Enough psychological terror and nightmares from our The Cat Lady review? Need something a bit more down to earth? What about zombies?
Tequila Works gives us an interesting mix of a 2D platformer with survival horror elements and shows that Deadlight is one of the most exciting games of the Summer of Arcade titles (of which the already excellent Dust: An Elysian Tail was a part of) and another reason to get involved with XBLA (or Steam if you own a PC).
In a zombie-infested world, a man is looking for his family while trying to survive.
Welcome to the new cruel world
The story and characters are nothing new or very deep, but then again The Walking Dead didn’t need an overcomplicated plot either, and it’s more a survival of one man who got separated by a group the player didn’t have a chance to get to know. What the game does very well is the way how background information is provided. Starting in media res, tension and excitement are created, and only later can the player discover more about the world he is in. Some remains of dead people, newspaper clippings, ID cards tell individual or general stories, but the most intriguing narrative device is Randall Wayne’s, the main protagonist’s, diary. The pages he finds give an insight into his past, and the more he uncovers, the more unsettling it becomes. Very well written are also the monologues he gives when traversing the overrun or destroyed environment.
Mixing genres to great effect
A platformer fused with shooting elements and many set pieces sounds like the 2D-version of Uncharted, and in a way that’s true, but with many pitfalls and ensuing deaths it comes closer to the older Oddworld and Tomb Raider titles, only with an emphasis on storytelling. Fast reflexes and precise timing are the key to survival, and even with those the game can get a bit unfair, particularly in one scene where the player is chased by a military helicopter. Countless restarts have to be endured, but despite the spiky difficulty curve, it’s a rewarding experience.
This is mainly because of how engaging the story is: progression in the game feels more like playing an interactive movie. Not only platform and shooting sections, but also dream/nightmare sequences permeate the game, and this is something rarely seen in such a genre. Moving from one screen to the next might sometimes result in death if the player is not careful enough, but if he is too slow, the zombies can easily get the upper hand and it’s already game over before he knows it. Shooting is something of a last resort, because aiming and pulling the trigger can take a while (in a later level it becomes extremely annoying), so good planning with alternate routes are essential.
Surviving the environmental hazards
Fighting can become quite hectic and what makes it harder is a stamina bar, so Randall can only use a melee weapon as long as he has some strength left. Wielding an axe looks pretty cool, and with some skill it’s even possible to decapitate zombies, but usually they are quite resistent, and when they’re down, they will get up again if the player doesn’t finish them off. Generally the best idea is to just run or find other means to get rid of them as the protagonist can be brought down pretty fast and with more than one zombie grabbing him it’s restart time again, with some short, but annoying loading times.
It’s interesting how the player can interact with the environment and use it to his advantage to dispose of enemies. Some puzzles can only be solved by shooting windows or moving boxes, while others later get quite tricky. They might not be the most inventive solutions, but overall the level design is quite good. Granted, some mechanics repeat themselves and it’s sometimes hard to figure out what to do, but usually progression is quite fluent. Checkpoints are present, but some are placed a bit unfair, and what’s extremely annoying is the fact that after quitting the game, a lot of scenes have to be replayed.
Looks and sounds so real or surreal
The presentation is another part where the game shines. Close to photorealism, the background visuals are stunning. The 2D graphics offer a high degree of detail and depth, as there is always something happening and to look at, like zombies moving into the foreground. There are also some nice tricks which this perspective offers in terms of storytelling. Not to spoil too much, there are some parts of the game where moving in only one direction does not only look extremely cool, but offers something unlike anything seen before. It might sound mundane, but going through a dilapidated house, climbing stairs, jumping to the next house window or experiencing a no-shooting-no-jumping section in this style makes for a completely different feeling than would be possible if it would just be a generic 3D jump’n’gun imitation of Uncharted or Tomb Raider.
Cutscenes are a different affair as they are not done with ingame graphics (although there are parts in the story where non-interactive dialogue scenes are shown that way) but with hand-drawn black-and-white comic strips. Of course these are quite reminiscent of the Walking Dead series, and to be honest, there are some striking similarities in style and substance. Still they never feel out of place but add to the gritty storytelling and presentation.
Music and sound effects are excellent again and immerse the player even more. Voice acting can seem a bit over-the-top, but it fits the characters and they’re all not mentally stable anyway. What’s extremely satisfying is how the music plays during the different situations in the game. Either there’s a lot of action or there are only creepy sounds in the background to emphasize the lonely survival mood.
Zombie survival horror with a twist
Deadlight is another strong entry in the XBLA indie games catalogue. With its superb presentation it also offers a unique storytelling approach in the 2D sidecrolling platform-shooting genre. With bloody and brutal fights (however this got an 16+ rating in Germany is beyond me), an often creepy atmosphere with a touching story and a surprisingly mature ending, it overshadows shortcomings in the sometimes unfair gameplay and is further evidence how games with a small development team and for a budget price can compete with and even beat triple A products with their originality and production values.
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