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Moody and stylish

Deadlight is a game I wouldn’t normally look at twice. It’s not that I have anything against 2-D platformers, you understand, or even zombies for that matter. It’s just that I’ve been playing games for a while and, well, I’ve sort of done it. Played 2D platformers since Manic Miner. So when Felix asked me to review it, I felt that I was not really interested.

But then, Felix gave me his look. It’s hard to describe that look to anyone who hasn’t seen it. It’s partly a look of menace, that makes you feel that actually doing what you’re told is the best thing for your continued wellbeing. But there was something behind that baleful gaze, something that suggested that Deadlight might be more than I was giving it credit for, like that this was something I should really examine a little closer.

I know, right? All that from a look. But there it is. I was installing and playing Deadlight before I knew it.

And what a game it turned out to be. Sure, it is a side-scrolling 2D platformer, but wow. They’ve really found a way to use that format to tell a story. See, that’s nothing new, back in ye olden dayes there were a couple of great stories told in this way, such as Another World and Flashback. And as time went on, that art was buried under an avalanche of 3D worlds.

Essentially, you have two directions to go most of the time: Forward, or back the way you came. There is not a lot of choice, aside from the odd climbing bit and a few secret rooms that only become visible once you’ve found a way into them, a la Loco Roco. But oddly, it doesn’t suffer from this stranglehold on direction. In fact, it serves to tighten up the storytelling. It’s set in 1986 Seattle, although the date doesn’t ever really seem to factor into the story; I’m not entirely sure why they didn’t just say ‘modern day’.

Backgrounds are beautifully and lovingly rendered. There’s a particular scene very near to the beginning where you’re dashing across a ruined highway intersection. And the attention to detail in the background is immense and commendable. This sweeping vista, that really does nothing but serve as a backdrop for about ten seconds of gameplay, is far from a one-off. Each and every level is crafted by hand in intricate detail, and serves to create an incredible sense of place. That’s not to say all of the graphics are particularly amazing – collapsing roofs in particular look a little shoddy, and the game’s shadowy style, in which much of the scenery and particularly the zombies are depicted in silhouette, keeps system requirements to a manageable level. Cutscenes are portrayed in a series of comic book style stills, all of which adds up to a unique graphical style.

The story is well-told, as I’ve mentioned. However, the writing can vary a lot, between really excellent, poignant dialogue that contrasts sublimely with what’s going on visually, to broken English that jars against the setting a little. Sometimes things don’t make any sense other than to drive the story forward – an otherwise friendly character might make you run a gauntlet of deadly traps for no other reason but to allow for a trap-avoiding game sequence. Combat, however, is really well put together. You have a couple of weapons at your disposal, and never enough ammo to just blast away. You’re far better off trying to outrun the zombies than to try to take them on in most cases, and after whacking a couple with a fire axe to down them for a few seconds you often have to high-tail it away before more undead shamble in to block your path. Melee takes time – valuable time you rarely have. But your character has an agility that can see him vaulting obstacles with relative (but believable) ease. After fleeing from the horde, stumbling over a plastic chair, getting back to your feet and running like the blazes from the clutching arms of the ghouls, only to pull yourself up on top of a wrecked ambulance before wheezing and gasping for breath as the zombies mill around below you, it can sometimes feel like you’ve watched a cutscene as much as played a dynamic sequence. Of course, many of these 'dynamic sequences' are sort of staged, created in such a way that the only real way to beat them is to follow a set route that actually looks really exciting and tense.

You play the part of Randall Wayne, who looks for all the world like a hobo. Mind you, I guess that’s how all survivors would look after the apocalypse. Anyway, Wayne’s story is told through dialogue, diary entries, freaky flashbacks and dream sequences, and is a straightforward zombie movie style tale. By the time you reach the end you’ll probably have already tumbled to all of the developments, but the gorgeous locations and tense action sequences that tie in so well to keep the tale gripping.

Yes, it’s short. Just as you’re really getting into it, and just as the challenge starts to properly ramp up, it’s over quite unexpectedly. But look. It’s under £10, and every single step of the way is gorgeously and carefully crafted. Think of it as like a short story – it’s not supposed to be any longer than it is. There’s a bonus Nightmare difficulty level available once you complete it, but to be quite honest once you’ve seen the story through you’re not going to be in a desperate rush to play it through again for a while.

Deadlight is a rare thing. It is the resurrection of a long-dead genre, and it leverages all that the 2D side-scroller has to offer to spin a good yarn. Tequila Works totally succeeded in creating something unique. I never stopped having fun, or being impressed with the detailed locations. Every step of the way was engrossing and intriguing. Good on you, Felix, for your inscrutable gaze!

Not every foe is of the brain-chomping variety