Deadlight, the third title in this year’s Summer of Arcade promotion, is brimming with potential. A zombie game that replaces the standard first-person combat with slick, responsive platforming, Tequila Works’ first project deserves credit for taking a tired set of tools and crafting something that feels undeniably unique. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief as you forgo bludgeoning the hordes of zombies and instead spend time sprinting and leaping to the nearest, safest location.
It’s a welcomed change in the land of the undead, but all that running begins to feel less meaningful as the narrative begins to collapse. The initial promise that stems from the leading character’s inner turmoil matched with a sinister, bleak world quickly bends under the weight of amateurish voice work and inconsistent storytelling. Character believability, along with suspense, rapidly wanes before this squat adventure even reaches its climax, making it increasingly difficult to care about how it all concludes. Deadlight creates moments of bliss among a steady stream of narrative disconnects, but as a complete package, the game just doesn’t hold up.
Hope isn’t exactly abundant in Deadlight’s alternate version of 1986 America. A rapidly spreading disease has transformed millions of people into shadows of their former selves – feeding on those who still fight to survive. Self-preservation is all that drives those not yet infected, but not all hope in the heart of man is lost. Randall Wayne, while solitary and independent, fights to find his wife and child among the chaos. Other figures dealing with the realities of the apocalypse may come into contact and even assist Randall on his quest to protect his family, but the true focus is on one man overcoming both a world gone mad and dreams that refuse to stop haunting him.
The dark, brooding nature of Wayne feels pitch perfect in the game’s front end. This is a world revenged by not only those unfortunate enough to become infected by the disease, but also survivors who seek power in an unstable world. A personal diary that covers Wayne’s life before and after the pandemonium, which is fleshed out by the discovery of missing pages hidden throughout the various levels, paints an even more pronounced picture of the solitary-yet-caring “hero.”
Yet, that image begins to crumble as voice-over work comes into play. Wayne is constantly making unnecessary one-liners as he searches for his family, and beyond the actual performance coming off as flat and awkward, the statements he makes don’t coincide with the character being built up in the diary. The independent journeyman developed in the expertly written pages of the journal clashes with the ham-fisted nature of the actual character being played. Repeated phrases like “I have to find my friends!” are thrown out far too often for a man who loves little more than the mountains and his family, and even that statements that match his personality just sound clumsy and forced. All interaction among characters in the game never goes beyond being awkward and uninspired, and it doesn’t take long to stop caring about a story with an ending too obvious for its own good.
The misguided narrative package does little to detract from the mechanical side of the experience, though. Similar to classic Prince of Persia, Deadlight focuses on building momentum to execute precise platforming sequences. Running across rooftops and leaping over large gaps feels fantastic, and while marginally-clunky combat has a tendency to slow your roll, it’s easy enough to avoid so that it doesn’t become a problem. Some light puzzle solving that incorporates Wayne’s guns, slingshot and axe also makes an appearance, but it’s smartly integrated into the platforming so that it never feels forced.
A stamina bar that quickly depletes with every action makes taking down the unrelenting enemies quite the chore. A single shot to the head will get the job done, but with such limited ammo, you’ll often have to resort to the heavy swing of the axe. It’s a useful tool in a one-on-one scenario, but melee combat becomes almost useless as the figures in front of you begin to build. There’s no real reward to blasting the endless stream of undead fodder, so if possible, it’s best to never stop moving forward.
If you do find yourself enjoying Wayne’s tumultuous journey, you may be surprised by how soon the credits begin to roll. Other than an online leaderboard, the only content in Deadlight is a campaign that lasts less than two hours. For a $15 dollar title, that’s a difficult sell. There are collectables that must be obtained in order to see 100 percent completion, but other than that, there’s no real reason to replay the game. A slick, comic-book aesthetic during cinematic moments and clever use of silhouettes on characters make this a game that’s easy on the eyes, but the flashy package does little to save a flawed core. Sadly, there’s nothing groundbreaking in Deadlight’s two hours that warrants that price.
Some elements of Deadlight are very attractive. Its shadowy presentation and tight feel are worth acknowledgement, but the game’s repeated narrative mishaps make it a difficult game to truly enjoy. It’s easy to guess exactly how the story will conclude well before the two hours are up, and that makes reaching that ending even less appealing. Tequila Works is still a young development studio, and I feel confident that it will create more comprehensive games in the future. For now, though, spend your $15 elsewhere.
Deadlight was developed by Tequila Works and published by Microsoft. An XBLA copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.