Bathing in a suffocating gloom of a dour alternative vision of 1986, Deadlight isn’t a game that pulls its punches in its presenting of a retro Seattle ravaged by shuffling undead (referred to as ‘shadows’ by the world’s survivors). It’s a formidable, eerie vista to behold, but this tempestuous wilderness also stands as Deadlight’s most arresting feature.
Tequila Works’ indie survival trial utilises a 2D perspective that frames the action in such a way that the artistry shines through. The foreground quietly balances lighting and shadow effects powerfully, while the background chronicles a larger pandemic than the immediate suggests – occasionally a vehicle will screech through the scenery engulfed in flames to interpose the drama, but it’s the billowing smoke on the horizon that proves the most disquieting.
Presentation is key here. Comic-book style vignettes – pencilled with the same harsh strokes as The Walking Dead comics and succinctly emulating Kirkman’s tone in each of the brief cinematics – punctuate the close of each level. It’s one of several key influences that support Deadlight’s brisk campaign, with gameplay design a well-implemented collection of cribbed ideas.
See, Deadlight isn’t a zombie game in a traditional sense. Sure, it has elements of survival-horror tropes sprinkled economically throughout. But it alleviates these tension-fuelled scenarios with exhilarating chase sequences and, for one overly protracted chapter, a Limbo-style try-and-die puzzle setup.
The mechanics themselves don’t fair as well as the overall vision. The platforming itself feels, much like Deadlight’s protagonist, stuck in the Eighties. Imagine Flashback or Prince Of Persia’s precise platforming, coupled with all the niggling frustrations that come alongside it. It never strikes a fatal blow to progress or pacing, but as the game struggles to decide whether you want to drop from or climb the platforming you’re currently dangling from, it represents a frequent irritation.
As the game leaps (quite literally) towards its inevitable conclusion, Deadlight marries platforming, puzzles and action sequences into a tension-driven finale. However, while each of these elements function adeptly independently, these brief amalgamated sequences feel awkward and, very occasionally, bitingly cheap.
It’s not enough to detract from Deadlight’s masterful handle on tension. Each step in the game has an imposing sense of urgency, compounded by protagonist Randall Wayne’s bruised psyche and unreliable narration. Wayne’s penitence and struggle for salvation is a compelling focal point, but one that’s too overwrought and incoherent to fully connect with the player. But for the most part Wayne is a shining beacon of optimism to counterpoint the cheerless spectacle.
Tequila Work’s debut’s confident craftsmanship and considered design more than compensates for its shortfalls with the narrative’s impact and the intermittently niggling handling. It’s by no means a smooth ride, but this dank and desolate landscape is worth braving.