Deadlight (Xbox Live Arcade) Review
Posted by Marc Morrison on 07.31.2012
Does this cinematic platformer manage to rise above the rest? Or should we all simply flashback to Flashback and forget this game exists? 411mania’s Marc Morrison finds out inside.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Tequila Works
Genre: Side-scrolling platformers
Rated: M for Mature
Deadlight is a new riff on an old gaming genre, the “cinematic platformer”. While outwardly it looks like a Metroidvania game, it has more in common with Limbo, early Oddworld games, and the epitomize Flashback game. It has a few things going for it but also a few problems creep in along the way.
The gameplay of Deadlight is essentially “Flashback but with Zombies”. The game calls them “Shadows” but we all know the score. You walk, run, roll, jump, climb, and die, die, die, in ways that are highly reminiscent of that old game. Expect to die very frequently in this game due to not really knowing what’s around the next corner and some unfortunate problems that will be discussed a bit later.
The goal of the game is to essentially survive and to make your way through the various levels, going along the (fairly) linear path, solving puzzles and killing or running from Shadows. I say the game is fairly linear, because it is, with your way usually highlighted by a white outline of what you need to grab onto next. The outline is there for about 65% of the time and is generally very useful in leading you on the path to the next location. There are a healthy number of secrets for you to discover and find along the way though, sometimes on the main path, but other times a bit hidden away. The “secrets” aren’t obnoxious like in other games where there are a million of them to find and it becomes trivial.
I should point out that while this game does look like it, this game is NOT Shadow Complex. If you pick it up for comparisons to that game you will be in for a rude awakening. There is no graph paper style map to explore with upgrades to unlock later areas of the map. There is only a linear path to follow with most exploration being relegated to finding secrets and other Easter Eggs.
The weapon selection feeds into the “This is not Shadow Complex” mindset. You only ever get four weapons in the game, with one of them not being a weapon at all. This arsenal involves: a handgun, a shotgun, a slingshot, and a fireman’s ax. The ax is probably the most overall useful since you can use it to push Shadows out of the way, knock them down, and destroy wooden boards and so on. The handgun is your normal ranged weapon, useful in shooting one or two Shadows in the head, or destroying the occasional lock on a door or window strut (this is a hint for a late-game puzzle). The shotgun is very powerful but only in close range of the Shadows. You can usually take down two Shadows with it though if they are lined up correctly. With both the handgun and shotgun you get a laser aiming reticle to show you what you’re shooting at. A white line comes out of your gun to show you the aiming action and the red target (on a lock or Shadow head) shows you the end spot of the bullet. The last item is the slingshot which isn’t a weapon at all. You can’t hurt Shadows with it as the rocks don’t do any damage to them. You can use it though to hit switches that are unreachable by your character or to distract the Shadows from your location. It also has the laser site, but without the red dot. It’ll just show the path of your slingshot shot and how it will bounce and arc off various items. While you do have infinite “ammo” for the slingshot, bullets for the shotgun and handgun are in short supply. I only ever got about 18 bullets for the handgun and probably 8 for the shotgun, in my entire playthrough of the game. You do find bullets on corpses but they are tied into a puzzle, or an enemy attack. So if you have 12 bullets for the handgun, the ammo corpse next to you won’t do anything. If you fire 4 shots though, you can pick up 4 bullets from him. Reloading is also manual, with you having to press the LB button to reload (faster button presses equal faster reloads).
The biggest parts of the gameplay of Deadlight though are just the exploring and puzzle solving of different environments. Your character, Randall Wayne, is a seemingly normal guy. He doesn’t have any huge super powers to help him survive. You can jump but not very high, sprint, but you’ll frequently run out of stamina, and so on. Using your ax also takes a chunk of out your stamina bar and when it nears empty the screen tarts getting distorted. Climbing and jumping are the two big things with Randall having to repeatedly navigate inhospitable environments. One thing he can do is wall jump (like Samus from old Metroid) where you have to hold the button away to launch yourself off. When you take a running start at the wall, jump off it onto a higher ledge, it can feel pretty good. You can also roll when you fall from a higher place which helps negate some of the fall damage you would normally take. Climbing ladders, wall jumping, shimmying on power lines and so on is all stuff that pops up during the game, with the helpful white outline telling you where to go next.
Puzzles aren’t particularly hard but a few of them can be very annoying. Most of them involve environmental dangers, like crossing an electrified floor, or going through a destroyed apartment building. Finding the right switches, moving boxes and the correct paths are usually spelled out with how you’re supposed to proceed. When the path isn’t laid out well, it can become a very frustrating experience. You are never quite sure about a lot of the jumps and actions you take in the game. When you are on a ladder with one above it, it’s never made clear that you can jump up from one ladder to the next one. A later puzzle involves a hospital where you’re in a single room with a grate above to try and reach. I spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to best jump up there, failing many times as I tried to do so, before lucking into Randall finally jumping and grabbing onto it.
Randall does kind of “magnetically” grab onto certain objects though which breaks the illusion somewhat. This effect kind of has to happen though or else the game would likely be about eight times as frustrating as certain sections already are. This leads into my biggest complaint about the game (by far) is that some sections are incredibly cheap-feeling and aggravating. The last half hour or so is very flawed due to you going up against enemies that the minute they see you, you’re dead. I had to redo one section about 13 times, in order to finally clear it (thankfully checkpoints are sprinkled liberally during the game). One sequence though, in particular, almost led to me breaking a controller. You’re being chased by a helicopter over various roof tops as it tries shooting at you. The goal is just to run as fast as possible, while also climbing fences and jumping around. The problem is that cinematic platformers are NOT designed for fast movement action. That is kind of the entire point of the genre, slow-ish, deliberate action that is sluggish but makes some sense. When you are being chased by a helicopter and one wrong move means instadeath, forcing you to retry the same situation about 30 times in a row, it may also lead you to want to throw the console out of the window.
The control problem never goes away, nor do some of the cheap deaths. It leads to some repetition when you only have a few seconds to react and you miss out on your chance. Expect a 10-15 second load time each time you restart a checkpoint. When you walk up to a door, open it and three Shadows come swarming out, yeah, it’s not great. One later puzzle involves an infinite enemy supply room where you have to maneuver around it. This is a time where the white highlight trail broke so I had no clue what to do. I spent about 10 minutes randomly blasting Shadows and trying to jump out of the room before finally stumbling onto the path.
The other two problems are more minor but nagged me. The story is “ok” but that’s about it. The two main characters are named Randall Wayne and Ben Parker. I kept thinking it was drawing some sort of allusion to comics with those names. The game takes place in 1986 Seattle in a slightly alternate dimension world. I will say I kept expecting one specific plot swerve and it never came up. Another one did though that can be easily telegraphed. Stop me if you’ve heard this before; but some guys (likely ex-military) have turned a safe point into a capture point for survivors. They then try and keep the female survivors alive (presumably for sex) while they wait out the Shadows. Does this sound like a British zombie film made 10 years ago to anyone else, or is it just me?
The final issue I had was with the character model of Randall himself. You are silhouetted throughout the entirety of the game, just like in Limbo. Now for most of the game, it makes sense, since it’s usually at night and there is barely any electricity in the city. But there are a few sequences during the day with everyone else illuminated, except for your character. It just kind of throws you off and made me really think of Limbo.
Aside from the character model issue the graphics look pretty solid. The Shadows are simple models but they do a good job with the animation. The environments look huge (out of scale, really) but it goes a long way in the immersive feeling that you are alone and in a huge, scary world. The distortion effect for when Randall is over-stressed is also a cool thing to see. The story is largely told in a motion-comic way, with usually minimal movement but getting the point across decently enough. I did run into one or two instances of slowdown, usually with a lot of stuff happening on screen, but 98% of the time, the game held up like a champ.
The sound is largely alright as well. The standout is the voice acting which you’ll hear a lot of. Randall likes to monologue to himself which makes sense for the story. The other voices are largely forgettable though which seems a shame. The sound effects all fit into the game with nothing to really stand out. The music is usually very quiet except in instances of extreme action then it picks right up. There’s not a lot of sound (outside of the voice acting) due to the nature of the game. One person though, especially at the end, is very annoying to listen to. Her two lines kept repeating like 7 times which seemed kind of odd to me.
There really isn’t a ton of replayability in this game. I finished it in less than three hours which felt just about right to me. Each area tends to have a few secrets which you can go back to and find (journal pages, hand held game, ID badges). That is really about it though. There is also a leaderboard to keep a ranking of how much stuff you’ve found and how fast you were able to complete the game, simple stuff like that.
In the guise of a “cinematic platformer” Deadlight largely succeeds on what it tries to do. You’re meant to be a fairly normal guy in a chaotic, dangerous world and you are. The story and traversal stuff are the big draws in the game. If you were a huge fan of Limbo than pick this game up at once. Be aware though that it has some control problems and some deeply frustrating sequences along the way.
Additional note: I kept running into a weird error with my copy. I would play it for about 45 minutes and a message would pop up saying how I had removed the hard drive (when I was just sitting on the couch). The message says that my profile cannot be updated due to the HD removal. It did this every time I played the game, so four times total. The game was still saving though so I’m not sure what the deal is. Just letting you know in case it happens to you. Other people have had the same issue happen to them, so expect a patch (hopefully) at some point.
The setting, environments, Shadows, and little details all really add up. I really wanted to see what my character looked like though (during the game).
When it works, it is largely breath taking in it is beauty and fluidity. When it doesn’t, it is a quagmire for which luck is the only escape. Slingshot is fun to use.
Very good voice acting from the main guy, so-so voice acting from everyone else. Ambient sounds are what the game is about though and it does evoke a creepy vibe.
Once you’re done, you’re largely done. Collectiables can be found and a few other hidden things can be played but that's about it.
A few too many sequences are broken in their execution (or intent). However large areas of the game work well and are a blast to run through.