Deadlight – Final Review

Creatively, Deadlight meets with repeated successes, displaying much visual inventiveness, innovative and arresting in its presentation. Much of this innovation stems from the game’s highly stylized cutscenes, boldly adopting a comic book aesthetic, with clever usage of color, an emphasis on the interplay between light and dark. In a stroke of creative mastery, and fostering great diversity, this aesthetic is present only within the cutscenes; central gameplay is of a more conventional sort, though this conventionality is a positive rather than a failing, as when regarding these two styles collectively, a sense of freshness is preserved, with the vacillation between the dramatically stylized and the more photorealistic presentation. Regarding the photorealistic, the narrative unfolds in Washington state, and the developers managed to capture the atmosphere inherent in that place: this evocation of place, this grounding, is another key strength. The Pacific Northwest, with its towering trees, is frequently beautiful, as is the humble, quaint architecture dispersed throughout the game world. But reflecting this creative ambition, beauty is tempered by ugliness: manifold displays of destruction are present, ruined buildings literally disintegrating, while cars are strewn about the highways, long abandoned, seemingly abandoned hastily, plumes of black smoke ascending upwards, ever upwards; almost no area of the city can escape this apocalypse, an apocalypse precipitated by a viral zombie infection, which sets the narrative in motion. So great is the power of this force, the few remaining survivors are forced to congregate together, in makeshift sanctuaries, some even forced to retreat underground. At one point in the narrative, this sprawling underground construction is actually explored, and here is the best illustration of the game’s great, characteristic creativity, the entire structure inventive, beautiful. The banishment of the zombies achieved and maintained here shows mankind’s resoluteness, endurance; even in the face of total destruction, man will persevere, unwilling to submit. The environments and cutscenes, then, in addition to being stylistically beautiful, also serve a strong world-building focus, prompting such lofty questions over man’s strengths, man’s fragilities.  

The game’s narrative is also characterized by achievement, its groundedness resulting in a very human drama – everything here is intimate, heartfelt, and sincere; no unachievable ambitions are reached for, though this is not to say the game is ambitionless; rather, it is to say it is highly focused, perfectly structured. Mankind, as has been stated, is now in a state of perpetual oppression, their numbers thinning, thinning swiftly, mankind’s collective strength only extending so far; man is able to brave some scenarios, though is powerless in others. Realizing the futility and pointlessness of one’s existence is an especially damning, demoralizing realization. And so it is here, everything darkness and bleakness. Given this demoralization, some survivors have merely given up, death regarded as more honorable and preferable to life, life being especially intolerable if that life is characterized by mindlessness, or, specifically, life as a shambling, unthinking zombie. Reflecting this perception, the narrative actually opens with such a mercy killing, establishing the tonal ambitions even from the first. The protagonist, Wayne, fires a bullet into a turning woman, ending her on the instant, though all the while ending possible terrors, protecting also the survivors congregating around the pair; the virus, it is implied, is very infectious – Wayne is thus forced with a rather difficult decision, that of murder. But here murder is beneficial both for the whole and the infected, increasingly deranged woman. The themes and tones achieved here are exceedingly dark and mature, as should be the case when handling such subject matter; the narrative is unflinching, and is better for it.   

The mercy killing serves another narrative purpose, showing Wayne as being gripped with a certain desensitization, having grown accustomed to killing after so long being witness to murder. This desensitization does not point towards an absence of humanity; far from it. But it does illustrate the damning nature of the infection, warping man’s psychology, forcing him to think and act differently. Wayne, despite this bleak world view and a hostile world, also displays admirable hopefulness, having a strong motive driving him, prompting the dangerous navigation of Seatle’s zombie-infested streets: Wayne is driven by his desire to reunite with a wife and daughter, his greatest provider of happiness, a moral compass in these dark times. It is easy to imagine the intensity of their relationship, its necessity; all around is squalor, and it is natural for man to seek out and clutch the hand of another. And so Wayne does; he sets out on his odyssey. The promise of what awaits at the end of the journey endows Wayne with a certain strength, an awakening of the power dwelling deep within his breast. Accordingly, he achieves many remarkable feats, and his displays of endurance and strength transform him into a highly compelling protagonist, obtaining a wholly unique identity, while excellent voice acting further distinguishes him as special. But beyond Wayne, his noble ambitions, other side characters are introduced, serving as reminder that not all of humanity has turned. One such figure of note is an older gentleman, long time companion to Wayne. This man, being a pilot, helps Wayne on his journey, after the former is promptly rescued by Wayne, saved from a fate worse than death. Together, they take to the skies in a helicopter, though with the game’s characteristic, mature bleakness, death inevitably arises, as the helicopter crashes – Wayne leaves the wreckage, and it is largely Wayne who carries the narrative, even as the world-building also does its part. 

This compelling narrative is furthered in another, secondary fashion, namely through the acquisition of various diary fragments scattered liberally about the game world, conveying Wayne’s fractured state of mind, illuminating his existence, the life he shared with his family, touching also on his work experience, his relationship to his companions and struggle faced in the city. Also documented are the initial reactions to the epidemic, while the gradual eroding of hope is readily apparent. Much of this information is mundane, narratively inconsequential. And yet, the inclusion of these seeming mundanities also elevates the narrative, developing the human dimension. They elaborate on the lore of the world, which is rather exhaustive, very well realized; an interesting universe has been crafted, and given this depth, opportunities for a sequel, with differing characters, is immense, though now this is unrealized. But whether detailing the mundane or the heartfelt, none of this world-building, this insight into Wayne’s frame of mind, would be of consequence if the writing were lazy or outright bad. Fortunately, this is not so, the writing traditionally excellent, with a consistent narrative voice, capturing also Wayne’s moral vacillations, the alternating of hopefulness and despair. Despair stems in part from larger explanations of the virus, as it is subtly revealed that the Soviet Union – this being the 1980’s – has somehow overreached, seeking incursions into America, Russia somehow culpable in creating and spreading this virus. The panic and uncertainty of that era are both captured excellently here, the diary entries hinting at a communistic threat, impending doom. Questions arise; questions go unanswered, fostering player engagement. What is the precise relationship between the Soviet Union and the zombie outbreak? How was the possibility for such an outbreak even conceived or created? With these questions, with this commanding intrigue, with the pervasive sense of humanness, fear, and uncertainty, Deadlight’s narrative is a master work, one which absolutely must be commended.

The gameplay, by contrast, is unremarkable, quite derivative in construction, with relatively few innovations. The game unabashedly belongs to the side-scroller genre, the core gameplay mechanic, accordingly, being motion from left to right, though some scant backtracking is present. The game is almost hyperlinear, with relatively few branching pathways or opportunities for exploration When exploration is possible, though, and when it is embraced, rewards received are often quite compelling, diary entries being the most frequent reward, though extensions to stamina and health are also discoverable in the environment. This strict, almost perpetual linearity does result in a consistently brisk pace, but a few more open-ended environments would have been very advantageous. But whether walking forward or doubling back, retracing steps, the gameplay is largely comprised of traditional platforming. Animation quality here is dazzlingly impressive, with quite high production values. Observing Wayne leap about lithely yet believably is both engrossing and empowering – Wayne is clearly human, though he possesses a special strength, perhaps stemming from his altruistic motivation, as mentioned above. In a break with the genre, though, platforming exclusively dominates throughout, as the other central mechanic of the genre – puzzle-solving – is almost completely absent. This lack is not objectively bad or ruinous to the experience; it is simply different. Strengths again arise when considering the effect on pacing which this absence provides; with no puzzles to scrutinize and solve, the gameplay never trudges to a halt, resulting also in an absence of frustration. Instead is rapidity, the narrative moving as fast as Wayne when he breaks into an all out sprint, speeding through the environments athletically, gracefully. Given the abundance of platforming, the game would fail spectacularly if the systems behind platforming were weak or incompetent – the game would be disastrous. Fortunately, this is not so, and while the platforming displays no innovation, Seattle, with all its beauty and devastation, is a perpetual joy to navigate, even if that navigation is highly funneled and directed.   

While platforming does receive the greatest emphasis in overall gameplay, a second area of interest is also present: namely, combat, which is characterized by repeated missteps and failings, totally lacking in depth. Initially, Wayne is completely unarmed – and, accordingly, helpless, easy prey for the zombies, ignorant and unthinking though they are. Given this imbalance of power, cleverer tactics need by employed for further survival. Reflecting this, Wayne is endowed with a calling feature, which attracts the zombies’ attentions, drawing them over to his location, where they can be promptly leapt over, Wayne proceeding onwards to safety. It is a clever, original mechanic, which is actually used quite frequently in the narrative, even as Wayne beings to arm himself. While theoretically this arming would be of an exciting sort, in practice, upon receiving a weapon the game’s combat cracks begin to show themselves. The first such weapon acquired is a fire-axe, useful in combat but only just, the weapon rather inefficient, the zombies’ health and resiliency barring easy combat successes. In efforts to strike a balance, every action – including the swinging of this axe – drains a stamina meter. If that meter is fully drained, Wayne again becomes helpless – the axe is useless, while access even to a sprint is barred the player. This does result in some tactical considerations, which can be rather enjoyable, though in the long run this stamina system is rather frustrating.

Failings in combat further arise when considering the lack of perceivable impact – while thematically and aesthetically the game is bleak and mature, the combat generally lacks any visceral qualities, resulting in unsatisfaction. Still, combat is characterized by diversity, the fire axe being but one part of a trio of weapons. The other two – a revolver and a shotgun – are far more effective in combat, a single, well-aimed headshot dropping almost every zombie upon impact, but almost inexplicably they are unenjoyable to wield or fire, even as immense empowerment accompanies their acquisition, which should point to considerable enjoyability – running into the fray, revolver in hand as opposed to mere fire-axe; entering into a situation like that is admittedly satisfying, as the zombies need not be feared, their threat lessened. The shotgun and pistol – both of which are aimed intuitively, the trajectory of the bullet observable, manipulable before firing – alter the game in fundamental ways, though in striking balance, resources are scarce – the game also incorporates tropes of survival horror. A narrative flashback, explaining how Wayne grew familiar with his revolver, features the line, “the time for wasting bullets is over.” Truer words were never spoken; shooting carelessly, aiming for the body and not the head – these acts of carelessness inevitably place Wayne into highly difficult scenarios. Accordingly, ammo must be moderated, and a puzzle-like component does emerge when weighing whether to flee from an engagement, or expend the bullets and silence the threat permanently. Collectively, these attributes should point towards combat excellence, though, almost impossibly, depth and enjoyability are lacking, the easily depletable stamina bar being one primary source of frustration, even as its inclusion necessitates many, admirable tactical considerations. Further frustrations, perhaps, stem from the cheapness of the enemies. While they can easily be dispatched by pistol or shotgun, if they manage to grasp Wayne, death is a likely occurrence; opportunities for escape persist, but actually escaping is difficult. While frustrating, this physical strength helps convey the threatening nature of the zombie hordes. 

In terms of gameplay, then, Deadlight is almost completely lacking in innovation, adhering devoutly to the mechanics of its genre. While derivative in construction, the mechanics overall are sound – the game remains enjoyable to play, even as nothing new is present; here is no tedium. Tedium is further staved off by nature of the game’s compelling, creative environments and presentation broadly, abounding in diversity, embracing two distinctly different art styles, though somehow managing to wed them together into one beautiful, cohesive whole – here is a game of vast creativity, which absolutely must be noted; the cutscenes, in particular, are excellent in construction. The cel-shaded aesthetic they boast imparts a distinct identity, helping to distinguish the title from others in the genre, even as it mimics the mechanics of those other games. Terribly bleak tonally, abounding in human tension and drama, the narrative is another success, the darkness punctuated by periodic shows of light, hopefulness, even as such occurrences are numerically scarce – scarce but very impactful. A revelation at the conclusion of the narrative is especially impactful, only elevating the narrative further. Deadlight is a rather short game, easily completable in one sitting, and given this brevity of length, it is easily recommendable, doing just enough to distinguish itself in an overcrowded genre, its visual greatness marking the greatest instance of that distinguishing. Rather than serving no purpose, existing for existence sake, the game actually has a message to advance, a poignant one at that, ruminating on the nature of man, man’s humanity, his destructibility. As title, as experience, Deadlight exists as a remarkable achievement, even while punctuated by gameplay failures.

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