Traditionally, the Summer of Arcade has showcased the best in downloadable titles that gaming has to offer. In fact, some of the best games to come out on Microsoft’s platform have been released during the Summer of Arcade.
This year, however, has been a tragic stain on the legacy of that program. Deadlight, the first game from developer Tequila Works, was supposed to reverse this trend and give gamers something worthy of being released during the Summer of Arcade.
Sadly, Deadlight continues the trend of subpar releases, thanks to a variety of problems that do nothing but cause anger and frustration.
Deadlight is not an ugly game in the traditional sense. The lighting effects are spectacular, and it showcases some very nice vistas in its recreation of 1986 Seattle. The visual problems, however, are two fold. All of the models are draped in this heavy shadow, which has the strange effect of making the main character (Randall Wayne) look like a ninja, due to the shadowing and the outfit that he’s wearing. You can’t ever really see any detail on the characters due to the heavy shadowing, and it makes it look like Tequila Works has something to hide. Deadlight also is not very visually interesting. There is almost no color in the world, save for a handful of sequences. It’s understandable that a post-apocalyptic world might be void of color, but there’s no excuse at this point to have a game with one basic color palette from start to finish.
The music in Deadlight is mostly strong, with the highlights being during the chase sequences. However, the sound design is dragged down by some horrific voice acting, especially from the main character. He sounds eerily similar to Barry from the original Resident Evil, and I half-expected him to call somebody “the master of unlocking” at some point. The other characters fare about as well, with stilted, uninteresting dialog being the norm in Deadlight. One particular annoyance was a character’s insistence on calling Randall “Mr. Wayne,” a goofy oversight at best or a terrible in-joke at worst.
All of this would be passable if the game’s mechanics were any good. Unfortunately, they are not. Modeled after a games like Limbo or Prince of Persia (the old-school version), Deadlight is comprised of a series of traversal puzzles that the player must navigate, with occasional bouts of combat strewn in. In Limbo, the puzzles were interesting, and death was not a problem as the deaths were usually hilariously overblown and were followed by a quick load in order to get back into the game. In Deadlight, however, the puzzles are not interesting and are comprised mostly of the usual “pull this crate here, push that button, jump here” puzzle design that I thought we left behind a long time ago. These traversal puzzles would have been fine as a palate cleanser between combat sequences, but in Deadlight it is the primary focus of the game. The game unfairly punishes the player for not placing Randall in the exact position required to make a jump, and it is impossible to gauge jump distance, because Randall is always designed to just make it whenever the player jumps. This makes it hard to distinguish jumps that you should try from jumps that you shouldn’t, which causes a lot of frustration as you die repeatedly, and are forced to sit through the game’s long loads.
The rare times that you do engage in combat are just as frustrating, as neither Randall nor the enemies (“shadows,” they’re called) react to combat in a way that is consistent. Sometimes a certain axe hit will knock down an enemy, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes Randall will be able to escape a zombie’s clutches, sometimes he won’t. Aiming any of the projectile weapons is an exercise in frustration, as the aiming mechanic is finicky and jumpy. It all conspires to make the game eye-rollingly frustrating as the stupid deaths (and loads) add up.
The worst part about all of this is that Deadlight actually has a somewhat interesting story to tell, but it too is hidden behind layers of incompetent game design. Key parts of the story are doled out in ripped out pages of Randall’s diary, strewn about Seattle. Missing any of these diary pages leaves huge gaps in the player’s understanding of what’s happening, and it’s possible to miss them all, as the system by which you find items is strange. Boxes that seem to be in the background suddenly have a gear icon pop over them, indicating that they’re to be interacted with. There’s no other indication, and unless you pixel hunt, it’s entirely possible to miss things like health pickups or the aforementioned diary pages. Alan Wake used a similar mechanic with the pages of Wake’s writing, but there were enough of them in plain sight that it was possible to piece some things together. Deadlight doesn’t give the player the same courtesy, and demands multiple playthroughs to find all of its secrets, which would be fine, if the game wasn’t so terrible. Even worse, after collecting all of the pages, the game undoes any sense of narrative catharsis that it may have provided at the end by offering two twist endings. The two versions of our hero presented in these two endings are diametrically opposed, rendering moot any of the empathy we may have felt toward Randall Wayne. After finding all of the pages it makes his final, impassioned monologue of the game weird and off-putting. Again, the image of Randall presented in the diary and the image of Randall presented in the game proper are so at odds with each other, that players are probably better served to skip the diary pages altogether.
However, no collectible in the game matches the most egregiously bad collectible of them all: the ID tags. Emblazoned with an obvious reference to a famous real-life serial killer (think: J.W. Gacy), they are initally interesting in a “I see what you did there” kind of way, but by the end of the game, they too become tedious and boring.
I’m not sure what it would have taken to make Deadlight a good game. The puzzle design is half-baked and uninteresting, the visual design is drab (despite some truly impressive lighting), and the voice work is comical. Increasing the game’s budget would have helped with the voice work, but the game is so rotten in its core mechanics that I’m not sure anything other than a full change in design philosophy would have made a difference. The search for a good 2012 Summer of Arcade game continues.
A copy of Deadlight for Xbox 360 was purchased for this review