Deadlight: Director's Cut - Brutal Backlog

September 15, 2019
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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The presentation, aesthetic and period setting have always drawn me towards Deadlight. A 2D puzzle and action platformer set against the zombie-filled, Frank Miller-inspired, backdrop of 1980s Seattle, it certainly stood out upon its initial release in 2012. 

Re-released in 2016 as Deadlight: Director’s Cut, developer Tequila Works has added little more than a fresh coat of paint and a few small refinements — things that would have gone unnoticed had I not read about them in researching the game for this article — to bring it to current generation hardware.

Having finally been afforded the opportunity to play this game — one that has always caught my eye — I decided to see first hand how harsh the burgeoning wasteland of the Pacific Northwest could be.

Twenty Minutes In

Deadlight is undoubtedly a homage to beloved but deadly classics like Prince of Persia. Platforming is stiff and demands precision. One wrong move and you’re toast.

Whilst the games are different mechanically, there is no doubt that Tequila Works drew huge inspiration from the likes of Limbo and Shadow Complex. The way the game moves feels very similar to the latter, whilst its heavy tone, and graphical style owe a lot to the former. Everything from the silhouetted character and oppressive darkness, to the gruesome ends that follow a mistimed jump has undoubtedly been influenced by Playdead’s undisputed classic. 

One Hour In

Unfortunately for Deadlight, it is nowhere near as well executed as the games it has taken so much inspiration from. Whilst the aesthetics, overall feel of the world and some of the game’s systems feel solid, it lacks the sharpness and polish that put the aforementioned games into a league of their own. 

The controls that felt stiff in the beginning still feel unresponsive and clunky. For a game that wants to push the player to react quickly, Deadlight is not quite providing me the tools to do that. An argument could be made in regards to ‘grounding’ the character and giving him some weight, but in practice it has led to unfortunate ends for Randall Wayne (or whatever his name is — they seem interchangeable). 

Obligatory survival beanie? Check.

Similarly ropey is the game’s narrative. Story beats play out via animated, comic book-style, cutscenes and through the character's inner monologue. Again, poor execution holds everything back. The story is straightforward, but attempts to add depth are misguided and ham-fisted. None of this is helped by some of the worst videogame voice acting I’ve heard in a long time. Lines are delivered so inconsistently, with the actors either chewing scenery or being seemingly unable to appropriately express any sort of emotion.

That said, for all of the faults I have found I am still having fun with Deadlight. I’m definitely being coaxed through by the game’s presentation, and the puzzles and encounters are fun when the controls don’t make it feel like my character has two left feet. One thing that these issues play into is the tension found in Deadlight. Tequila Works has done a great job of making me think on my feet, but have scuppered too many attempts with how poorly the game controls. 

I’m also interested to see how they mix things up because, at the moment, everything feels quite similar — both in the way I’m approaching situations and in what I’m seeing.

Two Hours In

When people say it’s all about the journey, not the destination I’m not sure they’re referencing experiences like the first hour of Deadlight but I think the old adage applies. No sooner had I wished for a change of pace and scenery am I dragged underground and into the second act.

The poorly executed storytelling elements continue. This voice acting is so bad that I want to play the game on mute. The only reason I don’t is that everything outside of V/O is working to set the scene. However, now I’m mostly met with the clang of metal interjected with a stereotypical creepy old man voice (courtesy of The Ratman) as he guides me through a labyrinth of puzzles.

"Oh, hey. Can we borrow some milk?"

This entire section dragged my patience to the limit. It’s here that the wheels start to fall off Deadlight’s wagon. For one, this whole act feels like a tutorial two hours into the game. What’s more, the imprecise controls are impeding my progression through puzzles, the environment is vastly the same for a huge chunk of the game, the majority of the tension is gone and the game’s inability to properly signpost key elements in the environment is close to infuriating. This is not a difficult game, but I have been forced to consult a guide on multiple occasions for what should be very obvious things. I’m not asking for neon signs to be added into this post-apocalyptic wasteland, but giving me some idea of what to do next would be nice.

Oh, and the way this game handles movement and traversal wasn’t designed for wall jumping and I won’t be convinced otherwise.

Four Hours In

Following my escape from the trials of The Ratman, Randall ‘Randy’ Wayne (not sure if that’s a surname — but characters have called me all three names so far) is back on the streets of Seattle. The pace has certainly quickened and the tension from the beginning of the game has returned. 

Zombies — or Shadows as they’re known in Deadlight — have been on my tail throughout. The simplistic combat system is enough to keep the majority of them at bay, but an occasional stutter or stall courtesy of the far too rigid controls have caused me an issue or two. Still, rooftop chases and a consistent array of enemies have spiced up the action a little. 

Unfortunately, the story has not had the same new lease of life. It’s unfolded in an entirely contrived, hokey and predictable way. Everything about it feels forced and overly edgy to the point that I almost shut the game off. There never a need for a pointless borderline sexual assault scene is there? As bad as it is, the story became the last thing I was thinking of. Deadlight feels like very typical bad, zombie pulp fiction, albeit presented in a very cool, gritty, stylised manor. That voice acting is still unforgivable though. Some lines have been “master of unlocking” quality, I’m not kidding. 

Some of the late game set pieces have been cool, but Deadlight has failed to shake the Limbo comparisons. There was a point where it reached homage levels, as my character clambered up a broken hotel sign or was struck by a trap out of nowhere, but when it repeats those things over and over again it’s hard to not believe that Tequila Works had very few ideas to flesh out a world that felt like it had so much more to give.

In full flow Deadlight can feel like the action-packed, zombie-filled puzzle platformer that it felt like I was promised. However, it all too often got snagged on something along the way to break that progression. The endgame is a prime example of this as, in putting every move you have in your arsenal together, the game throws you an inexplicable curveball that requires a frustrating amount of trial and error and takes the wind right out of the game’s sails.

That’s the core issue with Deadlight though. It’s a game constantly hamstrung by problems of its own making. I’ve not commented on the few bugs and glitches that occurred throughout because they didn’t take me out of the experience as much as the finicky controls, inconsistent level and puzzle design and often infuriating, unfun challenges that required more brute force than tact. I don’t even need to mention the story again.

Deadlight: Director’s Cut is one of those unfortunate videogames — one that has so much going for it initially, but that fails to properly deliver on the majority of its early promise. Whilst I love the game’s tone and style, the substance just isn’t there. That right there is almost as frustrating as Deadlight at its worst.

This short and inconsistent experience isn’t without merit, but I can’t recommend that anyone play it unless access is cheap and they can handle dissatisfaction — alongside poor controls and a lack of decent, cohesive storytelling — better than I can.

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Worth playing? NO - it's unlikely to be worth your time.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.