Saturday, 9 November 2013

Deadlight - Review

Deadlight is a side-scrolling zombie game set in the aftermath of the apocalypse, and is the first release from Madrid-based studio, Tequila Works. I recently purchased it in the Steam Halloween sale, and before I go any further, I have to say it was worth every penny of the £2.49 I spent. It’s now back up to £9.99, which seems expensive in comparison, but is still probably worth it. I mean, it costs that just to breathe nowadays, and I can guarantee that it’s much more fun than that.

The world now belongs to the ‘shadows’, which is what Deadlight has lovingly nicknamed its zombies, and you are thrown right into the action. You control Randall Wayne, an everyman who used to be a forest warden amidst Canada’s finest redwoods (they never mention redwoods, but I bet there were some -it’s Canada).

At the very beginning of the outbreak, Randall was out collecting supplies when the military came in and escorted everyone to a ‘Safe Point’, at which point he lost his wife and daughter in the chaos. Essentially, the central narrative of the game is Randall’s search for his family, but there are many mysteries to uncover as you progress.

A cutscene opens the game, and I was immediately blown away by the different art-styles at work in Deadlight, both unique in their own way. The cutscenes play out like a gritty hand-painted comic book, in which dialogue is spoken over fixed shots of bold colours and thick brush strokes. Though I accidentally skipped one these cutscenes, and the audio disappeared on a couple of others, I always looked forward to the next.

 Were you going to finish that?

On the other hand, the side-scrolling gameplay itself boasts a detailed world shown through a suitably bleak colour palette. This viewpoint, while also freshening up a decaying sub-genre of gaming (did you like that?), also serves another purpose. With your scruffy silhouette in the foreground, the backdrop is reserved as a constant reminder for the devastation happening worldwide. As you traverse the perils of the environments, you are forced to keep one eye on the horizon, where buildings are abandoned and plumes of smoke rise into the sky of the dead city.

It is in these little details that the world of Deadlight comes alive, so to speak. Billboard posters flap in the wind, high-rises loom above the rubble, and you’ll occasionally come across people that died and reanimated whilst still locked inside their car. What was their story? How did they get there? And did they have heated leather seats? These are the important questions, and ones that the game had me asking on more than one occasion.

Compared to the abundance of run-and-gun zombie games on the market, Tequila Works’ creation has a much slower pace, allowing you to appreciate the world around you. That’s not to say that there isn’t a real sense of urgency throughout, though. This comes from the almost-constant threat of zombies from every angle. Either they lurch towards you from all sides in the foreground, or steadily encroach from the streets, rooms and shadows of the background. Even armed with an axe, each approaching horde had me searching for a way out, rather than wishing to take them head-on.

Swinging the axe takes stamina, and this, combined with the undead’s resilience – seriously, even for zombies, these guys can take a hit - means that running is quite often the best, and only, option. After finding a revolver, the scarcity of ammo ensured that the tension remained, never making me feel as if the zombies were little more than targets at a shooting range (See: Resident Evil 5 and 6).

With this is mind, imagine how vulnerable I felt when I was forced to trade my axe and revolver for a slingshot during one section. To make it even worse, it also made me feel a little like Dennis the Menace, and let’s face it, no-one wants that kid to survive the zombie apocalypse.

I'd heard this was a nice neighbourhood.

Deadlight’s strength comes from its variety. There are many different environments, numerous puzzles, and countless secrets and collectibles to find.

Beginning with the environments, you’ll travel through suburbs, cities, sewers, military camps and, as should always be the way, an overrun hospital. Something I loved is that before you enter a room, it is hidden from view. Until you climb through an open window or kick your way through a door, you’ll never know what horrors hide inside the next four walls. Will you be faced with a group of the undead? Or will you find yet another body swinging from the rafters; someone who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, handle the cruel realities of the new world. Never knowing makes each scenario all the more powerful.

Running, climbing and leaping through these locations is fun and smooth, for the most part, and reminded me of mobile parkour games such as Mirror’s Edge and Vector. I have spent far too much time free running my way through each of these, so this was an unexpected, but welcome, comparison.

Helicopter tours of the city are a little different now.

There were, however, a few issues. I sometimes found it difficult to run (Shift) and roll (Ctrl) at the same time, though this may be due to the majority of my gaming years being spent on consoles, rather than PC. More noticeably was the fact that there was a point when I returned to a room via a higher window and the room stayed hidden. It only happened the once, but if there had been any zombies in that room, I’d have died for sure.

As for puzzles, these are relatively simple, but provide enough different challenges to be interesting. Move crates to reach higher ground, turn off electricity to continue without being fried, and drain water from flooded sewers. This last one is especially important as it turns out that Randall has more to worry about than the undead. He also has to make sure that he doesn’t lose his arm-bands, because he can’t swim.

For someone who has survived 145 days in the apocalypse, I found this a little hard to believe. He can handle flesh-eating corpses without breaking a sweat, but show him a paddling pool and he’ll have nightmares for weeks. Nevertheless, it’s hard to focus on this for too long when the world has ended, and what an end it is.

Depth is key here, and Deadlight has it by the gory bucketload. Finding notes and secrets throughout the world mean you that you learn about its downward spiral, and for those that love the how and why of zombie outbreaks, you’ll want to collect them all. In particular, Randall has a diary that fills up as you collect pages, and gives insight into his life pre-walking dead through to present day. You can also discover little things about people, and corpses, that you find along the way, which aid in fleshing out the world around you.

Dear Diary… Run.

After completing the game, there are also a few reasons to head back into the decaying locales of Deadlight. Not only is it worth returning to collect anything you missed the first time around, but after the credits roll, Nightmare Mode is unlocked. This gives you the option to play through the game without it ever saving. While it doesn’t actually add anything new, it gives the ultimate zombie slayers a way to prove their worth.

As an added bonus, there are also extras available, which include development art, ‘making-of’ videos, and assorted trailers and videos from the game’s launch. All of the diary pages and secrets you’ve found can be accessed from here, but unfortunately the cut-scenes aren’t included. As I accidentally skipped one, and then had audio issues with some others, this would have been a nice touch.

Looks like it might rain. Where's my inflatables?

Deadlight is a thoughtful game that takes you into many different homes and forces you think about what happened there, no matter how brief your stay. The notes left behind, the people that took their own life, all add to the bleakness of the game’s universe. Though it has a couple of minor issues, these don’t even come close to touching the overall experience, and here is a zombie game with a real depth that is lacking in many others of the same genre. This follows over to the narrative, which I’ve mainly avoided for fear of spoilers, and would highly recommend you experience for yourself.

All I can say is: Beware the New Law. Beware the shadows.

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Again, thank you, and welcome to Noble Gaming.

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