Every Shadow Has a Shadow: Deadlight Review

Just an average afternoon in Detroit.

Deadlight is not just another zombie game. Ostensibly inspired by the cinematic platformers of yesteryear, Deadlight picks up where Limbo left off, and the very fact that the likes of Limbo are its competition, makes the stale (and completely unpretentious) prospect of zombies, actually feel fresh.

Set during the mid-80s, Shadows (zombies) are busy eating everyone and everything in sight, which is a good thing when you consider that this was the decade that embraced hair metal and shoulder pads.

It’s not all gravy, though. Unfortunately Shadows are just as likely to eat loved ones as they are to eat Bret Michaels; a fact we are shown in the introduction where Viggo M—Randall Wayne has been forced to euthanise a fellow survivor who was silly enough to go and get herself bitten.

Unfortunately he opted for lead instead of Nembutal as his poison of choice, and the loud administering of the drug attracted nearby Shadows, which results in Randall being left behind while the others in his merry group of survivors escape. It’s a suitably dark opening that sets the tone nicely, but also demonstrate some of the problems with Deadlight’s presentation.

The price of petrol may have plummeted post-outbreak, but you wouldn’t believe what you have to fork over for a hanging!

The voice acting sits firmly on the wrong side of melodrama, but this is a zombie game; melodrama can be a good thing, right? Sure, many games and films within the genre use horrible voice acting like corn uses melted cheese (or was that butter?), but due to the darker tone here, it only manages to take away from some of the heavier themes that are touched upon, though they are only touched upon so in this context it’s not a huge issue.

However, it does take away from the excitement of the story, and the quality of the voice acting only helps to illustrate where corners have been cut in the production. During one scene where Randall is surrounded by soldiers (they’re not much better than zombies—or they are zombies, if you want to put it more bitingly) some of their vicious voices are repeated soundboard style—the same recording spammed at you multiple times as if you’re a victim of Ventrilo harassment, not a group of souped up zombies with guns.

The writing suffers from the same issue. Lines are often repeated; not during incidental dialogue, but during the cartoon-style cutscenes. It’s jarring, and takes away from the tension of the narrative, while giving the actors very little to work with. In fact, Stephen Hughes plays Randall’s best friend, Ben as well Randall himself, and does an admirable job of making them sound like two different people, so perhaps the primary issue is with the script and the direction, not the voice acting itself. It’s a shame too, because the idea behind the story, and the fresh take on an old, worn out trope deserves better.

The lunatics are running (outside) the asylum.

The world is also illustrated through lost diary pages that you can find scattered about the levels, and it’s fun slowly filling in the diary, and piecing together the back story and details about the setting. You don’t necessarily get the diary pages in order, so it almost feels like you’ve solved a puzzle when you receive a section of the diary that helps expand upon a latter section that you’ve previously discovered.

It’s actually an excellent way to tell the backstory; it’s un-intrusive, but if you are interested, then there’s a wealth of information that you can dive into and enjoy. The only issue is that the actual writing involved is awkward, and at times uninteresting. Perhaps the misuse of words and poor grammar is deliberate (it’s the diary of a Canadian naturalist who is deathly afraid of pinkos, after all) but it does come across as someone poorly imitating a poorly written diary, rather than a poorly written diary itself. It’s an important distinction.

By now you may well be wondering why I’ve spent almost half the review discussing the presentation when we’re talking about a platformer. You’re forgetting a word—a cinematic platformer relies just as much on its presentation as its gameplay, but your timing could not have been better.

Talk about a wasted bullet. Everyone knows Shadows have no heart!

Deadlight takes its gameplay in a slightly strange direction. There are a few moments where it’s almost a successful pastiche of the cinematic platformers of yore, but these moments are rare. Most of the time it tries to modernise things through smooth, flowing gameplay, and some rather awkward combat.

Let’s begin with the combat. While it’s often not a good idea due to the number of Shadows you might have to contend with, when you are forced to pull out the old axe, things are not pretty. The first issue is with the controls: to finish off a zombie you must be standing still, and hold down attack; this results in a powerful swing that knocks any Shadows in range to the ground, and instantly kills any that have already been felled.

The main problem here is that you cannot pull this off while moving, and the controls are loose and finicky enough, that often you’ll be skidding very slowly to a halt when you need to start swinging, which will then result in a rather lengthy attacking animation which in turn will put you off course, and probably mean that you will have to move back to a safer position before swinging all over again—but even if you don’t have to retreat, by time you’ve used the wrong type of attack and missed, you’ll probably have been bitten.

Things become easier once you’re given firearms to play with, but some issues with Shadows do remain; one of the most frustrating is poor clipping detection. Naturally you cannot just run past Shadows as you please, you actually have to knock them out of your way with the handle of the axe or jump past them, but due to the poor clipping detection, a well timed jump will often find you getting stuck on a zombie, and a well timed push will find you either devoured or stuck.

… It’s not really any better to miss them completely, though!

The platforming and puzzle solving are not so affected by the loose controls, but that is only because there is very little genuine platforming or puzzle solving involved. The paths through levels are almost always obvious; this wouldn’t be an issue if getting form point a to point b was a challenge, but most of the time there is little skill involved in the platforming; there are few timed sections, or carefully placed traps and jumps, so that most of the time you’re moving swiftly and easily through levels. To make matters worse the Shadows are rarely used as obstacles during the platforming; you’ll usually only run into them in areas where you either have to fight them, or can easily run away. Not in mid-platforming section where they just might be that bit more menacing! Though I suppose it’d be hard for a Shadow to get to a terribly precarious perch…

The puzzles fare no better, and rarely extend beyond having to shoot a lock or a platform that is in the way of the ledge you’re trying to get to; both of which will be illuminated by a blue hue. An overenthusiastic hint system does not help either. On a number of occasions after already being introduced to a mechanic, I was then told how it worked again when I came to a puzzle involving it, which immediately gave me the key to solving the puzzle.

Of course that’s the modern influence, and in its defence, the game does flow excellently, moving swiftly from level to level, story moment to story moment, which makes the narrative highly engaging despite its flaws; the trouble is that it doesn’t feel like you’re doing a great deal along the way—you cannot rely entirely on your narrative, even if you are a cinematic platformer.

No, that’s not a Shadow flying that helicopter—it’s a zombie.

I did mention earlier that there were a few more old school moments, and they are among the best parts in the game; it’s just a shame a couple of them killed me if I moved through them too quickly! It was a little strange feeling both unengaged by easy gameplay yet frustrated at the same time—a few technical issues such as slow down and game crashes probably didn’t help in this regard, either.

All of this might sound very negative, but if that’s the case, it’s only because I was very much looking forward to sinking my teeth into a modern cinematic platformer that wasn’t very deliberately in black and white or about the nuclear holocaust. The truth of the matter is that I couldn’t help but become engrossed in the story, and enjoy searching for the secrets in each level, or gawk at the beautiful sight of Seattle falling apart—and all from the perspective of a side-scroller! Where have you been, cinematic platforming? You could probably even make shooting Nazis fun again!