That Mario clown had it easy.---
I am fruitlessly scavenging for weapons and ammunition while the rain pours down on me in sheets. I've been separated from my my group for days now, and leaving my gun with them for protection now seems like a terrible idea. I make my way through abandoned buildings and litter-strewn alleyways coming ever closer to my goal, to my family. Glass shatters somewhere in the distance and a car alarm blares. My entire body tenses up for a moment before I decide I'll be fine for now...but when the unmistakable scream of the undead breaks the eerie silence, I know I've only got one choice—run.
Xbox Live's 2012 Summer of Arcade is upon us, and with it comes several weeks of high-profile downloadable titles in varying genres. Thus far, the offerings have been decent at best (why you'd include that awful Downhill Jam level in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD is beyond me), but developer Tequila Works' Deadlight has hit consoles, and it's the first must-own arcade title of summer.
The year is 1986, and a terrifying zombie outbreak has torn across America leaving most everyone dead, dying or worse. You are Randall Wayne, a Canadian park ranger who was separated from his family during the initial days of thehorror and, along with just about everyone else in the Pacific Northwest, you are heading to Seattle. A mysterious radio broadcast has promised safe haven in the Emerald City, and if your wife and daughter are anywhere, it's there. The one problem is that there are countless shadows (this is the name used for zombies in this game) between you and the safe point. The survivors have gone mad as well, and it seems like each step forward takes our hero two steps back. There is so much between you and your goal that it would be easier to just give up and die, but when it comes to finding your family, there is no obstacle too great, no undead army too immense.
Your first thought might have something to do with sadness over yet another piece of zombie anything, but it's really Wayne's descent into sadness and ultimate redemption that are on display here. Deadlight focuses more on its main character's internal monologue and personal struggles than his surroundings or enemies, and the realization he comes to at the climax is one of the most heat-wrenching conclusions found within a story in any medium. Now that's not to say that there won't be a whole mess of shadows to slaughter along the way. Combat is hard to get a handle on at first, but once you get the hang of swinging your fireman's axe into your foes, it is satisfying and challenging in all the right ways. Guns eventually come into play, and Tequila Works' sporadic use of firearms is a refreshing change of pace from so many run and gun titles. Oh, and it's super-fun to blast the heads off of zombies...it always is.
Deadlight is, first and foremost, a side-scroller. But by making wonderful use of Epic's Unreal engine, the developers have added gorgeous dimension to a 2D world. Seattle's naturally beautiful lighting provides the perfect filter for areas that are layered, detailed and beautiful. And though you won't be traveling in three dimensions, it's hard not to stop and admire the level of care Tequila Works has utilized in creating its backgrounds. City streets are alive (so to speak) with activity whether it's shuffling shadows or panicked people, and once you've reached the more metropolitan areas, buildings and parks are recreated with anobvious care. This looks a whole hell of a lot like Seattle, and it is breathtaking at times.
Cutscenes appear in the form of comic book style stills. This definitely conjures Walking Dead images in one's head, but Deadlight is unique enough to steer clear of any real comparison. These cinematic moments build some serious tension and give us a little insight into Wayne's humanity. Plus there are a few of these comic-like panels that attain downright beauty.
There are moments to be found all through Deadlight that are just plain confusing/frustrating. It can be a little unclear what you're supposed to be doing and, more often than not, checkpoints are placed at moments that wrestle control away from the player. If I had to watch Wayne climb out of a sewer and say something about his surroundings because I didn't notice that one skylight was waiting to be shattered one more time, I was going to lose it. Yes, a lot of games have added more and more moments of decreased interactivity in recent years, and this has taken the overall challenge of the medium down a few notches. However, there is a major difference between challenging and outright ridiculous.
Voice acting is fairly mediocre for the most part with the exception of Wayne. The monologue does tend to be melodramatic, but the other characters you meet along the way are usually so ridiculously bad that you'll long for them to shut up so you can get back to axing heads. These sub-par performances are jarring and have a tendency to take you out of the moment. It almost sounds like these people have never worked as voice actors before, and somebody really should have been on top of this.
Much of the back story is fleshed out through the discovery of missing pages from Wayne's journal. These pages are exceedingly well-written and paint the picture of a man struggling with an uncomfortable existence. Wayne is trapped between a desire for solitude away from civilization and the attachments to society that come with having a wife and daughter. So how is this bad? Finding these pages becomes pretty damn hard when there is no indication unless you walk right over one. Presumably this is to spur players into multiple plays of the game, but I would rather replay a game because it's good than to find the last few pages of a diary.
The Bottom Line
Deadlight is basically Limbo meets Metroid. It's a dark and scary platformer that heaps on plenty of exploration, violence and storytelling. Yes, zombies are becoming tired at this point, but Tequila Works has achieved something truly special with this game. From the perfect length to the tight gameplay, this is the stuff we've come to expect from Xbox's annual Summer of Arcade promotion. Summertime is always rough for hardcore gamers as publishers hold off on releasing their best titles til the holiday season. Deadlight fills a little bit of that void, and it stands out as one of the best downloadable titles in recent memory. Do you need Deadlight? Yes. You absolutely do.
Let it be known to all men and women that Deadlight receives 4.2 out of 5 stars
Developer: Tequila Works
Rating: M (that stands for Mature, y'all!)
Cost: $14.99 (that's 1200 microsoft points, nerds!)