I doubt this will come as much of a shock but it appears zombies have permeated every facet of popular culture. With a raft of TV shows, movies, comic books and video games focused on shambling hordes of undead it’s understandable that many are feeling a touch of zombie fatigue. Tequila Works’ Deadlight is yet another zombie game but one in which the undead are mostly obstacles to be avoided, shambling pieces in a puzzle, rather than targets for gleeful dismemberment.
Deadlight takes place in an alternate 1986 Seattle. The world has already fallen apart, the dead are surprisingly active and are happily feasting on those few that survive. You play as Randall Wayne, a former park ranger who is searching for his wife and daughter amidst the carnage of the zombie apocalypse. There are rumours of a Safe Zone where Randy believes his best chance of reuniting with his family lies. In order to make it to the Safe Zone, you will have to help Randy navigate the ruined city, running, jumping and climbing across rooftops and through buildings avoiding zombies, or Shadows as they have been dubbed, on the way. The story is doled out mostly through Randy’s narration, chuntering away to himself as he wanders the streets, and through comic book stills between scenes which push the story forward, introducing new environments and objectives. Diary entries scattered throughout the city add some background to Randy’s character and a cast of characters – peculiar at best, cliched at worst – help flesh out the world.
Unfortunately the plot is generally rather poor and is marred by some sub-par dialogue and voice acting throughout. The search for Randy’s family grows increasingly tiresome with a conclusion both predictable and unsatisfying, but there are hints of more interesting stories in the world. A violent militia terrorizes and kidnaps survivors, providing enemies more cerebral than Shadows, and a host of collectible items which litter the world add a bit of flavour to each environment and some incentive to explore or revisit areas.
Of course, it’s the platforming challenge that is driving force of the game and directing Randy towards his goal is both challenging and rewarding. Travelling through the ruins of 1986 Seattle is a feast for the eyes. Each stage looks stunning and evokes a fantastic atmosphere and a great sense of scale. Whether crossing a motorway strewn with abandoned cars, rushing through houses in zombie suburbia or clambering through trap filled sewers, the level of detail in the environment is incredible. The background is regularly filled with movement: Shadows shuffling around, even explosions and gunfights. Although you move exclusively on a 2D plane the world is very much three dimensional. On occasion Shadows lurking in the background will lurch into action and shuffle toward the screen to attack you, adding an extra layer of tension – a seemingly safe room can quickly become swamped by a horde bursting in from the background forcing a hasty escape.
Simply avoiding Shadows is often the easiest strategy, but they are usually positioned in such a way that they are integrated into the puzzle, lurking in a prime location or wandering across your desired path, and will have to be dealt with one way or another. At the start of your journey the only weapon available to you is your wits and you are challenged to out manoeuvre Shadows, sprinting past them, leaping over them or using the environment against them. The brain dead corpses are easily manipulated into doing incredibly stupid things, like falling into pits or strolling in to electrified wires leaving you free to stroll past unhindered.
You will quickly add a firefighters axe to your arsenal allowing you some form of offense. However, swinging the axe steadily depletes your energy bar meaning you can’t go wild and hack your way to success. A single Shadow is easy enough to deal with, though they do take a surprising amount of punishment before they finally succumb to the axe. Any more than one Shadow and things get a little tricker, flailing the axe and pushing them back will buy you some time but in most cases combat is not the answer for progression. Later it’s possible to add a revolver and a shotgun to your collection, which can help out in tricky situations. However, ammunition is relatively rare, reloading is slow and you’re still not likely to survive a mass onslaught from a group of Shadows, so the firearms are best saved for special occasions.
Rushing away from an oncoming assault can be genuinely perilous as Randy’s movement tends to be slow, even laborious, with most actions requiring some careful consideration and precise execution. A simple misstep or ill timed leap will usually result in death and the precision required to successful make some jumps will leave you repeatedly falling short and dropping to your demise. Fortunately checkpoints are generously positioned but restarting does require a short load screen so repeated failures can become frustrating.
In the opening sections Randy’s lack of speed or agility doesn’t pose too much of a problem; your intended route is clear to see and you have time to consider how you will approach each challenge. In the second act though, there is a change of tact as you move beneath the crumbling city to the booby-trap laden sewers. The positioning of the various death-traps makes them almost impossible to dodge without knowing what is about to happen, bringing about a trial-and-error mentality to the puzzle solving. There are also several sections that require you to navigate at speed. A chase sequence where you must elude a pursuing helicopter or avoid falling debris in a collapsing building, for example. And the same problem applies in these instances: it’s near impossible to nail on your first attempt. There’s no way to tell what your next obstacle will be until it’s too late and Randy isn’t always responsive enough to cope with a last second change in direction. Clambering over rooftops, leaping over chasms and smashing through doors is as fun as it sounds, which makes it all the more frustrating to be halted in your stride by something impossible to foresee.
Despite its flaws Deadlight is a commendable first effort from Tequila Works, although I fear the premise of the game is more exciting than the final execution, they have managed to craft a world that’s deeply atmospheric and with moments of worth that are sadly let down by some cumbersome controls and a lacklustre plot.