I was thinking about zombie apocalypses the other day, and I came to the conclusion that the worst thing about a zombie apocalypse – other than the looming spectre of an imminent and messy death, obviously – would be the amount of clean up required. I mean, let’s say you find a fairly safe location to start building up a little fortress. Have you seen the level of damage most buildings instantly suffer thanks to zombie apocalypses? Seriously, why are all buildings suddenly dilapidated ruins? And let’s assume the apocalypse ends and the zombies all disappear; how long would it take to get rid of all the corpses, get the buildings back to a decent condition, and make the general area look like something other than a country that’s been bombed for three years straight? Nightmare. Still, might do something for property prices.
Depressingly, Deadlight is not the zombie-based clean-’em-up I’ve been hoping for since, ooh, four days ago. Happily, though, it’s rather bloody good.
It’s also a game that wears its inspirations on its sleeve. There are more that I’ll namedrop as we discuss the similar mechanics, but the most obvious are Another World and Flashback (in terms of Deadlight being a side-scrolling platformer with puzzles, combat, and a penchant for instant death). The game’s cutscenes – shown in animated comic book form – are very clearly homages to a little-known work called The Walking Dead, while the majority of the story is… actually, I think the majority of the story has already been done lots of times.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Randall Wayne is a rather athletic everyman caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, and he’s searching the treacherous wasteland for his wife and daughter. To that end he’s working with a small team of fellow survivors and heading for an area called the Safe Point in the hopes that he’ll find his family there. Alas, Things Go Wrong, and Wayne finds himself separated from the group and forced to head out on his own.
There are some nice touches in the details, though. For starters, Wayne’s a bit of a misanthrope-with-a-heart-of-gold; he generally dislikes and distrusts most of the living you meet along the way, despite helping out as best he can. While he’s not given a great amount of character development in the game itself, there’s a rather gargantuan diary (with missing pages scattered around the levels, for some mysterious reason) which helps flesh him out a fair bit.
Also, whoever’s voicing him sounds like a 100-a-day chainsmoker doing an impersonation of Spike Spiegel doing an impersonation of Solid Snake. Whether you think that’s excellent or atrocious is of fair importance, as Wayne monologues a lot.
To get to any of these monologues, though, you have to actually play the game. As noted above, things play out in a manner reminiscent of the old Delphine side-scrollers: Wayne traverses the environment by running, jumping, and clambering along things, usually while trying to find a safe route to the next area.
Deadlight is a very linear game, though; unlike the old side-scrollers, it doesn’t really do wide-open exploration. You’re pretty much always heading from left to right, and while you do occasionally have options as to how best to go about things, there’s generally one “best” path, along which you need to proceed with speed and precision in order to avoid being mobbed and destroyed. Wayne can fight – with a fire axe initially, and with a selection of firearms that have rather limited ammunition later – but evasion is normally the best policy. This is a game about getting from A to B, and the zombies, traps, environmental hazards and puzzles are just enjoyable obstacles for you to overcome.
Fortunately, overcoming things without fighting is fun. Wayne is surprisingly nimble: he’s capable of quickly vaulting small obstacles, clambering hand-over-hand across telephone wires or hanging beams, leaping great distances, smashing through thin barriers, and even performing wall jumps to get a little extra height. As with I Am Alive there’s a slowly-draining stamina bar that ensures you need to rest occasionally, but unlike that game, you don’t need to think about it too much here. Rather than being another obstacle on its own, it’s just something to stop you from endlessly swinging your axe in combat or hanging eternally from a ledge; a balancing mechanic, rather than a major gameplay one.
No, the better comparison would be to Assassin’s Creed (in terms of pure agility and treating an every-day environment as some sort of acrobatic playpen, at least, although Wayne isn’t nearly that athletic) and when you perfectly pass through a section with nary a stumble, the satisfaction calls to mind Mirror’s Edge and Canabalt. Indeed, there’s even a cheeky nod to the latter in one mid-game section that has you leaping for your life across the city’s rooftops.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that the game looks utterly beautiful, which might seem an odd choice of words for a game that’s largely set in a ruined city filled with the dead. The entire foreground is shown in stark silhouette, which gives everything a wonderfully moody feel, while the 3D backgrounds provide a splash of colour and lighting that keep everything from looking too samey and gives a unique sense of place to every environment. The animations for the characters are equally phenomenal; they flow extremely well and, in conjunction with the way the controls work, this provides a genuine sense of weight to every action.
There are a few sticking points for potential buyers, though. The first is that this is an XBLA title cast very much from the same mould as Limbo in terms of the amount of content on offer: you can comfortably get through the entire game in between two and four hours on your first playthrough, and impressive as it is, there are those for whom that simply won’t be enough for 1200 Microsoft Points.
Your playtime depends somewhat on how often you get stuck, too, and Deadlight does have a few problems with signposting. There were three or four occasions on which I couldn’t work out how to proceed, and this generally came down to either a jump being so pixel-perfect I failed a few times and then assumed it was impossible, or the perspective misleading me into thinking an area was impassible. Not everything relevant is right in the foreground, either, and a couple of points require players to knock something loose with a slingshot. Determining what small object that might be, in the field of colour behind you, can be a bit tricky at times.
On the plus side, there is fair reason to replay Deadlight. There are plenty of worthwhile collectibles hidden around the environment, from diary pages to playable handheld LCD games (this is set in the 80s, after all), and the level select screen helpfully points out if there are any you didn’t find in each section. It also keeps track of your best time through each area, and the gameplay is smooth enough that replaying a particularly enjoyable segment in an attempt to get through it as fast as possible is something I think many will consider – particularly when you know what to do at the sticking points mentioned above.
So no, I don’t have any hesitation in recommending Deadlight to most players, even with the main adventure feeling a little too brief. It’s inevitably going to be lumped together with other “zombie games” in the minds of some, but it actually does something fresh and unique both with the theme and with the inspirations it pulls together from games as disparate as Another World and Mirror’s Edge, and it puts them together with enough aplomb that – for my money – it’s certainly worth the asking price.