There’s probably an official name for it floating around somewhere, but one of the greatest trends in recent gaming occurred from 2008 to 2011 when consoles saw an explosion of high-quality downloadable games. Generally created by independent studios, many of these offerings provided gamers with new and original experiences too bold and risky to find in big-budget games. The importance of this little golden age of indie console games can’t be overstated. The idea that ten-dollar, five-hour games could be both critically and commercially successful didn’t even exist ten years ago, and yet now it’s essentially the foundation of Steam’s business model. In fact, many of the most acclaimed downloadable games now available on Steam or iOS were initially exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade (Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Bastion), WiiWare (World of Goo), PlayStation Network (Trine), or some combination of the three during that 2008 to 2011 window. It was an exciting time for console gaming, and the creative gems just kept coming.
Of course, not every downloadable game released since then has been an innovative work of art.
Deadlight came out in 2012, and it feels, to put it bluntly, uninspired. It seems like somebody’s attempt to replicate the mechanics and other elements of some of the era’s best indie games without any of the heart and soul that it takes to come up with something unique and memorable. The game can be described as a “survival horror cinematic platformer,” which is a fancy way of saying it’s like a poor man’s Shadow Complex with zombies. The protagonist is gritty and solemn and haunted by incomplete memories. The game’s art style largely apes that of Infamous, from the comic book cut scenes to the raspy and cynical narration. The story boils down to our hero trying to rescue his family. You can attack zombies with an axe, a handgun, and eventually a shotgun. The game takes place in abandoned towns, abandoned office buildings, inhabited sewers, abandoned hospitals, and a secret military complex. In each of these locations you occasionally need to move boxes and pull switches in order to progress to the next room. You run into a few old friends along the way and make some new ones as well, but they tend not to be quite as good at surviving as you are. The most intense moments in the game occur during the skippable transitions between levels.
Doesn’t this all sound a little familiar? The story is well-trodden territory, right down to the early reveal that an ongoing government conspiracy is actually far more dangerous than the zombie plague itself, and the main character’s intermittent mental breakdowns pretty substantially foreshadow a twist ending that isn’t even much of a surprise anyway. Every step of the way during Deadlight, I just had the sense that I’d been there, done that, and seen all this before. The game’s ending doesn’t even tie things up neatly. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops. The fates of certain characters are left unresolved, but not in a thematically intentional way. It’s one thing to leave things ambiguous; people still debate what was really happening in indie darlings like Braid and Limbo to this day. But those games had intentionally minimalistic narratives. Deadlight isn’t reaching deep by leaving several questions unanswered; it’s just leaving its story unfinished.
The shame of it all is that, in spite of all my complaints, Deadlight is technically a pretty sound game. Between the puzzles and the combat and the very small deviations from linearity that could sort of constitute “exploration,” there are enough elements in play to make for an enjoyable video game. Deadlight was about four hours long and appropriately challenging, and I can’t say I ever felt bored by it. The controls weren’t quite tight enough for the game to get away with the two or three time-sensitive escape-based segments it attempts, and the ensuing checkpoint loading times were long enough to irritate me after dying several times over on each such scene, but otherwise the game wasn’t very frustrating. Axe combat was cumbersome and at least a little bit annoying, but the gun mechanics were quick, fluid, and fun to use. This really wasn’t a bad game; it just did nothing for me.
The biggest flaw with Deadlight is just that it brings nothing new to the table. It’s entirely derivative. There’s no compelling reason to try it out. It’s not a waste of time by any stretch – it’s just not clear that it’s worth your time, either, especially with so many stronger downloadable games out there. If “good enough” is good enough for you, by all means, give it a shot.
An earlier version of this review can be found at back-blogged.blogspot.com, where in addition to video games the bros occasionally discuss books, movies, and television.