I’ve spent my Friday evening playing the first hour and a bit of Deadlight rather than gallivanting in a pub. It’s a side-scrolling zombie adventure that was previously a tenant of XBLA. Shades of Flashback, Oddworld and Limbo have helped to keep me here while the world drowns the week’s worries, but is this particular apocalypse anything more than a diversion?
It takes a lot to divert me from a drink but Deadlight has kind of managed it for the last three hours, with breaks for food and reading through the fifty tabs that have accumulated in my browser throughout the day. It’s also given me the sort of headache that I normally associate with a night of Tom Waits karaoke and Aventinus, but today’s ludicrous coffee intake may be to blame as much as the game.
Let me get this out of the way: every time I hit a zombie, or ‘shadow’, all movement ceases for a few tenths of a second. It looks intentional. I think it’s supposed to be dramatic. It makes my eyes crack like thin sheets of glass that have been inexplicably placed underneath a tired hippo’s descending rump.
Then there’s the method by which the game chooses to inform me that I’m running low on stamina, usually when I’m swinging an axe around, occasionally thwacking a zombie-shadow in the face and causing the screen to stutter. Exhaustion is shown by having the screen pulse like a migraine at a rave. It’s nauseating, especially when combined with the impact effect.
PULSE, PAUSE, PULSE, PULSE, PAUSE, PULSE PULSE, PAUSE, PULSE, PUKE.
It’s supposed to be jarring, of course, but…ugh. What’s doubly annoying is that apart from those issues, Deadlight is absolutely gorgeous. The world isn’t made of silhouettes, although darkness lends that style to the scenes, and locations look authentic. There’s a particular time and place being recreated – Seattle, 1986 – and although I couldn’t tell you how accurate the appearances are, there’s a griminess and level of detail that suggests familiarity.
It’s a fine-looking city, which is to say it’s a mess of rust, chainlink fences and ruined advertising. It’s the recreation that’s fine rather than the spectacle.
Controls fit the Flashback or Prince of Persia mould. Player character Randall Wayne can’t jump very high but he has remarkable upper body strength, capable of grabbing the smallest of ledges and dragging his body to new heights. Running toward a ledge and timing a leap sees him launched through the air, at the end of which he’ll often need those powerful arms again to grab some outcropping and prevent a nasty fall. It’s simple stuff, but smooth enough and with plenty of incidental detail to sell the physicality – dust and particles crumbling from brick walls, walkways sagging and creaking as a horde races across them.
Horde is an exaggeration. Maybe later there are masses of red-eyed shadowzombies to contend with but so far, I’ve only encountered small groups. They are intimidating scoundrels though, often approaching from the background, where I cannot go, being trapped on a 2 dimensional escape route. They can be killed but it takes time and when three or four have Randall cornered, it’s more sensible to head for higher ground.
Mysterious shadows-of-zombies are just as stupid as regular zombies and they’re quite content to run off the side of a building or into an electrical deathtrap if Randall shakes his tasty meat in their direction. Or whistles. He can whistle to get their attention too*.
The whole sorry story of how life became a sad struggle for survival, as well as a more personal hunt for family, is told through Randall’s diaries, pages of which are scattered all over Seattle for some reason. There are other collectables and I’ve been enjoying hunting for them, if only because I like exploring each area as fully as possible.
Oddly, although the game certainly does have elements of Oddworld and Limbo, it’s Flashback I’ll keep coming back to because the puzzles don’t seem as deadly or reliant on trial and error, and even when something goes wrong, it’s often possible to claw your way back out of the situation, even if ammo is always suitably scarce.
There are rapid, gauntlet sequences that’ll kill you quicker than that clown in your closet with the cut-throat razor, but mostly the tempo is more Prince of Persia than Canabalt, which the rooftop chases occasionally remind me of.
I’m probably a bit more than half way through, as the story is apparently very short, and I don’t think there are going to be any startling revelations. The events are more interesting than Randall, even though he stumbles around in weird dream sequences, which is the sign of a compelling protagonist.
There is an early and expected HUMANS ARE THE REAL TERROR angle that made me roll my eyes around on the desk for a while, but the real draw is the setting though. The broken down city is stunning at times and style of platforming suits the lived-in believability of the world. Simple and based around something at least resembling actual human motion, it’s solid and grounded, with a recent cousin in the best parts of I Am Alive.
Even with an extra difficulty level added for the PC release and plenty of unlockables and collectibles, I don’t think there’s a huge amount of game here. However small the nugget might be, it is extremely well polished and quite comforting in that it achieves its aims with little fuss. You will run, you will jump, you will occasionally shoot, you will more often climb. Yeah, it’s zombies again, even if they’re not calling them that, but they do look kind of interesting from this angle.
Deadlight is available on Steam now for £8.49, reduced from £9.99 until November 1st.
*There isn’t actually any meat-shaking at all. Sometimes they just see him and want to eat him and I felt the need to make that sound rude. Sorry.