Zombies have been a part of popular culture for a long time, but recently their popularity has exploded in the world of video games. Everything from the open world action of Red Dead Redemption to Valve’s flagship first person shoot-em-up Team Fortress 2 has been tweaked to include our undead chums at some point. The glut of zombie games to come out in recent times has been unprecedented. It’s hardly surprising really; their shambling antics and insatiable thirst for human flesh makes them a game designer’s wet dream.
One of the most recent games to get the dystopian treatment is Tequila Works’ Deadlight, which has finally made its way onto Steam after enjoying a fair amount of success on XBLA. The story follows the plight of Randall Wayne, a survivor of a zombie plague that wiped out the majority of America’s population who is looking for his wife and daughter. At the beginning of the game, Randall is teamed up with a group of fellow survivors but this quickly goes south and he is forced to separate from the group, promising to reunite with them at the “safe point”.
The story is a standard riff on the “zombies are everywhere and are eating everyone” situation and does little to distinguish itself from the crowd. The only real difference here is that the setting is 1980’s Seattle and the undead are referred to inconsequentially as ‘shadows’. Everything else has been taken straight out of the copy and paste school of storytelling. There is some enjoyment to be found in collecting Randall’s lost diary pages, but they just serve to flesh out the already clichéd narrative. From the human militias who turn out to be worse than the undead they’re fighting, to the face-palm worthy naivety of survivors, you’ll feel like you’ve seen it all before. It’s quite a hard task for Deadlight to stand out from a story-writing point of view though when Telltale’s The Walking Dead is already so stellar in the same field. Still, I can’t help wishing that Randall was a bit more like the relatable Lee Everett and a little less stoic and indifferent.
From a visual point of view Deadlight is even more like The Walking Dead comic than its video game counterpart. Well, the cut scenes are anyway. The story is told using a slick flash animated style that is very reminiscent of Robert Kirkman’s iconic comic book series, its stark black and white pallet conveying the bleakness of the situation to great effect. The art direction of the main game is also very attractive and is instantly reminiscent of the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The silhouette representation ofRandall running through a wide variety of dilapidated terrain in the 2D foreground against the washed out detail of Seattle makes the player appreciate that the whole city is now a zombie playground.
Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t really substantial enough to back up these beautiful visuals. Even though Deadlight looks very much like the popular 2D indie hit Limbo, it feels far more like a standard 2D platformer, never really delivering the sense of claustrophobic urgency that I expect from a good zombie game. The five hours or so that I spent completing it involved little more than sprinting along corridors, occasionally jumping over the heads of zombies to grab a ledge, pulling myself up onto the ledge and then repeating the same process.
The only time that things got really interesting was when there were too many zombies to jog around without getting my hands dirty. Deadlight has an inventive stamina mechanic that I haven’t seen in many games before. Having a fire axe will help you a great deal against the hordes, but swinging it too quickly or for no reason will drain your stamina rapidly. Fights quickly degenerate into mad scraps in which Randall must knock his undead opponent to the ground and finish them off with one almighty swing. Sprinting immediately after these tussles is hardly advisable, and so choosing which zombies to dispatch becomes an important gameplay consideration. Guns are also very scarce in Deadlight, so finding a decent shotgun or revolver to help you mow down the crowds can feel gratifying.
When you’re not vaulting over meaty hurdles or smashing skulls in Deadlight, you’ll be solving some of its puzzles. These conundrums occur far less often than you would expect in a game of this type, which is quite a merciful design decision when you consider how bland they are. Most of the time they involve whilstling at zombies who are standing on the other side of electrified fences so that they’ll obediently shamble to their doom, but sometimes they’ll involve something revolutionary like shooting a switch with a slingshot to activate a lift. Most of the game can be breezed through without paying them a second thought, but one puzzle section in the sewers went on far too long for my liking, making me actually miss being attacked by zombies.
Deadlight is a beautifully presented, if slightly predictable side scrolling zombie-romp that does little to distinguish itself from the competition. Upon first reflection it seems like a glorious marriage of The Walking Dead and Limbo, but it comes off as being a little too repetitive for its own good – the brief flashes of melee combat brilliance becoming overshadowed by endless jumping sections and unimaginative puzzles. It’s worth picking up if you’re hankering for some dystopian themed eye candy, but certainly not until the price comes down. Until then, there are a myriad of other – far better – games to choose from.