Saturday, August 4, 2012

REVIEW - Deadlight.

The good news is that Deadlight successfully brings to mind classic rotoscoped 2D platformers like Prince of Persia (1989) or Flashback (1992).  By the game's (weirdly short, profoundly punishing, emotionally disappointing) third act, player character Randall - or Wayne, I can't be sure - feels like a weighty ninja in the hand as he springboads off walls, goes soaring over the heads of his zombie pursuers and efficiently dispatches them.  Like those decades-past titles, Deadlight's mechanics are heavy and deliberate.

There's no sensitivity in the mechanics - no option to make a shorter jump by applying less or briefer pressure to the button - so every move made must be intentional, and committed.  After a few hours with the title, Deadlight really does remind one of the similarly binary controls of those classic games - in that they do work, and the punishment for error is severe - but it rarely makes really interesting or thrilling use of them, and they never feel quite as precise as one would like, particularly in combat.

There's a part of me that appreciates how easy it is to screw up the combat - how quickly Randall can get swamped by zombies before the screen turns red - in the same way one erroneous parry in Prince of Persia would get you killed, but the final impression it leaves here is not nearly as satisfying.

It is regularly satisfying.  When it all flows together, it's glorious.  Randall closes on a zombie and shoves it back into its friend (attack when close) then lashes out at their heads with his axe (attack when not-so-close) which decapitates one of them, then rushes in for another shove which topples the off-balance survivor to the ground before turning around, pulling out a shotgun (right stick) and taking the head off a zed approaching from behind (right trigger).  Then he bears down on the prone zed, and raises his axe over his head (hold attack).  He brings it down.  He breathes easy.  He pulls out his shotgun and slips one precious shell into the breech. Ka-chik.

Sometimes - often, even - it works beautifully.  But not always.

It seems to have some... inscrutable system of buffering your moves - hanging from one side of a fence, for example, if you tap the analog stick towards the other side and hit jump, Randall will slip over the top of the fence and spring away from it, performing the series of moves at top speed.  Often, however, you'll throw in inputs that dictate a different series of actions, but the game will sometimes erroneously choose which action you're asking of it.

You'll swing your axe to the right, for example, and press the analog stick in the opposite direction, holding it there while you tap attack again - but instead of turning around, Randall will lash out to the right again and the zombie behind you will grab hold.  Why wouldn't he just turn around?

It forces the player to not buffer their actions - to wait until the previous animation has played in its entirety before making the next request of our avatar, to ensure he does what we want.  This is doubly frustrating because I've seen an animation where Randall will whip around, lashing out with his axe - and I have no idea how to reproduce it.

Again, Deadlight is often fun and often brings to mind those lovely experiences of two decades past - but it's not... quite... there.

Design is so-so.  While many folks will tell you Deadlight's third arc is a toxic vomit of game design,  in terms of play I rather liked it - it, again, reminded me of the do-it-perfectly-or-die balance of classic gaming -  but Deadlight doesn't have a particularly good sense of pacing, and is worse at allowing the player to intuitively understand what the game desires of us.

The biggest disappointment in the title is aligned with its presentation - which is both exemplary and excruciating, depending on which angle of the game you're viewing.  The art direction and use of the unreal engine are wonderful.

This is the modern zombie apocalypse on a 2D plane.  It is super, super-cool to work your way through a dozen destroyed suburbian households or dash through an empty park as numb shamblers make their way towards you from the background - but this video game's visuals are only half the story.

Deadlight's writing is terrible.  Its story is terrible.  The voice work is terrible.

There's no way around this.  I don't know what individual or collection of individuals were responsible for shaping this game's narrative and giving it life, but they have damaged what was, without their involvement, a decent and at least endearing game.  With their involvement, Deadlight is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

The Rat is a stupid character, and the level design of Act II - which so brings to mind the trap-centric machinations of Prince of Persia - would have been much more interesting outside of a sewer.  The military guys just seem like dicks of the sake of being dicks, all of Randall's friends are insufferable cowards or hung-ho idiots, and Randall himself is the most transparent, uninteresting video game character I've played in recent memory.

There's a lot that Deadlight does wrong, but here's the good news...

Deadlight successfully brings to mind classic rotoscoped 2D platformers like Prince of Persia or Flashback.  With zombies.

Its level design is never as clever, its gameplay is never as tight - but it does taste like those wonderful games of old, even as it fumbles on the details.  If you've been aching for a weighty, stylish 2D platformer that's as far removed from the razor-sharp, breezy weightlessness of Rayman Origins as possible, Deadlight would like a word.

It's cheesy.  Inelegant.  Beautiful.  Nostalgic - and it cries out for a sequel that tightens up all the gaps in its armor, from its stumbling pacing and design to its absolutely egregious story presentation.

Deadlight does not feel like the game its designers wanted it to be - not quite - but it's close.  You can see their vision, and feel its seductive pull.  You can enjoy their ambition even as you cringe at their missteps, and you can hope for a better sequel.

  • brings older, better games to mind
  • The visual presentation is great.  I love the character design of Randall - he actually has a silhouette that's strangely identical to a ninja - and the environments are gorgeous and detailed.  
  • the more challenging platforming sequences are pretty satisfying
  • very nice animation
  • crashing through a weak wall at a run never gets old
  • when a combat scenario goes perfectly, it feels like a series of very well-considered beats, and is very stylish
  • a decent length for the money
  • makes you wish for a better sequel
  • not as good as older, better games
  • I wish I was playing the sequel instead of this
  • the controls aren't quite there - they're often fine, but occasionally very frustrating
  • the game's design is a bit off, and the pacing really dies during the sewer trek in Act II
  • it never feels like it takes interesting or creative advantage of its mechanics
  • this game's story is awful
  • the writing is awful
  • the voice work is awful
  • the ending is like getting punched in the face by everyone employed at Tequilaworks.  "That's right," they're saying (punch) "it's totally stupid!" (Punch.) "It doesn't make any sense at all and is totally disappointing!" (Punch.)
There's some old-school pleasure, here, but Deadlight makes regular missteps that leave it well shy of greatness. 


  1. I got more and more excited as I read through this review. "Is it? I think it is! No, no, don't get your hopes up... wait... I think... YES! It's negative! Almost totally negative!"

    I get off on the weirdest things.

  2. I was kinda' surprised by that too, but hey - law of averages.