Could I survive a zombie outbreak? That’s the question Tequila Works hopes you ask yourself – and answer – while playing their XBLA Summer of Arcade title Deadlight. Deadlight is set in the 1980’s well into the “Massive Mess” that changed the world forever. Already a bleak and ruined world, our protagonist Randall Wayne does what he can to survive – all while looking for his family, hoping they somehow made it too.
Deadlight features a unique and stunning art style that accentuates the foreboding times as Randall tries to survive against the “Shadows” – zombie-like creatures with glowing red or white eyes. The term 2.5D for this style of game is a reference to the 2D gameplay with a 3D background, much like fellow Summer of Arcade title Shadow Complex. The foreground lacks details and is portrayed in an inky shadow with only occasional details seeping through. This adds a level of ambiguity and personal input a more detailed art style would deprive players. This is often beautifully contrasted with an active and occasionally vibrant background. Often it was hard to concentrate on the foreground and the “Shadows” approaching nearby while trying to take in all the details of the background.
There are a number of cinematic mechanics used to both convey a sense of excitement and further the storyline. The graphic novel style cutscenes – while their voice acting and translation could have use improvement – convey their meaning respectably. These comics progress the plot and give insight into the character of Randall. In-game cutscenes are also used to when a shorter transition is needed from one area to another.
There will be times when control is taken from the player in order to complete an animation while creating tension. At other times the transition isn’t so smooth. Picking up one of the many hidden collectibles takes a precious few seconds that could mean being swarmed by the undead. In true survival form one or two undead aren’t a problem, but a swarm spells near-instant doom.
Deadlight intertwines many of the best 2D survival mechanics with modern sensibilities, often lacking in modern survival horror games. While the occasional shock scare is used, it’s done in such an infrequent and well-placed manner that they don’t detract from the experience. A survival horror fan will tell you it’s not just the easy scares, but the moments when your heart pounds and palms sweat for in reaction to the situation that is the true worth of the genre. Premeditating your plan of attack – or retreat – based on the situation and tools are well represented.
The most common feature in the gameplay is the use of puzzles. Whether traversing underground layers or suburban developments puzzles can be found everywhere in order to progress. Sometimes these puzzles are as simple as whether to avoid or attack a lone “Shadow”; other times they are literal obstacle courses blocking your path.
To solve these puzzles Randall is given a few tools, not least of which is the ability to manipulate the situation to his advantage. The most basic and commonly used tool is the use of sound. The infected are mindless – in many cases hilariously so – which results in them reacting to sounds and movement on a primal level. Positioning yourself on the other side a pit and whistling causes the creatures on the other side to heedlessly charge towards you to their [re]death. Conversely, setting of an alarm on the other side of the room could distract the “Shadows” long enough to escape.
Climbing and avoiding conflict is the method of choice for our hero, climbing above the heads of the shambling masses below helps keep him safe. Using the environment to his advantage is his greatest asset; however, it would be fair to say that the environment is most often his greatest threat as well.
It’s surprising how much modern games portray their characters as one-man armies blasting through hordes of the undead. Realistically, firing off a gun would be powerful but quickly attract surrounding infected resulting in a lack of bullets far before running out of undead. Deadlight believes in the realistic approach.
To not leave you completely defenseless though, axes and guns are available for more direct combat with the undead horde. Not only are bullets a rare commodity, you will often debate using them in all but the direst of circumstances. Most often the firemen’s axe will be the weapon of choice to avoid attracting more of the undead. At least till the last few scenes of the game when ammo becomes more available.
This leads to the two most important and vital of commodities in Deadlight – health and stamina. Stamina is used in order to run, wall bounce, hang or climb and especially to swing your axe. When the stamina runs low, Randall becomes visibly tired – he slows down, swings take longer and the screen blurs with his heavy breathing. Being mindful of stamina becomes an important factor in how you approach situations, though it never feels overly punishing.
Health can be depleted by being attacked or damaged by the environment, such as falling from ledges. While health packs are generously spaced throughout the game, dying is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, more often than not you can expect to die multiple times in each of the three acts.
While Deadlight seemingly rises above the many tropes and conventions of its survival horror genre, it doesn’t mean it is immune. Dying will be a regular occurrence for much of the play through. Trying to catch the ledge seemingly just out of reach can feel a matter of pinpoint accuracy that only luck can achieve. At some points it’s only after you die can you see from the right angle to realize what you should have done differently. These moments seem to punish the player simply for not having played the level before and cause an endless cascade of color words. Fast loading screens and the occasional suction cup to a ledge can only ease the pain so often.
There are a number of different scenarios from crumbling supports to gunmen chasing you, but in the end they are another common convention – the timed escape. As a great way to build tension and heart rates, they have their place. Where they go wrong is when there’s no clue you’re in one till after you’re already doomed, showing another example of learning after you die through trial and error.
Deadlight does a great job of conveying the feeling of progress and learning from mistakes even through the multiple deaths. It’s the moment when you achieve what you’ve been trying to that truly shines as the redeeming factor, having learned what you needed to do and getting it done. When everything comes together the fluid motions and acrobatics Randall – and thereby you – display are both beautiful and fill you with pride. Whether you feel you beat the puzzle or the game there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment and reward that will keep you coming back for more.
Another weak chink in Deadlight‘s armor is it leaves you wishing there were more. That’s certainly not a bad thing for a game to leave you wanting to play hours upon hours more, but the ending builds up and comes just too quickly. With only three acts my the first run through took approximately 3.5 hrs of play (2.5hrs of game time) to complete – a potential turn-off in a market where people are looking for more bang for their Xbox space dollars. To fight this, Tequila Works has integrated a number of features to keep players returning for more.
First, there are the hidden collectibles spread across the three acts. In many cases, the 2D platform genre dictates traveling to the right, but to find some hidden items an alternate track to the left is required. Some collectibles are I.D. Cards showing the name and details about deceased people who haven’t been as successful staying alive as Randall. Others like the journal pages (don’t ask how is journal got spread across the world) reveal more about the world, how it came to be, how it changed and most importantly, more about Randall as a character. These collectibles unlock a backstory otherwise missed and give a number of incentives to retry acts. There are also three mini-games across the three acts reminiscent and portrayed as old handheld single cartridge units – each with their own score and achievements associated with them.
Second, the leaderboards track the time taken to complete each act and the percentage of hidden items found within. A speedy time may bump a player up a few notches, but a slower player who collects all 100% of the hidden items might find themselves higher on the ladder. Since completing each level thoroughly and quickly takes a certain level of not only skill but familiarity, the leaderboard rewards dedication. For the completionist and hunter in us all, this competition among friends and strangers could drive countless attempts as bettering their score.
As much as I enjoyed Deadlight, I recognize the downsides as well. It reaches for a level reserved for beloved titles such a Limbo and Flashback, which inspired it (read my Interview with Tequila Work’s Creative Director Raúl Rubio Munárriz) but – as Randall often does – it doesn’t quite make it. Dying because you haven’t learned how to beat the game is different that dying because you haven’t learned.
The 2D gameplay, harsh puzzles and short predictable story might turn some people off; however, if it does, then you’re not seeing the beauty behind the ghoul. The brutal environment creates an exhilarating adrenaline rush punctuated by moments of frustration, but rewarded with a deep sense of satisfaction upon completion. The predictable story is no less meaningful, and the short campaign means replaying for high score and personal bests can be attempted in short sittings over and over. The gorgeous graphics makes for an enticing pull back to the world as well, not just for the player but observers as well.
As the first game for the newly formed Tequila Works studio, Deadlight leaves me very hopeful. The fact they were chosen as a new studio to be showcased in Xbox’s XBLA Summer of Arcade promotion gives me hope Microsoft sees their potential as well. I’m looking forward to what Tequila Works can do next with a little more time, and a project together under their belt.
Overall Deadlight isn’t for everyone – especially if you’re not a 2D platformer fan – but it’s still one of the best games in it’s genre on XBLA this year.