From the very first scene in Deadlight, I felt like I was in good hands. Rather than a lengthy preamble about a world gone bad, or some scrolling text to set the scene, we get a cold-open that sees the protagonist jeering at, then shooting a wounded survivor in the head. As the others gather, including the inconsolable sister of the now-dead girl, our hero Randall is unapologetic, coldly explaining the logic of putting down their infected comrade.
Murdering a young girl in the opening seconds of the game is a great way to establish the overwhelmingly bleak tone that remains constant throughout this three hour long action platformer. It’s made abundantly clear that survival alone is an accomplishment in this particular post-apocalypse, which unfolds in a 1986 Seattle that’s overrun with the undead.
The first hour is dedicated to introducing the standard mechanics of play – Randall can sprint, climb, pull and push boxes, break down weak doors with a shoulder barge, and vault off walls for extra height. This act unfolds with an immense sense of momentum, helped in no small part by the frequent appearance of genuinely menacing zombies as Randall tries to parkour to safety. In these opening scenes, the scenery always seems to align itself just right to suit the jump arcs, and platforms are never out of reach, so other than a few occasions during which Randy needs to learn to swing an axe or shoot a gun, the sense or urgency is rarely broken.
This all falls apart in the second act, however. The frenetic pacing and sense of covering ground gives way to a tedious series of unimaginative puzzles, trial and error by instant-death dealing traps strewn throughout the environment, and a jarring paucity of zombies. With most of the action taking place underground, in confined, muddy-brown spaces, I was left wondering why I couldn’t be up top, observing more scenes like in the opening act where the camera would pan back to show expanses of ruined cityscape strewn with bodies and detritus, with messages desperately scrawled in various mediums.
During these precarious scenes where death is a few misjudged pixels away, the clumsy controls become enraging. Fail to jump from the exact spot the designers intended, and it’s back to the checkpoint for you. There are regular sections that involve hopping over and rolling under hazards while navigating tricky terrain, and the controls were so imprecise that I often thought a more elegant solution was eluding me. Furthermore, a handful of different swing animations trigger when the melee button is pressed – some of which take longer to deliver damage, throwing off timing, resulting in lost health and often death.
Systems are introduced in the first hour that never quite pay off. “Use the environment against your enemies” one of the first tips exhorts. A few opportunities to drop cars or electrocute zombies are presented over the next few minutes, but this feature is all but forgotten about for most of the adventure. Same goes for the ‘taunt’ feature, which is a shame, because manipulating of zombies in puzzles felt much more refreshing than the recycled pablum that constitutes most of the obstacles to progression (seriously, how many more times will gamers be tasked to put a crate in water, raise the water levels, and use it to cross a gap?).
The signposting in the game is similarly poor – sometimes Randall will automatically pull a barricade down over a door – sometimes the player has to manually do it (failure to realize the difference will result in death). The trouble is – sometimes the game intends for Randy to continuously run to the right away from the hordes – on those few occasions when these sprints lead to a puzzle room, it would be nice if the gamer had time to double back from the dead-end to lock down the room. The checkpoints are placed at sensible locations, but the reload process takes a good 15 seconds each time.
By the time the game reaches its final act, it seems that the only game systems in place are the ones that frustrate. There are chase sequences with infinite numbers of projectile-enemies that need to be dispatched, and a woefully unforgiving combat system coupled with sluggish animations that will have you hating the designers for moving so far away from what was a mesmerizing, horrifying experience mere hours ago.
All that said, the story, while entirely predictable, is told with some panache through the use of a moving-comic style, which ought to be enough to drag users through the tedium. There are plenty of collectibles along the way that provide context for those that crave such things, and playable Tiger-Handheld style gadgets that are hilariously authentic in their mediocrity. Also, it’s a fascinating lesson in world-design to see Randall cross Seattle while never breaking from a perfectly straight-line (there’s a bit where a vending machine is pulled aside to reveal a vent that can be used to crawl into a room – a more tenable option for Randy than stepping through the door 3 feet away in the background, seemingly).
There hasn’t been a game quite like Deadlight in some time. This is a game that immediately gets into a strong stride in its opening act, stumbles and falls in its second, and barely crawls over the finish line. Whether you’ll see it through depends on how fondly you remember those first impressions as the tedium builds.