Shadows in Seattle: A Deadlight Review

Let me tell you a little something about myself that you may or may not know. I am an artist; one of mediocre skill and debatable quality, but an artist nonetheless. It is with this information in mind, then, that it should come as no surprise to you that I love games that wear their artistic nature right on their sleeves. In some cases, this means the depth and emotional quality of the story and, in others, it means simply the way the game looks. It’s rare that games nail both of these qualities but such is the case with Tequila Works’ cinematic platformer, Deadlight.

Deadlight is a side-scrolling survival horror that mixes the best bits of games like Shadow Complex and LIMBO and throws in a dash of everything The Walking Dead into the blender for just the right amount of what’s popular. The player takes control of down-on-his-luck survivor, Randall Wayne (a character who is a bit too cliché to be totally likable) and moves him through a bleak world filled to the brim with danger; from the Shadows (no, really, guys, it’s okay to call them zombies…), the militia with a post-apocalyptic hard-on, and the world itself.  Armed with a fireman’s ax, pistol, shotgun, and–if you can believe it–a slingshot, Randall heads out into the ruined streets of Seattle in search of his comrades and, hopefully, his lost wife and daughter.

The set-up is good, and the story presented is fantastic, if a little…over inspired…by some of today’s best zombie mythologies (I’m pretty sure Glen shows up for a portion of the middle act). The biggest problem Deadlight has, though, isn’t the story so much as the delivery of it. Without a doubt, Deadlight showcases some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever forced myself to sit through. Which is a shame, really because, as I mentioned, the story is pretty darn good. From Randall’s backstory to the various bits of information about the setting (a disaster-stricken 1982 Seattle) and its downfall. The story’s there, you just have to get to it; I suggest muting your television during the cutscenes and just reading the subtitles and enjoying the wonderfully rendered comic-esque art.

Which brings me to my favorite part of the game – the art. Fantastically dark, grim visuals are all over this game. Right from the opening menu I was in awe of the artistic talent that threw its weight into this game. As I mentioned before, the game’s story-related cutscenes feature hand-drawn comic-like art that plays out like a motion comic in a style that captures the grittiness and horror of the setting. My personal favorite pieces, though, have to be in the loading screens. I found myself wanting to die just so I could get lost in the thick black lines and subtle shades of blue of the handful of drawings on display while the game loads up your last check-point. Lucky for me, though, it wasn’t necessary for me to kill myself  as the borderline frustrating trial-and-error gameplay handled that all on its own; but I’ll get to that in a second. The game itself features a beautiful world rendered in 3D populated by tight character models moving smoothly along a 2D plane. It’s a style utilized in several games and can be done well if the gameplay and presentation mesh well. For the most part, Deadlight does.

The gameplay of Deadlight is a pretty straight-forward affair for the growing genre. Lots of running, a smattering of combat, a dash of environmental puzzle-solving, and a whole bunch of dying. The game isn’t terribly difficult–I finished it in roughly four hours from start to finish, which I felt was just the right amount of time–but it can be frustrating. The frustration doesn’t come from the game’s difficulty level or from a forced need to conserve or ration supplies (which it teases but never really enforces) but, instead, centers entirely on unavoidable deaths.  I’m not sure what it is about this genre, but there seems to be a requirement to but pitfalls and deathtraps and the occasional unseen mob of enemies that the player has absolutely no way of knowing are waiting until they stumble into them and die. It’s this ham-fisted trial-and-error mechanic that always keeps this genre from reaching perfect status with me. The rest of Deadlight’s gameplay is rock solid; the controls are simple and intuitive (if sometimes a tad unresponsive), the combat is surreal and always boasts a sense of desperation, the puzzle sections require just the right amount of thought to make you smile when you complete one, and the chase sections are intense and fun. The gunplay handles exactly like Shadow Complex with right thumbstick controlling targeting and the right trigger firing the weapon but, unlike Chair’s science-fiction romp, Deadlight has a bit more of a focus on ammo conservation that could have been a tool to give combat a vastly improved risk/reward system, but ends up being more of a second thought by the end.

All said done, though, Deadlight was a lot of fun. The use of Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 made for a 2D side-scroller that stands up to some of the best visuals in the genre. With a story that should be experience, even if you do it without the aid of the cast of horrendous voice actors, and gameplay that is both exciting and just plain fun, Tequila Works has a hit on their hands. There’s even a little bit of replay value for the completionists who want to nab all the collectables and nail a 100% to bank all the Achievements; which are mostly named for popular ’80s songs in a clever nod to the game’s setting.   I highly recommend dropping some Microsoft Points (a fair 1200, I’d say) and adding this one to your catalog of XBLA games.

Just do yourself a favor and avoid watching or reading any Walking Dead before you play…

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