Zombies may be all the rage in gaming these days, but in Deadlight, the undead are far from gratuitous eye candy. Here, they are a real threat. You can't just run-and-gun your way through like Rambo and hope to survive. Instead, it's best to treat them as an obstacle to overcome. Intelligent maneuvering and skillful use of the environment beat out using a bullet any day.
Set in the mid-'80s, Deadlight tells the story of a man trapped in the throes of a dying world. A virus outbreak has consumed much of North America, killing and then re-animating the corpses. The shadows, as the game calls them, aren't your traditional zombies. They may not be the most intelligent, but they are very fast and very strong. Running into one is doable. Getting caught in a group of two or three can be a death sentence.
Thematically, Deadlight gets credit for taking a risk and making death a lynchpin of the game. Characters die in plenty of video games, but in Deadlight, the concept of death is everywhere. It bleeds through into everything and anything in the game. The shadows are the most immediate embodiment of that, but there are also the horrors that are highlighted amongst the survivors. From the remnants of ruined homes that show normal people turning on their neighbors to the paramilitary forces that abuse civilians, Deadlight takes the cruelty of man and forces it front and center at every opportunity.
The focus on death and depravity even extends to the collectibles hidden throughout the game. Some of the items you can pick up are ID cards from dead bodies. Each and every one features the name of a notorious serial killer from the past century. You're not likely to realize it on the first pick-up, but after the second and third names appear on your screen, the realization dawns fairly quickly. Highlighting the names of such killers is disturbing on some level, but at that same time, that is the point of Deadlight. While it occasionally comes across as exploitative, the game is not shy about highlighting the worst aspects of man.
Much of Deadlight's story is revealed through flashbacks and diary pages. The diary relates the events of the past few months, ending right when the game begins. Much of the diary is available to read from the outset, with the exception of a few key pages. These missing pages are scattered throughout the game and re-inserted into the diary when found. In general, Deadlight's story is solid, and the anguish faced by the protagonist as he searches for his lost family is real, though the heavy use of foreshadowing makes the ending a foregone conclusion long before the mystery is solved and the answers revealed. The majority of players are likely to deduce the fate of the main character's family well before the climax of the story.
From a gameplay perspective, Deadlight owes much to old-school 2-D platform games like Prince of Persia. Most of the challenge comes from figuring out your environment and learning how to navigate it safely. Some of the individual sections can be particularly harsh, killing you the instant a misstep is made; however, infinite lives encourage experimentation. Sometimes, the best thing to do is simply to try something new.
As a result, making headway in Deadlight is really a matter of learning the correct path through a given level. Once you have figured out a solution, maneuvering from point A to point B can be done rather quickly. At that point, the only real issue is the control.
If Deadlight's level design is its strength, the lack of nimble control is its greatest weakness. The control isn't bad per se, but it is very deliberate. Switching from one motion to another results in a distinct delay between button input and what you see play out on-screen. Given that some sections require precise timing, there can be an occasional disconnect between what you expect your character to do and what he actually does.
For example, at one point, you have to fire at an enemy behind you before turning and jumping over a barricade. If you press right and then jump, your character moves as expected. If you tap reload, press right and then jump, the game skips over the "move right" input and jumps to the left. In other sections, you have to quickly jump down, crouch and duck into a tunnel before a trap drops. If you land, pause for a breath, crouch and then move, it's all good. If you try to land, crouch and move, you end up just sitting there.
Similar behavior can also been seen when trying to jump off a hanging ledge. Most of the time, it works as intended, but every so often, your character just sits there. It's almost as if the game's input buffer is getting overloaded, and random button presses are dropped as a result. For the majority of the game, this isn't an issue, but during the tightly timed running sequences, it can be particularly annoying; the problem isn't figuring out what you need to do, but rather, how to convince your character to actually do it.
The only other real issue with Deadlight is its length. Even with time considered for collecting missed secrets, there is really only about four to five hours of content at best. It's a great ride running through it the first time, but after that, the only replay value is in speed-running the three acts. Earning all the achievements doesn't add much to the game time, as Deadlight offers them up just as willingly as last fall's NCIS game. At least the achievements are creatively named nods to famous '80s tunes.
Gamers who save to a memory stick will get an occasional profile error from Deadlight, with it claiming the storage device has been removed. Oddly, the error seems cosmetic rather than real. Despite popping up a few times during our review, Deadlight never lost a save or resulted in corrupted data.
It's obvious that Deadlight is a game that was born of passion. It's not perfect, but it is by no means a cookie-cutter cash grab. Given the short length, limited replay value and 1,200 MSP ($15 USD) price point, it is difficult to recommend across the board. For genre fans, though, Deadlight is a refreshing take on the zombie trope and an experience that stands on its own.
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