Greatness is on the tip of Deadlight's tongue. One look at the incredible visuals and memories of Braid and Limbo come rushing back, and we’re reminded of other XBLA releases that found great rewards in sleek, sexy, unorthodox graphics. Tequila Works' title, set in a post-apocalyptic zombie-filled Washington circa 1984, puts players in control the talkative Randall Wayne, an ex-park ranger on a quest to find and rescue his missing his wife and child, who disappeared when shadowy zombies took over their neighborhood. Though Wayne has basic survival skills (as he should, what with his career and all) he’s no fighter, meaning he spends most of his time running and outsmarting his dull-witted opponents instead of going in guns blazing.
This dark, moody gameplay is paired nicely with equally dark, moody visuals. We were immediately drawn to the way realistic graphics clashed with striking high-contrast lighting. Though everything appeared to be fully modeled and textured, it is all lit in such a way that made objects in the foreground look like 3D silhouettes - creating a beautiful, unique appearance. We sometimes had issues discerning the background from the foreground because of this style, but it was a small price to pay for one of the most beautiful XBLA games in years.
The focus on platforming and exploration - as opposed to shooting and stabbing - is a nice departure from some others in the platforming genre. It makes for tense situations that wouldn't be possible if Wayne had a cannon strapped to his hand. When we'd see an enemy we'd immediately freeze, surveying the level and looking for the best way to escape without drawing attention. Sometimes this meant platforming around the enemies, sometimes it meant attempting to lure them into traps, and other times it meant running and hoping we’d be able to simply put enough room between us and our pursuers.
It’s here, during these entertaining, quick platforming segments, that Deadlight shines its brightest. We’d dash, leap, and then smash into a room, stopping to catch our breath before being met with another, equally exhilarating segment. Sometimes. Other times, we’d find an empty room we need to escape from, which usually proved more difficult than outrunning the undead. The aformentioned issues discerning foreground and background objects would make finding a path difficult at times, and we often felt as though Deadlight relied too heavily on trial-and-error despite not having the tightest controls or smoothest platforming.
We’d leap towards an open window, miss by a long shot, and assume that the answer was somewhere else, only to realize later that we simply didn’t collide perfectly with the spot we needed to. We'd swing an axe at an enemy, miss, and have no idea why our strike simply clipped through the foe as we were tackled to the ground and devoured.
There's a place for trial-and-error platforming (it's what created the genre, after all) and there's a place for unforgiving controls (it can make for more realistic situations), but their place isn't side-by-side. We never knew exactly what we had done differently to succeed instead of fail, and that's always frustrating. And yet, despite being occasionally annoying, the game is never actually all that difficult. We never really felt challenged by Deadlight. Checkpoints were usually plentiful, and we were able to finish the campaign and collect a decent number of collectibles in just over three hours. Though we'd often get stuck, or need to repeat a segment a few times until we found success, it never felt rewarding.
Usually, moving on meant uncovering more story, which isn't actually as rewarding as it sounds. Deadlight's characters and narrative are actually much more well-developed than games like Fez or Limbo. Plot is abundant, from scattered journal pages to flashbacks and near nonstop internal monologue from the main character. Typically we’d welcome such an addition, but the execution is so poor that it ended up taking away more than it added. The dialog is cheesy at best (and downright awful at worst), and the voice acting is distractingly dreadful. Characters are constantly shouting exposition, ham-handedly acting through their needless roles with strange accents and no subtlety. We'd have preferred it if the game had no dialog or story at all, as we’d feel more emotionally invested in the character if we weren’t constantly groaning about his bad acting and uninteresting musings.
Deadlight attempts to do too many things, and falls short in perfecting any of them. It's overwhelming in its ambition, but it’s this lack of focus prevents it from being anything more than an interesting, flawed experience. If the story was compelling and well-developed we’d have been interested in the journey, but it wasn’t. If the gameplay was tighter we would have been able to forgive the uninteresting narrative and dialog. Even with this lack of focus Deadlight is a fun game with wonderful fast platforming segments and magnificent art direction. But in the end the style stands tall, and the substance is but a shadow of what it could have been.
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