I am no longer a fan of the zombies, and very rarely do I find myself wanting to play a game that uses the mindless undead as its dominant trait. In an odd turn of events, I felt compelled by new jack developer Tequila Works' initial release, Deadlight. Maybe it's because I've been dying to play a fresh new 2D action platformer for months? Maybe the bits of jumping and climbing punctuated by motion comic interludes worthy of a graphic novel was too much to turn down? Maybe she's born with it? Maybe it's Maybelline. Whatever it could have possibly been, I jumped into the deep, dark, zombie abyss with a 360 controller and high hopes.
In Deadlight you take control of a possible longshoreman by the name of Randall Wayne, navigating the Z infested streets of Seattle circa 1986. Bonus points for taking place in the 80's. To start, Randall has decisively separated from his clique of survivors to pursue the what and where as they pertain to his missing wife and child; a plot worthy of Harrison Ford. Story wise, there ain't much to go by aside from getting Randall from point A to point B in one piece, at least early in the game. Randy driven by the hope of finding his family, and that's all we really know, at least not until game's end. For those interested in exploring the story further, you can collect not-so-well hidden pages of Randy's diary which paint a portrait of a troubled mind and its gradual descent into shadow. Randy faces off against the infected, the military, and a new world law, while finding old friends and making new ones in unlikely places.
Unlike many titles in this genre, the goal is not to violently dismember as many shadows as possible, but rather to stay alive and unscathed. Randy can't sustain much of a beating, so after 3 or 4 hits it's a wrap. For 90 percent of the game, your life will depend on how well you avoid conflict: a stark contrast to much of what modern gaming has taught us. Randy's primary weapon is his agility: he sprints, triangle jumps, climbs, and rolls around the bleak landscape like a Canadian Canabalt. Linger for too long and soon the shadows will crowd around, at which point best of luck to ya, buddy. In this sense Deadlight is a hit, as the shadows' strength in numbers, and Randy's perilous plight to outmaneuver the undead is much what I imagine a true zombie holocaust would entail. Controlling Randy is simple enough, albeit a bit clumsy for the first hour or so. I didn't find the control scheme terribly intuitive, so I spent some time programming my fingers to recall various commands as the mindless army came rushing down at me. Though fairly agile, Randy is not nimble. Control very strongly depends on momentum, so if you're not at a full stop and you try to make a vertical jump, be prepared to Air Jordan into a group of shadows. Similarly, if you try to take a long gap with insufficient space to start a sprint, you most likely end up taking a plunge.
Of course fleeing isn't your only option. There are weapons to be found, but relying on these will result in premature death, and they are best served as a last option to get out of a jam. Your first weapon is an axe, which can be swung normally, used to shove away shadows who invade your personal space, and slammed down on a felled enemy to assure he don't rise no mo'. Eventually, you also come upon a revolver and a pump-action shotgun, but between the scarce caches of ammo and veritable call for unwanted attention created by popping pugilists, you may find yourself running like a Crazy Train rather than whistling lead. You can also use attention to your advantage, as a taunt command is one of Randy's default actions. The shadows are fairly mindless, so standing on one side of a pit and beckoning to a horde will most times send them hurdling to their death, just like Lemmings! It's also possible to get a little more creative, such as directing traffic into an active grid of downed power lines, or below a precariously parked car which awaits Randall's delicate step before becoming a two ton hammer of retribution. I appreciate that Deadlight allows you to switch between melee and gunplay at a whim, though not as much as the fact that guns are completely downplayed. Even in those rare instances where I had enough ammo to burn through a shadow party, still I Ran (So Far Away) to keep the drama high.
All of Randy's actions are governed by a stamina bar, which slowly whittles away as you act. For every running stride, wall cling, wire hang, and axe swing you lose a precious bit of stamina, and when it's gone you're Better Off Dead if you have any shadows in range. Stamina will slowly recover, but when it's low you're damn near defenseless. Your actions are slower and your vision is blurred, a cherry on top of the Bloody Sunday. Though stamina will regenerate even while tackled or grappled by a shadow, Deadlight does you no favors. You'll lose a few seconds trying to break free of one, and before you know it you're surrounded by three. Sure you'll push one down, but they'll take your life in three quick hits before your initial animation completes. Sometimes it felt a bit unfair, but after thinking a bit deeper, it's as true as many other aspects of this game.
Deadlight's art and animation is one of the key points for me, a point which simultaneously hits and misses. Of course a modern, zombie flavored setting features nothing but drab neutral and earthy tones. To be expected, for sure, but it always disappoints a bit. The environments do well to remedy this by featuring much detail and smooth animation. Shadows rarely exist on Randy's plane upon entering an area, instead often moving in from other activities in the background. Not only does this make the world feel more expansive that it actually is, but it also gives life to the environment. Two birds. And though Randy is rarely anything more than a silhouette, he moves as smoothly as a river, both on his own and when using the environment. Weak doors are kicked down, boarded entrances are shouldered through, and furniture is moved and thrown down to assure respite from the horde pursuing close behind. The water is rarely choppy. What disappointed me were the cut scenes, which seemed to gain and lose detail on their own accord; one minute sketch lines all over the place to illustrate an abandoned garage, the next would be a artifact-filled portrait on parchment. The artifacts were especially annoying, making what should have been a motion comic look more like an PlayStation FMV from 1996.
Between simple puzzles, high anxiety escapes, hit and miss cut scenes, and voice acting reminiscent of Resident Evil, Deadlight is a good - not great - trip into the shadow invasion. This is a hard recommendation at $15, which I feel may be due to the title's inclusion in Xbox LIVE's Summer of Arcade promotion. Would Tequila Works have considered Deadlight for $10 otherwise? I sauntered through just about everything the game has to offer in a shade over 2 hours, but others on the leaderboard have reached 100% completion in under an hour. If you're looking for a strong story and bang-for-your-buck value, Deadlight may not be for you. However, fans of the bleak and desolate apocalyptic archetype who long for a platformer in the vein of Prince of Persia should look no further. Despite its shortcomings, I think this is a fantastic start for Tequila Works, and I can't wait to see what they release next. Hopefully it has nothing to do with zombies.
The Score: 7 outta 10 Blasters!