Always Hungry, Always Just Behind You
HIGH The satisfaction of seeing a zombie’s head go flying after I finally found the axe.
LOW Getting crushed ten times in a row because of awkward controls and a too-tight countdown.
WTF The entirety of the ratman’s world
Chalk another one up to the ‘dour 2D puzzle-platformer’ genre.
Of course, it’s not entirely fair to categorize the Deadlight Director’s Cut as another ‘one of those’ but playing this directly after Monochroma certainly had the effect of making me sensitive to the ways both games (among others) handle similar situations. While Deadlight has considerably more combat than most, this genre focuses primarily on making the player feel weak in the shadow of an oppressive force. Here, that force is an endless horde of the undead.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Deadlight is specifically set during a 1980s zombie crisis, although the year’s mention is strangely specific as nothing relating to the ’80s comes of it. No, everything here is defined by generic zombie story tropes—small bands of survivors fracturing under stress, groups of well-armed raiders, bleak reminiscences of the world before, crumbling infrastructure overrun by the shambling dead… None of it is new, but it’s all effectively used to make sure that players who are familiar with the setup will be willing to go down this well-trodden road again.
The game’s action takes place almost entirely on a 2D plane with the main character in the foreground depicted as a defiant silhouette standing out against beautifully-rendered carnage and chaos in the background. Players are mostly asked to do simple platforming and puzzling—move boxes to overcome obstacles, shoot locks to lower ladders, and so on.
The controls aren’t particularly tight or responsive, but they’re obviously not supposed to be since it owes a lot to the Oddworld games, Prince of Persia, and to a smaller extent, Blackthorne. All of these side-scrollers restrict player movement to make the character feel weak, vulnerable, and—when they’re done well—more realistic. Every movement has the weight of momentum behind it, as it takes the character a while to get moving, and just as long to slow down. The main character is clearly established as a exhausted, lumbering hulk nearing the end of his rope. The animation does a great job of selling this character, making every movement feel like it could be his last few steps.
This kind of movement reflects Deadlight‘s world well, as the developers have built a truly haunting and believable post-apocalyptic environment. Whether it’s a hospital gutted by fire, the remnants of a neighborhood, or a sports stadium-turned-charnel house, all but one of the game’s locations is a perfectly realized urban obstacle course. Yes, each is just a linear path to be moved through from left to right, but the constant threat of the dead looming in every background and behind every door keeps things tense. Seeing familiar and grounded locations transformed into deathtraps makes for an immediate sense of unease.
There is one notably out-of-place level, though. At one point the main character will find himself trapped under the city’s streets, wandering through cavernous sewers which have been transformed into an elaborate death maze by a madman. This level takes the game from being a desperate struggle to survive and transforms it into contrived nonsense. In this section, the main character goes from fighting off zombies with an axe or scrounging for bullets to raising water levels to create a crate bridge or using a slingshot to trigger a switch that lowers a wicker elevator. The whole level feels completely at odds with the rest of the game, and stops the narrative in its tracks just before the endgame gets rolling. It’s a misstep that I can’t understand, and it comes close to crippling the whole experience.
However, even with that huge misstep, Deadlight is still a success. It’s as grueling and intense as dour puzzle-platformers come, and thanks to its striking visuals and deliberate pacing, it proves an interesting and unique take on the overstuffed ‘zombpocalypse’ genre. With its tight gameplay, (mostly) great level design, and troubling vision of America in collapse, Deadlight deserves to be recognized as a standout in the genre.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Tequillaworks and published by Deep Silver. It is currently available on PS4 and XBOne. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains violence, blood, sexual themes, strong language . No kids anywhere near this one, please. Omnipresent death and bloody violence is the order of the day, not to mention all of the threatened rape. Also, for no clear reason, the game’s main collectible is a set of serial killer driver’s licenses. It’s odd.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game has no key audio cues, so you should be able to play it without much trouble. Every now and then you’ll be alerted to the presence of zombies by the sound of them banging on a door, but there are usually visual cues to tip you off as well.
Remappable Controls: The game does not offer remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.