of zombies and thus he treks alone through the decayed, zombie-infested city of Seattle in the hopes of finding his wife and daughter alive.
The opening act where Ranall kills Karla is sheer brilliance and of Hollywood quality. It immediately sets the very grim mood of the rest of the game. The visuals look superb and makes great use of the Unreal Engine 3 with high quality texture details, character models and lighting effects. The hand-drawn comic book-like cutscenes look stylish and slick and takes nothing away from the intense and threatening atmosphere. The sombre city of Seattle looks bigger than it actually is and makes you feel like that there’s more to this dilapidated place than what appears and the chaos is emphasised greatly with burning cars, crumbing buildings and mutilated corpses. The sounds of lightning and rain and moaning of the undead remind the player of the many hostilities that awaits. Everything looks and sounds so good and encapsulates how a survival-horror video game should look.
Deadlight sounds like a recipe for a successful survival-horror formula. The game is played as a side-scrolling platformer. You’ll be dashing across the screen, jump across chasms, solving puzzles and fending off hoards of the undead. It’s easy to enjoy and fear the chilling, claustrophobic imagery that you pass through and feel a true sense of danger as zombies can be seen within the foreground and background. Combat is cumbersome as melee attacks exhaust Randall and firing guns is slow and inaccurate but for a true survival-horror experience one must feel helpless and weak against hoards of terrifying, stronger and dangerous foes, thus enabling the player’s survival instincts to initiate and use cunning rather than brute force to survive.
However as you progress further into the game, the flaws tend to become more apparent and begin to hamper the experience. What began as something so promising turns for the worst. The platforming that was initially thrilling and intense becomes a case of trial and error as pixel-perfect precision jumping is required to clear seemingly simple chasms, which aren’t helped by the unresponsive and awkward controls. The design of the foreground and the background can make platforming confusing, making it hard to differentiate platforms from decoration. The game forces far too many encounters with the enemies which sometimes give the player no choice but to stand their ground, leaving no time for any strategy of dealing with the threat and forces the player to handle the unresponsive, sluggish control scheme. The fact that Randall can’t swim despite being a Park Ranger becomes irritating when you’re forced for wrestle with the controls to take inaccurate leaps of faith over traps and deep water. It’s as if the game expects the player to develop some kind of second sight to avoid constant, cheap deaths. The story has no original concept whatsoever and shamelessly rips-off other zombie-based stories, pretending to present the player with an intriguing and artful storyline when it’s nothing but a rehash of what you’ve seen and heard before. The flashbacks of Randall’s wife and daughter are a very contrived attempt of making the game emotional when at this point the player could care less when the irritable game mechanics are more of a problem than the objective of Randall’s frustrating trial and error quest. When the player does discover the ending, it comes across as insulting because the big twist is so blatantly obvious from the outset the end result has no shock value whatsoever.
Death in video games are meant to teach the player something. They are an indication that a puzzle wasn’t solved correctly or that the proper strategy for taking on a foe was not thought out. In survival-horror video games the mechanics challenge the player in more ways than most other genres. Death is something to absolutely avoid and survival is key since the player would rather not see their vulnerable, weak character being slaughtered by a cosmic monstrosity. In Amnesia: the Dark Descent the player has no weapons and learns to creep cautiously though the dark to the next puzzle while doing their best to avoid the nightmarish horrors that await. In the earlier Silent Hill games the player begins to manage their scarce resources carefully and cleverly choose when to flee or fight monsters while mastering the awkward combat. In Lone Survivor the player learns how to use special items, navigate the darkness and decides whether to avoid mutant horrors or stand and fight. Finally in Limbo, constant deaths usually reoccur since the entire environment is hostile and deaths in Limbo are never pleasant to look at. The player begins to figure out the platforms and successfully continue to the next area. In Deadlight however, deaths are nothing more than a means to punish the player for not developing clairvoyance for seeing where the next zombie or trap is or for being unable to master the crippled gaming machanics. Tequilla Works certainly how to create a hostile and creepy atmosphere, but the awkward controls, unfair platforming, tiresome puzzles, uninspired story and frequent deaths which teach the player nothing hold none of the atmospheric experience up.
This game could have been one great horror video game. It starts off brilliantly and lures you into this dangerous, unfamiliar and horrifying world. Yet the more you play the more it become apparent that there is much missing from this game which prevents it from become a classic survival-horror gaming experience. You’re better off looking elsewhere for your survival-horror fix. Games such as Lone Survivor or Limbo do side-scrolling horror far better.
This review was based on a retail download copy of the game for the PC provided by Tequila Works.