The zombie apocalypse theme is well-tread ground in pretty much every entertainment medium these days, so we wouldn’t blame you for looking at Deadlight and thinking that it’s simply more of the same. However, the recent success of the episodic Walking Dead games has proven that the genre can still surprise us, and thankfully Deadlight has also adopted this winning approach.
Developed by Tequila Works and published by Microsoft Game Studios as part of their Summer of Arcade line-up for the Xbox Live Arcade, Deadlight is a smart, challenging and engaging puzzle platformer that took me completely by surprise. If you’re a fan of zombies, but have grown tired of the norm, this is definitely a game you should have on your radar.
Set in the 1980’s on the west coast of the United States, the story of Deadlight is wrought with unfortunate events and human tragedy. You play as Randall Wayne, a solitary survivor who is struggling to persevere amidst a zombie apocalypse that has caused his displacement and the crumbling of the world around him. Through various levels, he must seek out his friends, family and other survivors and stay alive, no minor feat given the hazards he encounters.
The story is propelled through illustrated cutscenes, expository dialogue and diary pages you find throughout the levels. Throughout the game, we learn of Randall’s past, his friends and family, plus his mental state amidst all the chaos. The zombie apocalypse, combined with the struggle to survive, makes up the bulk of the plot.
The tale, for all its focus on narrative and storytelling, is nothing special. It contains many of the typical zombie game tropes, more than a few of the cliches of the genre and a fair amount of predictable plot threads. This will be most noticeable to those who have played through the recently-released Walking Dead games, as the plot definitely feels underdeveloped and lacking in dramatic tension by comparison. Having said that, the focus of the game is on the platforming, so having an overly-dramatic plot feels like less of a necessity here. Overall, the story is serviceable. It provides a decent backdrop for the game, but it is hardly a stand-out feature.
If I were to summarize the gameplay experience of Deadlight, I would say that it combines the storytelling style of The Walking Dead, the expository narrative style of Alan Wake and the core gameplay and dark art style of Limbo. While these games seemingly have little in common, those who have played them will quickly see the influence here. Having enjoyed all three myself, I immediately made the connection, and it added an extra layer to the overall experience. This is not to say that Deadlight is overly derivative, since there are many elements presented here that feel fresh and original.
Deadlight is a 2D side-scrolling action game in which you must get from one side of the level to the next, dodging zombies and avoiding environmental hazards and traps. The platforming makes use of Randall’s agility as he jumps, crawls, climbs and fights his way through a variety of harsh locations, each offering their own unique set of challenges. Similar to most platformers, the game is very linear, offering one definitive path. Thankfully, there are opportunities to explore and find hidden collectibles that include diary pages that flesh out the story, secret items and ID badges. The real pleasure lies in figuring out how to get through a particularly challenging area, and the sense of reward I got from accomplishing this is palpable.
Deadlight has been described as a “puzzle platformer,” and this definitely holds true in the level design. Your objective in the levels is to find a way to get through seemingly impassable obstacles, while dealing with the problem of zombies running rampant. This often boils down to using items in the environment to reach higher ground, break through barriers with brute force and flip switches to open new areas. The dilapidated cities, the ruined and hollowed-out buildings and dark underground terrain have allowed the game designers to get creative with the puzzles, with the more challenging ones invoking a sense of excitement along with bouts of hair-pulling frustration.
For the most part, the puzzles in Deadlight are easy to figure out. Simply looking around the environment will usually lead to you figuring out the way forward, however the game is also quite generous with hints. Walking over a useful object will cause a button-prompt to show, and text hints will frequently tell you exactly what your next steps should be. This is not to say that the game is too easy, as some of the environmental puzzles can be quite challenging, however the more frustrating setups involve traps that lead to instant death if you trigger them. This does lead to some trial and error, however the game never feels cheap or unfairly difficult.
The zombies you encounter are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game. As the game is 2D and the design of the zombies is not a focal point, don’t expect the gore-dripping, brain-devouring camp that you see in many other undead apocalypse game. In Deadlight, they are simply another hazard that exists to create tension and urgency. They will often break through barriers and swarm you when you are trying to figure out how to progress, so you will often be forced to think and work faster. Trying to quickly move an object in order to climb to higher ground while you have five zombies nipping at your heels provides a sense a tension that really brings the game to life.
The combat in Deadlight is where some of the cracks in the game’s foundation begin to show. Since the focus of the game is survival and weapons are fairly scarce, running from the zombies is often preferable to engaging them in combat. Fairly early in the game, you acquire an axe and a revolver, however neither are particularly strong or effective when faced with a herd of zombies. Your health is limited, and you have a stamina meter that depletes, so fighting should be considered a last resort in most situations. When forced to fight, it takes several whacks to finally kill a zombie, and the revolver is a monstrous pain to use due to the unintuitive shooting controls. However, the objective of the game is to escape, so the lack of focus on combat is definitely forgiveable.