Randy Wayne, the protagonist of the “flee from the zombies” game Deadlight, may be little better than the walking dead himself. Styled after early platformers like Jordan Mechner’s original Prince Of Persia, (with a bit of Limbo and Out Of This World thrown in for good measure) Deadlight portrays Randy only in silhouette as he runs across the screen. Even as he tries to escape “shadows,” as the game self-consciously calls the undead, he’s a shadow himself. The visual metaphor is a good one, but the combination of aesthetic and narrative interest doesn’t go much deeper than that.
Outside of some crude and mood-breaking “motion comic” cutscenes, Deadlight is exclusively seen from that shadowy view. Developer Tequila Works isn’t afraid to do some fun things with the display—here zooming in on one tiny room, and elsewhere pulling the camera way back to put Randy into insignificantly small perspective against the backdrop. Ultimately, however, the zooming view does little more than offer an occasional up-close gander at the nicely rendered backgrounds. It doesn’t offset the disconnect that the silhouette view creates—we just can’t get close to this guy at all. That works for the action that constitutes much of the game, but when it’s time for an emotional moment, my only response is laughter.
There are few moments where Deadlight will challenge players to put newly-honed skills to use against difficult odds. Most of the game’s “challenges” feel cheap, as when a chasm is half-hidden between two platforms that are difficult to discern, or in the sections where Randy is forced to run blindly through several zombie, er, “shadow”-filled areas. While the game’s jumps and minor acrobatics are generally easy to time properly, the insistent motion combined with a sometimes murky definition of depth makes for many forced replays. (Is that boxy thing a bit of background set dressing, or something Randy needs to jump over? Oh. It’s a jump. Restart.)
There’s an implied rationalization of the fact that Randy only moves on one path and one plane. In the game’s middle section, when the threat of zombies is replaced by the need to navigate increasingly unlikely traps set by a weirdo cellar-dweller called the Rat, it’s difficult to imagine why Randy doesn’t say “screw this,” and turn the game’s perspective around, Fez-style. But the guy only has one thing on his mind: finding his loved ones. That puts him on a mental level that isn’t so different from the wandering monsters. Randy says at one point, after using a water tower to douse a giant blaze, “a waste of precious drinking water, but I have to find my friends, my family!” Don’t expect a satisfying resolution to that vague equivocation of hero and monsters, however, as Deadlight is primarily happy to recycle modern zombie movie story points.
Garish cutscenes, a wildly clichéd script, and lousy voice acting are noticeable places where Deadlight could use more polish, but other issues afflict the game. The interface is wonderfully sparing…until you interact with objects Randy can pick up. Then, big text blocks hit the screen and ride the lower quarter of the display area. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that’s the part of the screen where Randy lives. And some movements, such as rolling to avoid damage after a long jump, are set in motion by controls that require precise timing but feel spongy and inexact. Some users might also see a warning that your storage device is full, and the game can’t be saved, which doesn’t actually seem to affect any saving of progress. (I saw that message only once, but it seems to be more pervasive for some other players.)
The illustration of a cracked and broken Seattle is still fairly lovely to navigate, especially in the game’s first third. But every step forward cracks the game’s facade, and by the final act, when the action feels cheaper than ever, Deadlight’s appeal has gone the way of a rotting zombie’s higher functions.