XBLA Review – Deadlight

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With the slew of cookie-cutter zombie shooters out there, it’s hard to tell which undead invasion is worth caring about. The survival-horror genre has seen better days, as modern day apocalyptic blitzkriegs tend to focus more on action, making it far too easy for players to blast their way through a horde of bloodthirsty freaks. Deadlight, however, is an entirely different animal. This Arcade title breaks the seemingly ongoing tradition of bumbling about in a methodical stroll through Drab-town by returning to the genre’s roots, as well as introducing much needed new elements along the way.

To really appreciate a game like Deadlight, one must look beyond the idea that this is just another chapter in the “I get to kill zombies” medium. Deadlight is about survival, yes, but this theme is achieved through solving a number of platforming puzzles. In some ways, Deadlight is very similar to LIMBO, another side-scrolling adventure game in which the player controlled a regular human being, not a genetically enhanced super-soldier with the ability to sit down for five seconds and immediately restore his health/stamina while shooting an assault rifle made out of beef jerky.

The main character in Deadlight is Randall Wayne, a Washington-area ranger who happens to be an expert at surviving in the wilderness and having two first names. Players take control of Randall and guide him through a decaying rendition of 1986 zombie-infested Seattle as he recollects how the country became overrun with the undead. The journey begins with Randall explaining that his wife and child are still missing, which essentially sets up the plot to be a typical rescue mission. Naturally, this mission is anything but typical, as the narrative takes many surprising twists and turns throughout the six hour storyline. One moment you’ll be cheering for Randall as he sprints along rooftops, the next you’ll question why he is jumping through windows in a desperate escape from an anarchist gang operated by actual humans.

Without getting too much into detail, the finale of Deadlight is what helps set this particular title apart from most well-written narratives. Each cutscene is told in a graphic novel format, complimenting the already stellar writing with an amazing visual flair. The artists at Tequila Studios certainly deserve a round of applause for not only creating a style that looks great, but for keeping the style consistent throughout the entirety of the game.

Each level is so intricately designed that it’s hard not to admire the work here. For an Arcade title, Deadlight has some of the best backdrops I have looked at in a long time. Smoke and fire can be seen in the distance, the city crumbles before you and the undead wander aimlessly about. It is, in an odd way, aesthetically pleasing. To put it in relative terms, dangling from telephone poles with a legion of hungry zombies waiting below has never looked so good… Until you fall.

See, fighting off zombies (or Shadows, as Randall calls them) is not such an easy task. Yes, Randall can use an axe and gun to slow down enemies, but the feeling of empowerment is practically nonexistent. It is fairly easy to take out one, maybe two Shadows at a time, but any more and the player is bound to get overwhelmed. In addition to having the odds completely out of your favor, ammo and first aid are in limited quantities. This certainly raises the level of tension the player will feel as hordes of Shadows descend upon Randall like a group of homeless men at a Free Food and Sex Convention. (NOTE: If Free Food and Sex Conventions actually exist, please let me know. Thank you.)

The trick is to outsmart the Shadows. An all out fight spells instant death, so it is up to the player to figure out how to get around these encounters with minimal bloodshed. Sometimes Randall can set off a car alarm to draw their attention, other times he can taunt them into mindlessly stumbling into a well placed trap. Luckily, the controls are responsive and, while there were times where I would make the mistake of jumping too far or forget to reload my revolver, quite often reliable.

The major problems I had with Deadlight were little things that stood out and prevented the game from being an absolute masterpiece. For one, Randall cannot swim. Even in a shallow pool of water that stretches a grand distance of two feet, Randall is incapable of even flailing about like a stranded cow trapped in quicksand. This is especially confusing since Randall was supposedly a ranger who enjoyed being in the woods. One would think that, at some point, Randall would have to have faced his fear of puddles.

The total lack of YMCA lessons aside, Deadlight also faces problems with checkpoint consistency. It is no secret that this game can be difficult, but having to trek through the same sets of puzzles that were solved 20 minutes ago can get frustrating. There is even one sequence towards the end of the game that should only take five minutes, but instead takes a half-hour due to its increased difficulty spike and poorly placed checkpoints. While these minor infractions do not necessarily tarnish the rest of game of its brilliance, they are problematic to the point where Deadlight stops short of being a magnum opus for side-scrollers everywhere.

These annoyances, coupled with somewhat cheesy voice acting, hold Deadlight back from perfection. Is this the best Arcade title on the market? No, but it’s a damn good one. For only 15 bucks, Deadlight is a game that will grab you by the neck and eat your brains over the course of about six hours. Plus, there are some neat Easter-eggs to look for and plenty of collectibles to gather once the journey is complete. If not for the interesting story, fans of the genre owe it to themselves to check out the unique art style that can rival even the biggest budget games.