Deadlight review: Lessons for the zombie apocalypse

Deadlight review
Playing a game about zombies is never a waste of time. Any game that features a variation of the undead – the shuffling decomposed, cannibalistic speed demons, the infected – offers a new approach to tackling the zombie apocalypse when it occurs in reality. Each new game demonstrates varied strategies and situations that it's best to be prepared for, just in case you end up next to patient zero at your next family gathering with nothing but a frying pan and a bottle of Aspirin.

All zombie survival games can teach us something; they each have a lesson that is best taken to heart, before you take a bite to the brain. Deadlight, a side-scrolling platformer set in an alternate, apocalyptic 1980s, taught me something very important.

No matter how hard you try, you will die, and it will be frustrating as hell. Every time.%Gallery-161497% Built by indie Spanish studio Tequila Works, Deadlight occupies the strange space between Telltale's The Walking Dead and Playdead's Limbo, in that it isn't quite a story-driven, action narrative, nor is it a minimalistic puzzle platformer, though it tries very hard to be both. This blend of melodrama and subtlety creates a full, yet disjointed story, full of seemingly random items, forced emotion and a gorgeous setting.

Deadlight tells the story of how Canada fell to the "shadows" in the 1980s, an infection (or was it a conspiracy strongarmed by the Russians?) that spreads across continents and turns people into bloodthirsty zombies. Randall Wayne is on a mission to find his family, parkouring across wasteland cities and disgusting sewers, dark memories jarring his fragile mind at regular intervals.

Deadlight review Lessons for the zombie apocalypse
It's not meant to be an action platformer, but Deadlight fails to live up to the puzzle genre as well, with each scenario presenting obvious solutions – except when the single solution is not obvious, but is still the only way to get to the next room and must be done with some semblance of precision. Precision wouldn't be a problem if the controls allowed for it, though unfortunately they most often feel unresponsive or slow – to the point where I looked down at my controller at least once in every major scene to see if my batteries were dying.

I died and restarted one particular level countless times, trying to push past a horde of zombies to reach a pack of bullets in a small room at the far end of a hallway. This generally played out in one of two ways: I would rush the zombies and be prompted to mash B to push them away, only to work my thumb raw and see no reaction on-screen; or I would try to slice through the horde with my axe, only to find Randall inexplicably facing the wrong direction.

When I finally got down the hallway, I flew right past the filing cabinet that was meant to block the doorway and crouched to pick up the bullets. And I crouched. And crouched. I tried to stand up when the zombies shambled through the door, but found it was impossible to interrupt a crouch animation in Deadlight. In fact, the length of Randall's crouches (bad joints, I assume) leads to unfortunate situations fairly often. It took a few more rounds of me running into the room and dying in a fetal position before I realized the cabinet could be pushed over, but by then I was cursing the screen and ready to buy a corded controller just to be sure I hadn't purchased a pack of dead batteries.

Deadlight review Lessons for the zombie apocalypse
Not every level of Deadlight plays out with that level of frustration, and when Randall gets going his actions can look and feel extremely satisfying. The levels themselves are gorgeous – the backgrounds are more alive than the zombies, and they appear to travel deep into the horizon, so much so that I wished Randall could run directly into them. The first half of the game shows off the art direction beautifully, since Randall doesn't have as many actions to perform and the hordes are generally easy to take down.

The story is told through motion-comic-inspired cutscenes and is supplemented by Randall's diary entries, scraps of newspaper and memorabilia, and IDs found along the way. Randall's diary entries offer a captivating glimpse into his life before the shadows, and the IDs he finds all belong to serial killers. I ended up with J.W. Gacy, A.C. Wuornos, O. Elwood Toole, J.L. Dahmer and a few others. The pieces don't all fit with the story necessarily, or at least not in any direct way that I could see, but they all added nice touches of darkness.

The story takes a turn in the last quarter, forcing the question, "Who is the real monster?" on the player and introducing living, non-zombified people as enemies. Living people with guns. It's not a bad twist, but this late diversion only serves to highlight the bulk of Deadlight's story, which covers at least five plots and a dozen side characters in its two hours of play. The game needs an editing eye. I suggest first cutting the simpering, vulnerable woman companion that shows up at the end and does nothing to further Randall's character development.

Deadlight shines in its detailed world-building: The art direction, IDs, diary entries and pieces of hidden lore are glorious. It's the gameplay that fails to live up to the standard of these beautiful fragments, with unresponsive controls and frustrating scenarios that can't decide if they want to be puzzles or action sequences. That said, I enjoyed Deadlight despite the times I wanted to chuck the controller. Maybe the game was trying to teach me a new, zombie-repelling technique for the living room. Maybe.

This review is based on an XBLA download of Deadlight, provided by Microsoft.

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