“Zombies, why’d it have to be zombies?” Other than making me bastardise a quote from Raiders of the Lost Ark, these shambling skinbags have managed to invade our homes just like they’ve managed to hinder the fictional towns and lives of characters found in the plethora of zombie related tat on the market. If you couldn’t already tell, I hate zombies; and I find them to be the single most dull creation that gaming has ever seen – nothing more than a bag of meat, for meatheads to shoot. A bag of meat that should have died in the 90s along with all the 80s films that they filled.
The thought of having to play yet another game infested with zombies really didn’t sit well with me. Running from and shooting shuffling corpses just sounds so painfully dull, in fact I’d go as far to say that by including zombies in a game is a sure fire way to completely turn me off from wanting to play a game. However, after I – somewhat reluctantly – sat down to play Tequila Work’s debut game Deadlight, I didn’t find the zombie filled game I was expecting; I found a tale of a lone man’s journey through hell. I found a game with zombies in that was more than shooting brain hungry corpses, I found a game that did it right.
Set in an alternate 1986 Seattle, the World has played host to a catastrophic disaster and the dead have come to life as an unknown disease spreads across the globe. Filling the boots and trenchcoat of ex park ranger Randall Wayne, you’re as well informed about what’s going on as he is. After being forced out of his home town in the sleepy village of Hope in British Columbia, he joins up with a rag-tag band of survivors who are making their way to the supposed salvation found in Seattle – this is where you take control of his journey.
This rather dark tale sees you journeying in search of Randall’s daughter and wife who, he believes, have reached the safety of the city. Peppered with some odd folk here and there – including one charming individual who has set up a grisly gauntlet for you to surmount – Deadlight is mostly focused on you travelling alone and feels much more like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, dealing with isolation and the crippling visions of the past that permeate Randall’s brain.
Gameplay itself is focused around moving through simple puzzles and 2D platforming sections, and collecting remnants from the world that everyone has left behind. The role that the zombies – or Shadows as they’re known - have is really rather minimal in the grand scheme of things. Of course they’re an enemy and a force to be feared, however your encounters with them are largely over quickly and – if you’re lucky – occur rarely. If you let yourself become overwhelmed by Shadows then you’re going to be dead very quickly, but luckily they loom in the background of many levels – meaning that if you’re quiet and quick enough you can slip by without disturbing them and have them shuffle into the screen towards you.
Tequila Works have really done a good job in integrating the Shadows into the world around you. No longer are they the main focus of a game, sure you can shoot them – when you have precious bullets to spare – hack at them with an axe, or trap them under falling scenery and on electric grids, but that’s all done to survive and move forward. This is a tale of how one man survives alone in a world gone mad, not a bloodbath for zombie aficionados to revel in. In fact, the major threat in Deadlight are the other humans that you encounter – that or the rather clumsy controls.
Yes, the downfall to a rather wonderfully crafted world comes from sloppy controls. While you would think mapping movement to the directional pad would make sense in a 2D platformer, that is not the case with Deadlight – thus leading to moments where you fail to execute a jump correctly or leap forwards instead of up due to slightly wonky stick placement. It’s made all the more infuriating when you’re tasked with making pinpoint jumps – jumps that the controls just can’t replicate with the degree of accuracy needed. I regularly found myself impaled on spikes or drowning at the bottom of pools of water – as strangely Randall, the ex-park ranger, can’t swim (maybe the national park he worked in had no rivers or lakes) – due to awkward controls. I only managed to get past such stages by jumping long before I otherwise would need to, and hoping I didn’t graze that bloody impassable object on landing.
Conversely, Deadlight is at it’s best when these painful obstacle courses of hell aren’t rearing their ugly heads. When the pace picks up, and the slow methodical crawl of rudimentary puzzle solving and platforming melts away, Deadlight is pretty darn good. Moments where you’re running across roofs or jumping over, and ducking under, fences really grip you. Feeling perhaps a little bit like Canabalt, it’s these running sections that also manage to successfully pile on the tension as Shadows chase after you as you leap over their heads, tackle them to the ground, or nervously wait for an automated door to winch up for you to slip underneath. It’s the moments where you falter, and feel the hairs on your neck pricking up as you frantically try to get Randall to stand up once more, so you can sprint again before Shadows bear down on you. This fear is complimented by a stamina gauge that depletes, creating a blurry view of the world and allows the dull, empty, thud of Randall’s heartbeat to resonate.
Deadlight’s fantastic audio score also helps create a game environment that’s enjoyable to play through – as visually it’s all really rather similar and simplistic. Those frantic running sections are accompanied by orchestral drama with the stabbing sound of violins playing at crucial moments to scare the bejesus out of you and up the tension. Conversely the quiet, more sombre moments of isolated gameplay are accompanied by softer and mellower music, yet still eerie enough to put you on edge for what could be behind a door or through a window. It’s safe to say Tequila Works have done a grand job of scoring a 2D platformer to still make it seem creepy despite it’s interaction limitations.
However, the soundtrack is about the only decent audio element to Deadlight as character voiceovers are really rather poor – sorry to all the actors who provided the voices, I’m sure you gave it your all. Randall’s voice is always strangely quizzical, even when all he’s doing is delivering an inner monologue, and the voices of other characters are pretty wooden – either that or overly enthusiastic for no reason. Every line delivered feels like someone’s just been reading off a sheet rather than delivering a performance. It may only seem minor, but after going to the effort of creating a decent soundtrack to help immerse you in the world, it seems very counterproductive to provide voices that rip you right out.
One rather interesting addition to the world of Deadlight is Randall’s diary. Included as an extra, with torn out pages for you to find in the game world, the diary is – in my opinion – the finest part about Deadlight‘s narrative. It may not be very well written – which could either be down to generally poor writing or an emulation of how Randall himself would write – but it’s well worth a read as it details the events leading up to the diaster you wind up in. It provides backstory onto Randall’s life and shows his slow unravelling at the hands of a Shadow infested world. Tequila Works have understood that not everyone wants to play a game bogged down in story and background, and so for those players who want to explore everything Deadlight has to offer the diary is there for them to read. I urge you, read the diary as it’ll improve your experience innumerably - shifting the game from a running and jumping romp through infected country, into a journey about reconnecting with reality.
For a debut game, Tequila Works’ Deadlight is an enjoyable tale of one mans journey through Shadow filled lands as he searches for his family and a reason to live. It may not be perfect, but for the unpleasantly flooded genre of games featuring zombies in, Deadlight does well to eschew them from the spotlight, turning them into a footnote about what the world has become. Zombie fans may be disappointed that this isn’t the gun-ho romp they may have been looking for, but if you’re sat around twiddling your thumbs waiting for the return of the big hitters at the end of August, then this Summer of Arcade title is definitely worth looking at.
Audio/Visual – 3/5: Creates a great vision of a dark and degrading world at the hands of a zombie apocalypse, however locations blend into one with their rather bland design. Although the games soundtrack is fantastic and adds a lot to gameplay, it’s the poor voice acting that lets it down and ruins the immersion.
Gameplay – 2/5: Enjoyable on the whole but the controls really let it down and stop this title from really shining.
Value – 3/5: Costing a reasonable 1200MSP, you won’t feel hard done by even if you don’t decide to go back through and pick up the collectables you left behind.
Innovation – 3/5: It doesn’t add anything new to the platforming genre, however Tequila Works should be commended on their wonderful handling of zombies in Deadlight‘s narrative.
Final Score: 3.5/5