So, Deadlight. It’s funny how a game that clocks in at around two hours start-to-finish can leave me with so much to say about it, but that appears to be the situation we’re in here. This is a fine game with wonderful, simple mechanics which lend themselves to satisfying gameplay and smart, rewarding puzzles. It also has a completely nonsense plot, is littered with genre tropes, and oscillates back and forth between being a masterclass in design and an exercise in controller-snapping frustration.
As it happens, that’s just the kind of video game I love to write about.
In broad terms, Deadlight is a modernisation of the original Prince of Persia. The gameplay is bound by a very similar set of rules, and the player has access to almost the same selection of verbs. Your character has enough weight and momentum to feel like a real person, but not so much that he’s a cumbersome chore to control. It’s telling that Jordan Mechner himself receives a mention in the credits. If it wasn’t for the post-apocalyptic makeup, this could just as easily be considered a sequel as an original IP.
Those aforementioned verbs are deceptively familiar: run, jump, crawl, climb, sprint. Sometimes you can shoot a gun and sometimes you can shout to attract things, but they’re largely context-sensitive actions. The core foundation is an assembly of those five verbs. And, like in Prince of Persia, the underlying tenet of navigating the space successfully is using them with precision.
That need for precision keeps the basic act of moving around in Deadlight compelling, while lending the more urgent moments a greater degree of intensity. Even if hordes of the undead are piling towards you, it’s still important to consider exactly which actions you need to use, in which order, and at precisely what time. The trickier, more complex areas are rapid sequences of micro-decisions carried out under intense pressure. In moments like this the game is at its very best.
Sometimes, of course, this kind of necessary fine-tuning can lead to frustration – particularly when trying to jump and grab a ledge directly above you, for some reason. Occasionally this compounds with Deadlight’s tendency to not properly communicate instructions to the player, leading to portions of trial and error. This is noticeable, but far from a deal-breaker. I played through the whole game in a single sitting and never had to repeat any checkpoint more than a handful of times, but there are definitely puzzles with poorly-hinted solutions and platforming sequences which are incredibly finicky. It’s a shame, as this is a game which shines when its flow is unbroken. There’s an unlockable Nightmare Mode for an additional challenge if you’re into that kind of thing, but the core game doesn’t suit continual death and failure.
That’s kind of surprising, as death is pretty much the focal point of everything else that the game has going on. It’s a typical zombie story, though one in which the word “zombie” has been replaced with “shadow” for some reason. I don’t know why; it seems to be a genre trope these days. Perhaps “zombies” isn’t ominous enough, which is why it keeps getting supplanted. Whatever… they’re called shadows in this, which is fitting as the game’s visual style relies on silhouette to both build atmosphere and distinguish the play area from the background. It’s a 2D game, but the environments have visual depth. Often you’ll see shadows lurch into the foreground and become part of the space you’re trying to traverse, which is a rather nice touch.
And it looks very nice. Everything is moody. There are some genuinely creepy moments. The movement is a little animation-heavy, but it looks believable and characters have a satisfying impact on the world. This physicality bleeds into the combat – which is managed by appropriate ammo scarcity and a slim stamina bar – so that direct encounters with groups of enemies feel like a dangerous last resort.
So far, so good, then. And really, as a purely mechanical experience Deadlight is very hard to criticise all that much. As I said, it’s a fine game. If you’re interested in puzzle-platformers, or have a strong love of evocative visual design, then by all means check this out. It’s very short and there isn’t enough meat on its bones to justify too many repeat playthroughs, but if you can pick up a discount copy or have money to burn this is more than worth your time.
While we’re here though, let’s moan about the plot.
For a start, Randall Wayne (he’s the protagonist) is a bundle of clichés, from the tough-guy attitude to the overwhelming desire to protect his family to the hobo beard and trenchcoat. His memories are collected and recalled through a typical breadcrumb-trail of collectibles, but his tale is pretty pedestrian.
Then there’s the writing, which is bad. The supporting cast are all penned as stock genre archetypes, and the narrative has an infuriating tendency to directly ask questions and then immediately forget about answering them. Plot questions aren’t just hand-waved away, they’re completely ignored.
For example: at one point Randall ends up in the sewers (of course he does) and meets a man who calls himself The Rat. This guy has been living underground since before the outbreak, and has built an entire trap-filled labyrinth under Seattle. Why? How? This is quite a long stretch of the game, and it really detracts from what is otherwise quite a grounded, realistic world.
Not to mention that The Rat somehow knows Randy’s name, even though we’re never told how; or that he has a teenage son who a group of militarized survivors known as the New Law chase around the city with a gunship, though we’re never told why. These guys spend enormous amounts of precious ammunition and aviation fuel trying to kill this kid, all while their fortified base is under siege by the shadows. At one point, after spending an entire level trying to murder Randall, the New Law capture him and stick him in a room, unbound, which he can easily escape from. They’re colossal morons.
As for the ending… I don’t want to spoil the Big Twist, though most people will figure it out anyway, but (spoilers!) at the very end Randall has an incredibly on-the-nose, life-affirming epiphany, then more or less commits suicide immediately afterwards. It’s absolute nonsense. And yes, I’m aware that the game frequently hints at the story itself being entirely a figment of Randy’s tortured imagination, but I’m not buying that either.
So, that’s Deadlight. Play it. Or don’t. It’s up to you, really. Just live your lives.