Lost in the Wilderness

The Deer God

HIGH: Provides (sometimes unintentionally) challenging gameplay

LOW: Progress is frequently impeded by bugs.

WTF: Those monkeys had better not be flinging what I think they are.

As night falls over a woodland camp site, a hunter spots a majestic stag that would make a fine trophy. He focuses his sights onto the beast, his shot ricochets to hit a young fawn instead of his intended target. Then, the hunter’s soul is taken into a strange limbo where he stands before a massive deer-like deity who demands he redeem himself for the actions committed against her kind. Cast back to earth, he is reborn as the very fawn he killed, and ordered to assist the beasts he previously harmed.

The premise of a human transforming into an animal as some form of karmic retribution for wrongdoings has been around since the time of Ovid, or before. When it’s used in contemporary media, it tends to be executed poorly, usually delivering a heavy-handed moral. This is the approach The Deer God takes, using the premise as a critique of the “evils” of hunting and how important it is to respect nature—a theme which crumbles when playing the game.

As the transformed deer wanders the land in his search for atonement, his actions are judged based on a morality scale. Defending animals threatened by predators or killing hostile creatures contributes to the Light meter, while attacking wildlife or failing to protect a deer in danger fills the Dark meter. It’s a simplistic implementation of morality that ultimately undermines the narrative altogether. The tale sets itself up as a way of teaching a hunter to respect the sanctity of life, yet rewards this hunter for killing animals which the deer consider threats, even when they aren’t directly endangered. It exposes the Deer God and Elders as hypocrites who look down on humans for hunting their kind, but have their own standards about which lives have value and which don’t.

Both Light and Dark karma accumulate during the course of the game and the ending is determined by which meter is filled more. In both of my runs, the Light scale was greater, so I had a choice of what fate to accept—a choice lifted from the finale of Disney’s Brother Bear. I could choose to remain a deer and embrace the glory of nature, or return to human form but still be given one final message about how hunting is barbaric and those who participate in it deserve to die. I’m guessing that the conclusion for a full Dark meter would have been some smug Twilight Zone-inspired twist to further punish the player, but I have no interest in playing through again to see such an outcome.

Technically, The Deer God is a fairly standard platformer with some roguelike elements, which appears to be the new standard for games with a retro-inspired voxel aesthetic.

There are a small number of varied environments which appear in a different layout with each game. In addition to traditional hazards like instant-death spike pits and crumbling platforms, each biome has its own unique hazards like falling icicles in the tundra, quicksand in the desert, and wildfires in the forest.

Enemies also demonstrate variety in their attacks: hunters attack from a distance with spears or rifles, skunks release a noxious cloud with a small area of affect, and demons throw projectile energy spheres. Emphasizing the importance of survival, the game also employs a hunger meter. If the player doesn’t frequently gather food, their health will gradually deplete.

The longer the player travels without dying, the more energy they’ll accumulate to grow into a more mature deer. There are four stages between fawn and stag, each having greater strength, attack power and stamina than the previous one. During the player’s journey they’ll be given additional abilities by the Elders, usually after doing a favor for them. The best of these skills is the Dash attack, which not only allows for a more powerful head-butt, but is useful in crossing gaps, attacking enemies in mid-air, and breaking through stones to open new paths.

The ultimate goal is to collect six relics to place in a shrine as a demonstration of the hunter’s penance. These relics are obtained through defeating bosses or assisting an NPC with a problem. If players lack the items or skills necessary to carry out the task, then the game will loop until they find what they need, eliminating the need to unnecessarily backtrack. I found it odd that despite the Deer God’s demand that the hunter atone for his actions against deer, most of the characters he assists are human.

Surprisingly The Deer God is more forgiving than most roguelikes. Health is gradually restored over time when not under attack. Dying only ends the game on the hardest difficulty, while the normal setting has checkpoints scattered about the terrain. Deer skull tokens can also be collected to instantly revive the player after dying, though the frequency at which they’re encountered is randomly generated.

While I mostly enjoyed the gameplay, I was frequently taken out of the experience by a number of bugs. For instance, there were points where I was unable to reach higher areas because I’d simply fall through platforms that should hold me. Items would drop, yet I couldn’t pick them up. I had to quit to the menu twice after respawning because my deer became invisible, or because everything but the skybox disappeared. The worst problem was regularly dying because my health would deplete at random even though I wasn’t being attacked or near a hazard.

It’s very likely that many of the glitches I encountered will be fixed with future patches. Even with these problems resolved, however, I have no desire to return to The Deer God. It tells a story I’ve heard already and never really cared for, and its intended message is rendered meaningless by a shallow morality system. The gameplay doesn’t offer much that makes it stand out from other similar titles, either. True, they might not offer a deep analysis of complex themes like karma and reincarnation, but then again, neither does The Deer God. Rating: 4 out of 10

Disclosures: This game was obtained from the publisher and played on the PC. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single player campaign which was completed twice (once on normal difficulty, once on hardcore). No time was spent on multiplayer mode.

Parents: This game has not yet been rated by the ESRB or PEGI. Animals spurt pixelated blood droplets when attacked, but aside from that there’s nothing that could upset young or squeamish players.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Aside from the Deer God’s dialogue, all speech and instructions are provided through text. The game does not rely on audio cues to progress.

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