A stunning game with some minor setbacks.
This day and age it’s really difficult to make a unique zombie game. Whether we call them zombies, shadows or walkers, the established fiction leaves little to the imagination. While Deadlight doesn’t break any new boundaries from a narrative perspective, it does shed new light on the genre by changing the perspective itself.
In Deadlight you take on the role of Canadian mountaineer Randall Wayne. Father, husband and survivor of the oh so familiar zombie apocalypse that has the tendency to bring years of civilization to ruin in a matter of months. Deadlights treads on some very established and familiar ground in terms of plot: a man looking for his family in the midst of a zombie epidemic. There are few surprises, and most twists are telegraphed so far ahead that you may start to doubt yourself if it can really be that obvious. Where the game does shine is gameplay and presentation.
In terms of looks alone, Deadlight is most similar to the outstanding Shadow Complex. The action takes place on a strictly 2D plane with beautifully rendered 3D backgrounds that create a wonderful depth of field effect. Your character is almost entirely a dark silhouette that stands in high contrast with the detailed world around him. There is some amazing detail put into a lot of the areas you traverse. As you make your way down a street, you can see it stretch further down into the background - turned over cars and zombies aimlessly shuffling along as far as the eye can see. These sort of backdrops ironically add a lot of life and motion to a game that is centered around a world slowly dying and falling to decay.
As Deadlight is primarily a puzzle platformer, you will be doing a fair share of jumping to ledges, crawling through ducts and generally solving very well put together and organic looking traversal puzzles. The movement is pretty snappy and precise with just the right amount of momentum. You are steadily introduced to new mechanics such as breaking through weakened doors with a shoulder charge or chopping down padlocks with your handy axe. Apart from a strangely ill fitting sewer segment early in the game that goes on for way too long, none of the platforming in Deadlight feels forced or gamey. As you make your way through abandoned houses or hospitals, the locations and ways of traversing them feel natural. A hospital looks like a hospital and a house looks like a house. Deadlight switches things up periodically when it changes the pace from slow and methodical platforming, to dynamic sequences requiring you to elude a set of pursuers or simply outrun the encroaching hordes. While these segments can oftentime result in a bit of trial and error to complete, they help to break up the longer puzzle sections and liven things up a bit.
There is combat of course replete with your usual set of zombie slaying weapons. Shooting is introduced with a clever flashback tutorial complete with an emphasis on always aiming for the head. Since Randall used to be a forest ranger of sort, it is actually contextualized why he’s so good at hacking away with an axe or shooting a firearm. You can engage the zombies with either your axe or your guns, although the game makes it clear that you should more often than not elude your enemies rather than trying to take them head on. Combat in Deadlight very cleverly represents the biggest danger of an actual zombie apocalypse: while the zombies themselves are slow and easy to put down, Randall will eventually run out of bullets or stamina to swing his axe, and they’ll simply keep on coming.
The biggest shortcoming of this title is the narrative and fairly heavy handed voice acting. Most side characters are decent to passable, but it’s Randall that is the biggest offender - and considering he’s the main character and has the most lines of dialog thats really unfortunate. There are other smaller issues that are way more forgivable. It’s not always clear when an enemy is in the playable foreground or still in the background. Hard savepoints can be pretty far apart. Some areas require a little too much trial and error to complete. The game itself is fairly short, clocking in at roughly 3 hours if you take your time or just a little over 2 if you don’t look around for collectibles too much.
Overall I think Deadlight is a really good take on the zombie genre in a 2D perspective. Aside from the sewer section mentioned earlier on, the level design is really fantastic. Most importantly, it is really fun to play. Falling a bit on the short side, I would probably wait for it to show up on a sale before diving in. Other than that I’d highly recommend Deadlight to anyone that enjoys these type of puzzle platformers - and trust me, even though you might be tempted to stop, just make it past those Rat Man levels.