"Deadlight" Review: Cinematic action-puzzler gets lost in zombie shuffle
(CBS News) Since its release last month, developer Tequila Works' Xbox Live Arcade title "Deadlight" has seen a bag of mixed reviews. With IGN giving it an endorsing score of 8.5, Kotaku flat out telling readers not to waste their time and Gamespot settling on middle ground with a somewhat balanced 6.5, it can be tough to get a handle on this title without playing it for yourself.
It's a game that borrows heavily from other popular XBLA titles. Most commonly, it has been compared to "Limbo" and "Shadow Complex." Its style can easily be described as taking "Shadow Complex's" side-scrolling 3-D graphics and controls and sprinkling in "Limbo's" shadowy aesthetic and movingly desolate atmosphere.
So far, so good. These kinds of comparisons put "Deadlight" in good company and raise hopes and expectations for the zombie infested adventure. Unfortunately, "Deadlight" never hits the same visionary beats as those other titles and lacks any true inspiration.
"Deadlight's" atmosphere and setting are the game's greatest appeal. Moody lighting, depth-of-field effects and engaging cinematic storyboards make the game visually engrossing. The world is fun to run around in and zombies and other offbeat characters help create a sense of urgency, loneliness and tension.
The story is interesting and emotionally engaging at first as you follow the protagonist as he searches for his family. The narrative does get a little lost along the way though with many plot holes, unexplained mysteries and characters that feel underdeveloped. Things also skew a little to the macabre towards the end, but no spoilers here.
What will always make or break any three- to four-hour-long XBLA title is its gameplay. "Deadlight" is a puzzle-platformer with action elements. That means you'll spend plenty of time flipping switches, pushing boxes, climbing and jumping over or under obstacles and fleeing from undead assailants.
At first, these elements seem to come together quite well and the control scheme borrowed from "Shadow Complex" works fine for the most part, but things never seem to grow from there. Puzzles are often way too simple with only one clear solution and a very repetitive nature. You'll have figured out most of "Deadlight's" tricks early in the game.
That doesn't mean that you'll breeze through this game worry free. While the solution to these puzzles may be evident, you will die - often. Most of these deaths are for educational purposes a la "Limbo," but far too many will be due to unresponsive controls. This leads to many frustrating reloads as you only wish your on screen character would simply do what you're telling him instead of jumping into that pit of water (very dangerous for one of those video game characters who cannot swim).
Zombie encounters are fun though if only a little far between at times. The emphasis here is on flight over fight. That doesn't mean you're defenseless, but you're not toting AK-47s and rocket launchers either. Outsmarting and outmaneuvering the witless horde can feel exhilarating and greatly rewarding at times as you narrowly escape their grasp, while other times they serve as little more than background decoration as you speed by.
"Deadlight" won't be remembered as fondly as the titles that seem to have inspired it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a place on your hard drive. It suffers from dodgy controls and simple puzzles - the two most important elements for any puzzle-platformer - and a story that leaves many unanswered questions about the whos, whys and hows of this particular zombie apocalypse. Similar to Ubisoft's "I Am Alive" in both content and execution, it offers a great proof of concept but never ties all the pieces together as nicely as it could have.
Deadlight is rated M for Mature by the ESRB. It is available now on Xbox Live Arcade.
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