Zombies are often associated with pandemics, but their outbreak in pop culture is reaching worrying levels, as they slowly but surely infect every strata of the market. Their spread through the game industry has been particularly virulent, to the point where it seems that few titles are safe from their corrupting influence, be that by design, mod or spin-off. Deadlight is the latest undead apocalypse to lumber into view, but Tequila Works’ debut is packed with sharp contemporary references that manage to mostly dispel the lingering aroma of decomposition.
For inspiration, Deadlight looks to The Walking Dead (almost line for line during one scene) and its slow-burning sparsity, The Road’s washed-out palette and austere atmosphere, and Limbo’s easy cool. But Tequila Works brings its own flavour to proceedings, too, setting the game in an alternative 1986 Seattle. Deadlight’s world feels instantly fresh as a result, the mountainous flora and stormy weather of Washington state combining with crippled grey architecture (and, for the eagle-eyed, an occasional Thunder tour poster) to create an ambience that has its closest parallel in Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake.
But where Remedy’s pulp writer helped the occasional bad line slip by, Deadlight’s Randall Wayne lacks Wake’s charm. A park ranger with a troubled past, and a man looking for his wife and daughter while the world ends around him, Wayne delivers his lines with the histrionic flair of Crackdown’s narrator and is supported by a cast who range from irritating to laughable. Bad voice acting is nothing new, of course, but it comes to the fore when it regularly undoes Tequila Works’ otherwise meticulously constructed atmosphere. It’s a further shame because, while clichéd, the narrative arc could have been far more affecting if it was handled with a bit more delicacy.
Environmental storytelling is handled much more competently, though. Deadlight is brought to life through a combination of broad strokes and rich detail, the stylised ‘shadows’ (read: zombies) that roam its world – perpetually bathed in darkness as they shuffle and crawl towards you – contrasting with intricately dressed indoor environments and some huge, detailed vistas. Despite playing out on a single plane, the game uses depth cleverly, too, allowing disturbed enemies to wander forward from the background and attack you, upping the sense of danger and creating a world that ironically feels very much alive. Creeping nervously through a dark room as the moaning undead stand with their backs to you in the near distance can be a genuinely unnerving experience. And that sense of the uncanny is built upon by the game’s excellent score, which is a layered composition of ambient noise, swelling orchestral menace and the occasional well-timed stab of violins.
Deadlight isn’t afraid to embrace its dark side, either, and sticklers for zombie canon will be heartened by the game’s representation of the brutal struggle for survival. You’ll spend a great deal of your journey unarmed, and thus forced to rely on your wits, reactions and the environment to progress. A single shadow presents a reasonable threat, but find yourself facing more than one and you’ll soon be pulled to the ground. Even when you do find weapons – the axe will be your main tool, but guns and a slingshot can be found later on – being overwhelmed is a very real possibility and running away is almost always the best option. Since shadows can’t climb, reaching high ground when outnumbered is essential. From there, you can distract them with noise – you can whistle and shout to bring shadows closer, or use the slingshot to draw them away – and make your break for the door, hoping the room beyond is empty.
Sometimes there’s no option but to fight, though, at which point wielding your axe in anger, rather than on the locked doors, is unavoidable. A well-timed swing with a run-up will occasionally decapitate, but most of the time combat descends into a mess of desperate swipes as you attempt to knock shadows to the ground and then hold the attack button to finish them, all before your stamina meter runs out. This is no criticism – as the screen pulses to tell you you’re out of puff, and Wayne arcs yet another tired, weak one-handed axe swing down on the struggling shadow in front of him, each one not quite enough to kill it, the horror of Deadlight’s world is forced home.
For the game’s opening third, this all works brilliantly as you move through claustrophobic, yet forgiving, urban environments. But a trip to the city sewers further down the line places platforming over survival and reveals that Deadlight’s controls just aren’t up to the task. Missing a jump and having to find a way around the crowd of shadows now bearing down on you is all part of the fun, but when you’re asked to make pinpoint leaps while avoiding traps and deep water (despite being a park ranger, Randall can’t swim) it becomes a frustrating case of trial-and-error design that recalls Another World more than it does Limbo. A number of time-sensitive runs through crumbling or under-fire environments suffer from the same problem: cumbersome controls and a lack of clear signposting result in one too many deaths. Checkpoints are generously placed, but it’s not enough to offset a growing sense of fatigue.
Tequila Works, which counts former Blizzard, Quantic Dream and Weta staff among its number, is clearly a talented and passionate team, and has made a striking debut with Deadlight. While it doesn’t quite live up to its early promise, it proves a great deal more than just another zombie game.