Thanks to The Walking Dead and Day Z, we’ve stopped whining about being sick of zombie fiction. There are still interesting places to go with zombie-infested worlds, it seems, as long as the ‘humans are the REAL monsters!!!’ element is played in sensible moderation (and it should, ideally, never actually be vocalised by any of the characters). Deadlight lacks the eloquence that those games possess, however, featuring a plot and dialog that have reminded us all over again why we were, not so long ago, a little tired of zombies.
Deadlight, the latest in a loooong line of short 2D downloadable platformers with a quirky art style, is set in a world that has fallen apart just a little too fast. The zombies (which are referred to as ‘shadows’, seemingly to justify artistic choices more than anything else) rose less than a year ago, so why are all the buildings you explore seemingly on the brink of collapse already? Aside from that, the writing is incredibly wooden and clichéd, ending with a twist that was telegraphed from a thousand miles away and a character choice that makes no sense.
So you won’t be playing Deadlight for a good zombie story, although the creatures themselves do spice things up a bit. Deadlight clearly owes a lot to prior XBLA successes Shadow Complex and Limbo, attempting to meld the former’s acrobatic traversals (minus all the Metroid-esque gadgets) with the latter’s art-driven despair… but with zombies. You’ll find yourself dodging the zombies more often than attacking them, which is actually pretty neat. Tapping Y makes the protagonist (a grizzled dude looking for his wife and daughter, naturally) holler at nearby zombies to pull them in close. Getting to a high vantage point, hollering, and then jumping down and running for your life is a bit of a thrill thanks to the game’s convincing animations.
You’ll have access to a gun or two for most of the game too, although Deadlight is more likely to be remembered for its reload mechanic (you need to press the left bumper to load each individual bullet, which ramps up the tension a bit) than its combat. Melee is a bit of a mess, more or less by necessity, but running into a group of zombies and pushing them down with a fire axe is a fun way to generate a bit of panic.
Unfortunately there’s not really a whole lot to Deadlight beyond running, jumping and avoiding zombies. As enjoyable as it can sometimes be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that maybe Deadlight started as a project by a team that simply wanted to see if they could make a game, rather than always being intended as a $20 commercial product. It’s as though the developers have thrown together things that they like – zombies, platforming, cool art – without really thinking about how to make it all click together. And, as with so many modern games that involve jumping and climbing, there’s never a good sense of what, exactly, you can achieve. Quite often you know that you can make a jump simply because it’s the only way forward, not because you should logically be able to clear the distance ahead of you. The animation cheats a bit too, sometimes stretching you an extra few inches if a jump is outside of the programmed abilities. It’s quite obvious and jarring when it happens.
I usually try to avoid bemoaning a game’s length, but the truth is that Deadlight needed to pace itself out more. The last five or so minutes are interesting, but instead of exploring the potential developments it hints at, the game abruptly ends. I finished in exactly two hours with an 85% completion rate, and while I might be inclined to jump back in quickly once an Achievement guide goes online there’s little other reason to revisit the game.
You could finish Deadlight in a single sitting and forget about it completely by the next day. Not because the game is actually bad – it’s mostly quite enjoyable – but it’s too slight and unimaginative to make a lasting impression. It has some nice ideas and sections, but more than anything else it made us want to go back and finish Shadow Complex for a sixth time.