I said in the podcast that Deadlight felt like the old Prince of Persia. I meant that in both the positive and the negative sense. It’s got some wonderful, simple mechanics that lend themselves to interesting puzzles and rewarding play, but it’s also got some irritating design decisions that undermine that fun and turn puzzles into a teeth-grinding chore.
I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but this is yet another game I feel like I should love, but can’t.
The gist of the game is that it’s the zombie apocalypse, you’re a middle-aged guy with a hobo beard, and you’re looking for your family. The game is really a 2D platformer, although the scenes themselves have visual depth. You can see shadows (which are zombies, because apparently the new rule is that every game has to come up with a completely new replacement word for “zombie”) in the background, and sometimes they’ll lurch into the foreground and become involved with the 2D plane you’re trying to traverse.
The environments are nice and moody, with the surprising (but effective) visual style of making the backgrounds well-lit and the foreground play area entirely silhouette. This gives the game its wonderful spooky tone, and also lets the play area stand out from the scenery. (Except when it doesn’t. I’ll get to that in a minute.)
You can jump and climb and grab and sprint and crawl and (sometimes) shoot. You can also shout to draw zombies towards you, which is useful for luring them into traps or getting them to bunch up so you can get around them. The mechanics are solid and the gameplay feels right. This is where the comparison to the original Prince of Persia comes in. Your character has enough weight and momentum to feel real, but not so much that he feels sluggish or cumbersome. There’s a sweet spot between characters who reverse direction instantly (which feels bland and cartoony) and characters that change direction slowly (which feels frustrating) and I think this game nails it.
But despite this strong foundation of mechanics and style, the game falls apart for me. What we have here are a number of minor flaws that exacerbate one another until they combine to form an intensely frustrating experience.
It’s early in the game and I’m down in the sewer tunnels. I’m sliding downhill, jumping over spikes in the floor, when some text flashes at the top of the screen, explaining how to perform a… what? Oh. Never mind. I’m dead now because I was trying to read the tooltip ambush and not watching my guy.
Here’s the anatomy of the challenge as it’s presented:
This brings us to the problem of lingering death penalties. When you die, the screen fades to red. And then it prompts you to press a button to restart. Then there’s a loading screen, which I have no idea why you need a loading screen in this context, but you do. It’s short for a level loading screen, but it’s obnoxiously long if all you wanted to do is back up three steps and try the same jump again. Once the loading is done the game fades in and you can play again.
So I get back on the slope, do the jump, and then get my text message. This time I manage to read it and figure out I need to press the left trigger when landing to do a roll. I have no idea why the game is telling me this now, or how doing a rolling landing would help, because I haven’t actually reached the part where I need it yet.
There are two nests of spikes I have to jump over, and it’s really easy to leap over the first and land in the second. So, I figure the “roll” move is there to allow you to land in the spikes. The tooltip even says the move is used to “avoid damage”, so I guess that’s how we deal with spikes? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but a lot of gameplay mechanics don’t make a lot of sense. Heck, the spikes themselves are pretty ridiculous. It’s obvious you’re not supposed to question things too much and just go with it.
So I try a roll in the second spike pit and die. Hm. Maybe I messed up the timing? I try again. And again. Press the button sooner. Press the button later. Hold the button down. Each attempt is another flow-breaking loading screen as a few more seconds of my life slip away.
|Later in the game, but still the same problem: Die, wait, click, load, wait, fade. Try again.|
Eventually I give up and just jump the spikes without trying the roll. I’m not even sure I’m doing it right. Am I supposed to try and clear both sets of spikes in one jump? Nope. So I guess I’m supposed to land between them? That works. Then I jump over the second set of spikes and a ceiling-mounted spike plate slams into me.
O-KAY? So am I supposed to jump over that thing, too? It’s not even clear what’s setting it off. Is there a pressure-plate I’m supposed to jump over or avoid, or it this one of those magical sapient traps they have in videogames?
After a few more tries I finally get what I’m supposed to do: Jump the floor spikes, then do a rolling landing to avoid the spike plate.
The problem we have here is that the game is trying to:
- Teach you the new “roll” mechanic.
- Introduce the sliding jump mechanic.
- Have you execute a little jump maneuver you’ve never seen before and which is more challenging than earlier jumps.
- Introduce you the new spike plate hazard.
- Do all of this on a slope where the player can’t stop and analyze the challenge, and where the whole puzzle doesn’t fit onscreen, so the player can’t analyze the obstacle until they’re hurtling towards it.
The thing is so muddled you can’t even tell if this is a puzzle you need to solve or a maneuver you need to execute. And the game is full of maddening, frustrating moments like this where I was failing not because I wasn’t meeting the challenge, but because I had no idea what the game wanted from me or what I was supposed to be doing.
The game does a good job of giving you checkpoints. On the other hand, sometimes there’s a little animation that plays and a bit of dialog just after a checkpoint, so when you die you have to watch your character walk onscreen and say the same line again and again.
These flaws might even be a plus to some masochistic players. If you played Another World and enjoyed zerging your way through the sadistic gotcha deaths that game employed, then Deadlight might give you the special brand of abuse you’re looking for. And to be fair, Deadlight is nowhere near as bad as Another World. On the other hand, Another World had instantaneous resets that let you jump right back into the action, while Deadlight feels like you owe it a few seconds of your life when you fail.
To draw the same comparison to a less ancient game: Imagine a version of Mark of the Ninja where the game didn’t explain how guards work and you couldn’t tell which hiding places were really hiding places and which ones were just scenery until you’d died a couple of times. You couldn’t see grapple points, you couldn’t see guard vision or alert level, and there were sometimes surprise insta-kill traps sprinkled around. Instead of giving you tools to solve problems, the game had one specific solution in mind and when you failed you couldn’t tell if you were doing the wrong thing or if you’d done the right thing but failed to execute it properly. That’s what Deadlight feels like.
|Once again: The moment when the player is being swarmed by zombies is a terrible time to begin the, “Hey, listen! Here’s how to switch weapons!” tutorial.|
Too many puzzles were ambiguous, or spiked with DIAS tricks. I can’t really fault the game just for being “hard”, since I can’t tell what the designer was going for. If the idea was to present you with puzzles to beat with trial-and-error, then the after-death reset should be instant and not lingering. If the idea was to challenge the player with platforming jumps, then the game really, really needed to make the challenges clearer. And in either case, the game should never, ever be throwing you control tutorials in the middle of insta-kill threats. Gah.
It’s worth a look, particularly if you liked the original Prince of Persia or Another world. Just know what you’re getting into.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
Batman: Arkham Origins
A breakdown of how this game faltered when the franchise was given to a different studio.
Another PC Golden Age?
Is it real? Is PC gaming returning to its former glory? Sort of. It's complicated.
A stream-of-gameplay review of Dead Island. This game is a cavalcade of bugs and bad design choices.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.