Search for your wife and daughter in a Soviet-era zombie apocalypse.
PC Release: October 25, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Zombies have oversaturated pop culture to such an extent that musings about this fact have themselves become oversaturated. The shambling undead are everywhere: on TV, in video games, even tattooed on people’s bodies. Zombies have become so popular that people can now go to Singapore and LARP in a zombie apocalypse. Separating the good zombie media from the bad has become quite a meaty responsibility, which is why Deadlight is getting a turn in the review spotlight this evening.
Deadlight is a side-scrolling horror platformer created by Tequila Works, the Spanish studio behind two of 2017’s biggest indie hits: Rime and The Sexy Brutale. Before making games about exploring islands or solving murder mysteries, Tequila Works debuted a very different game back in 2012: a side-scrolling platformer about fighting zombies and exploring the ruins of civilization. Despite receiving generally positive reviews, Deadlight couldn’t compete with the likes of Dead Island and State of Decay.
Deadlight‘s narrative is set in the 1980’s and follows Randall Wayne, a Canadian park ranger toughing it out with a group of other zombie apocalypse survivors in the ruins of Seattle. Randall came to Seattle in the hopes of finding his wife and daughter at the Safe Point, a rumored refuge at the heart of the city. The game begins as Randall becomes separated from his group by a zombie attack and is forced to strike out on his own.
Deadlight‘s gameplay is pretty standard fare for a side-scrolling platformer: just keep walking right until the game says “stop.” Randall can also leap up to high ledges and crouch into tunnels to find hidden areas and items. Despite shouldering heavy gear during the entire game, Randall has near-superhuman acrobatic abilities; few ledges and items are beyond this spry Canadian’s reach. Though Randall has an Olympian physique, his health is far more finite, so jump and roll with care.
Deadlight also throws the occasional environmental puzzle at players. Most of them, like pushing a box to be able to clamber up to a high ledge, have been done a million times in other games. Since Deadlight is a zombie game, players can also expect to find a few of those puzzles where the power box has to be shut off to de-electrify an inconveniently placed puddle. Players can also use objects in the environment to kill zombies; the best way to pass time in the zombie apocalypse is by flattening walkers with suspended cars.
Deadlight‘s mix of running, jumping and puzzling is perfectly serviceable… until the game introduces combat. Although Randall starts things out with no weapons (forcing him to either sneak around zombies or use environmental kills), he eventually finds a fire ax! Surely, such a mighty weapon can fell many a flesh-eater, right? Wrong. Combat in Deadlight is a joke. It’s hard to tell if the zombies even have hitboxes, meaning that players have to keep taking swings at zombies until they happen to take its head off.
Additionally, even though Randall can parkour across Seattle until the cows come home, taking 1-2 swings with the ax completely tuckers him out. Given that Randall can run, jump, and roll to his heart’s content, it’s a bit weird that swinging the fire ax once takes out half his stamina (that’s what he gets for skipping arm day). This problem becomes somewhat nullified once Randall finds a gun, but ammo is quite scarce, so don’t count out still having to use the fire ax throughout the game.
For players who are up for braving subpar combat or skilled at avoiding it altogether, Deadlight‘s world has a lot to offer. The game’s visuals have aged well for being a half-decade old; character animations are fluid and textures look quite sharp. Deadlight also makes fantastic use of muted light and atmospheric effects to really bring the creepiness out of the zombie apocalypse. Additionally, the backdrop vistas of post-apocalyptic Seattle are absolutely stunning and give players plenty to look at as Randall wanders the landscape. None of this is to say that the game’s foregrounds aren’t intricately detailed as well.
Deadlight‘s sound design is a win, too. Every sound is designed to keep players on their toes: objects break with frightful force and rain patters on dilapidated rooftops with a tense tempo. The zombies carry the same cadre of hisses and growls that all zombies in other media do, but this doesn’t make them any less creepy. Deadlight‘s soundtrack is similarly morose, with somber piano melodies and deep, dark strings. Deadlight even samples symphonic metal, playing a bit of Mechina’s Cryostasis Simulation 2632 01 during a level set in an abandoned hospital. Creeeeeeepy stuff.
Deadlight‘s spooky design decisions make for a more open world than some players might think possible of a side-scrolling platformer. The game’s backdrops make the world feel a lot bigger than it actually is, which also makes roaming across the landscape all the more engrossing. Deadlight has a Rayman Origins-esque penchant for hidden areas, so players up for some exploring and zombie fans looking for show-don’t tell environmental storytelling (why does that wall have blood on it?) can rejoice.
Deadlight‘s atmosphere is also reinforced by tidbits of written exposition hidden throughout the game. Players can unlock pages of Randall’s diary as they advance through the story; most of it doesn’t stand out from other zombie fiction writing, but it’s a great option for players who crave backstory. Explorers may also stumble upon ID cards that belong to famous serial killers, just in case the zombie apocalypse didn’t already give this game a morbid enough atmosphere.
The thick, mysterious atmosphere clouding Deadlight is by far the game’s most compelling feature, more so than the narrative. While the story that Deadlight presents isn’t bad, it doesn’t tread any new ground for zombie fiction. How many zombie apocalypse stories star a grizzled man looking for his family? How many of these narratives feature the trope of the rumored safe zone? Deadlight‘s dalliances in these conventions are given weight thanks to some decent, if occasionally overly poetic, writing, but that doesn’t stop them from being devices that no zombie fan is a stranger to.
Deadlight‘s preference for well-trod notions of the zombie apocalypse is consistent from the game’s beginning until its end. In addition to the aforementioned tired premises of finding family and a safe zone, the game features the token group of good humans-gone-bad. Each member of Randall’s group also draws clear inspiration from past zombie fiction: there’s the hyperventilating young girl, the increasingly cynical police officer, and even an old man who owns an RV (*cough*Walking Dead*cough*). Even the game’s ending can be spotted from a mile away.
Deadlight‘s narrative—derivative of past works though it may be—is saved from total irrelevance by presenting itself at an even pace and making good use of cogent voice acting. Even though Deadlight tells the same story that a dozen other pieces of zombie media have already told, it’s presented with convincing emotion by the game’s voice cast. Some of the dialogue writing is strange, especially the part when Randall claims that some girl’s saliva is “all we have left” (???), but it’s otherwise serviceable.
Deadlight also scores some originality points for presenting the zombie apocalypse as a side-scrolling platformer, something that few other games do. Even if Randall’s story to find his family has been overdone, presenting that story as a platformer does give the whole production some freshness. It also provides a way for players to see and experience that narrative in a format other than a shooter or an open-world game, which is the structure that most zombie games rely on.
Zombie and platforming fans should consider giving Deadlight a try. The weariness of its narrative is largely cancelled out by its presentation; as a result, the game fits into the “good” side of zombie media. The game’s combat isn’t great, but its cadre of platforming and parkour is otherwise pretty sturdy. Just one bit of advice: do not get the Director’s Cut edition of Deadlight that Tequila Works put out last year. It’s buggy, it’s glitchy, and it only features an endless survival mode as its chief upgrade. Stick to the original version to get the 80’s Seattle zombie experience in all its gory glory.
You can buy Deadlight here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.