Deadlight is one of the XBLA Summer of Arcade titles from a while back that's been recently ported to PC. It's a divisively reviewed survival horror/action/platforming/puzzler from a little known studio, running with a vibe similar to the highly praised Limbo. Does it hold up as well on PC as it did on 360 for Tim Turi? Is it worth your money?
Nananananana... Randal? Really? His name is -Randal-? Were all the non-sinister names taken?
No, not really.
No, seriously, it isn't. I wish I could say it was, but it isn't. It just isn't.
Want to know why? Okay then. Deadlight is a broken at times, unpolished, badly executed good string of ideas with some of the worst writing this side of gaming. The first hour or so was great, before any of the said issues showed up though, and it's really its in this brief beginning that Deadlight shines. You navigate the environments intuitively, puzzles are rather basic but are rewarding, combat feels like it's got room to grow, the environments look great, and it all comes together brilliantly. I have to believe this was the part the developer (Tequila Works) kept showing Microsoft, because after you reach a sewer, things start going downhill.
First off, I'm fine with stretching reality a bit for a good story, but my gosh the sewers in Deadlight's verison of bombed out Seattle are bigger than four football fields on their sides end to end and side to side. The death trap centric platforming seems more like something out of some Saw inspired flash game or Super Meat Boy than zombie survival, and the character tied to them makes no sense. Even when you're in non-hostile areas the game still makes you platform around with obviously inconvenient gaps and problems in the game's content.
Probably because they can't get past the awful checkpoint system.
Things don't get much better when it comes to the dialogue. Tequila must fancy themselves to be like Remedy, makers of games such as Alan Wake and Max Payne, because they constantly seem to be following the self-narrating mantra without understanding how to do it properly. How many times does Randal talk to himself in third person in the game? Easily over forty times, adding an additional one every time you die at a checkpoint where he's scripted to talk. Each. Bloody. Time. He's not even providing good exposition or explanation, he's just telling you what you can obviously glean from observing. The game design has a show not tell approach, but the writing seems to ignore this, which is even more confusing when you learn the game was both designed and written by the same person.
Regular dialogue doesn't handle any better, ending with one of the most confusingly befuddling finales ever. Even in its last moment Deadlight seems to be so busy saying one thing that it does the exact opposite because "screw it, we've run out of money in the budget to make a finale moral choice". Characters are introduced and then dropped without the slightest bit of delicacy, and any vaguely interesting ideas are usually tossed aside in favor of the contrived mental breakdown of Randal.
This trend of dissonance extends to the entire game. Some platforming sequences seem scripted for perfect runs and yet the slow moving, awkwardly paced platforming can barely keep up. I died repeatedly at one very irritating section merely because of how the game handled its wall jumping and sliding speed. Masochistic platforming is one thing, but at least make sure you can do it right. If I died of my own failure I wouldn't get mad, but there were times where I'd be sent back way too far by the checkpoint system because of a level design oversight that really should have been caught by Microsoft's QA testers.
Similarly, the game is bugged like, to quote Zero Punctuation, a "big bug bugging out in a dune buggy". I've fallen through a failed collision detection on a corner into a gaping abyss (no, seriously, I even have ten seconds of the looped death screams of Randal now recorded on my phone). I've seen a zombie climb over a ledge then become frozen and standing over a void. I've landed on perfectly safe areas where you should die. I've found unfinished textures left with the default UDK purplish-blue and white squares. I've had my health sometimes fully restored by dying and reloading the checkpoint but other times not -- so as a result I can't be sure which one was intended.
I'm sorry but seriously? No one noticed this the entire time they were readying the game for Steam?
Getting to the main gameplay hang-ups, most of them seem to result from two key decisions. The first decision is making half of everything dark no matter if there's light or not (rather ironic or appropriate considering the name). The other decision was to make everything 2.5 but the only entity that can't use depth is you. Yes, you are the only person in this world trapped in two dimensions. See those zombies in the distance? They can come and take a bite out of you before you can even properly get your bearings or even tell if you can fight them back. You might waste all your in-game stamina just swinging at them, missing them all, and then get clobbered. That's not to say you can really fight zombies -- Randal apparently was intentionally designed as a pathetic loser who somehow was a ranger (ranger of what, I honestly couldn't tell you) yet can't just use his fire ax to knock zombies aside rather than continually nudge them forward or slash off their arms. Amazingly enough, even without arms, the zombies still manage to grapple you, and like with the health restoration, sometimes you'll lose health during a grapple from the start, sometimes you'll lose it if you're slow, sometimes you won't at all.
Come on kids! Lets count the glitches in this loading screen: two loading icons AND a weird green effect.
Thinking of something positive to say about Deadlight is a surprisingly difficult challenge. The core design and ideas seem promising, but Tequila either lacked the time or talent to make this a polished product. Even when the game is actually working properly without glitches, it's a waste of three hours, and is certainly not worth the ten dollar price tag. It should be mentioned that the game does have a Nightmare mode for those who dare to run through the campaign twice, rewarding you with a new, even more nonsensical twist ending that I honestly have to believe was what they were originally going with until someone told them how awful it sounded. However they failed to point out that a final sequence made to play like an action shooter wouldn't work considering the game's mechanics and unforgiving nature.
I could go on. The loading screens have nothing to do with the story and sometimes make no sense. The cutscenes are awfully put together. The pacing is all over the place. The tone ranges from realism to dark fantasy. Worst of all there's a contrived scene in a prison shower area that hints at the possibility of the only living female character in the game potentially being raped while being "cleaned for possible contaminants" that is just tasteless.
Why are there giant zombies in this dream? You can only guess as they have no impact whatsoever.
The only reason you could possibly come looking for Deadlight is its soundtrack and atmosphere, which are the two things the game manages to truly hit on a high note. The music gets you intensified and moving when under threat and the way rooms fade into and out of view as you progress is like comic book panels, and is very visually pleasing. Still, these are hardly worth recommending the game. Instead, just enjoy a few glamor shots of the game -- I'll post some below for you to get your fill. As it stands, Deadlight gets a 5/10. Broken, unpolished even when working right, and badly put together, it remains a disappointment whenever you think about what it could have been.
Congratulations! You've beaten Deadlight! To play it on Nightmare difficulty, insert $10 to play it with all mentioned in the review.