No matter how far zombie mythology shuffles into the mainstream, it seems it will always have one foot firmly planted in the past.
Though George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead skulked into cinemas in 1968, the full force the walking dead would have on the public conscious would not be felt until the Seventies and Eighties, and in many ways the films that were released across those years would go on to define the flesh-eaters that Romero created.
The nightmares they induce, even today, are palpable and as scary as they have ever been, but there’s just no escaping the nostalgia they carry.
Deadlight, from Tequila Works, taps directly into this nostalgia by setting its zombie outbreak back in the Eighties. Perhaps it’s because we grew up watching the classic horror films of the time, but there’s something eerily fitting about placing zombies and Eighties Americana alongside each other.
It’s something Tequila Works attempts to get a lot of mileage out of too, showcasing familiar scenes of zombie destruction. Deserted city streets, burning buildings and the creepy quiet of an empty suburb, all go a long way to making Deadlight feel an authentic zombie experience.
They’re not called zombies, though. They’re called Shadows, which is rather fitting as Deadlight’s side-scrolling platform action utilises light and dark to create an evocative silhouetted experience.
Tequila manages to squeeze a lot of huge vistas out of its 2D gameplay, but it could have really pushed Deadlight’s design.
It works as if Prince Of Persia and Limbo were crossbred, but the resulting gameplay isn’t nearly as impressive as that combination implies.
It’s an art style that suits the sombre tone of Tequila’s game perfectly, but it comes at a cost. With only two directions of travel, left and right, Tequila’s three-dimensional environments are often deceptively complex. Enemies can shuffle onto the player’s plane; only it’s rarely clear when they’re a danger.
Deadlight wants to think of itself as the Flashback of XBLA, mixing survival horror gameplay, complicated action and a heavy character focus to pull players into its world.
It just about succeeds in doing this, but the experience stumbles in a few key areas. As we’ve said, the perspective Deadlight forces you into plays a big part in this.
It’s generally offset by a number of fantastic moments of panic, as the Shadows slowly make their way towards you while you struggle with a puzzle, but these are scattered far too thinly.
After establishing such a depressing setting, true to zombie lore, Tequila drags players underground and into the sewer systems below Seattle.
It’s a move that sees Deadlight lose focus as it attempts to force players through intricate puzzles. The major issue that muddies what should be a really enjoyable experience is the way in which Tequila’s setting limits the side-scrolling gameplay.
Zombies are hungry and want to eat your face, body and every other bit that’s got meat on it.
There are only so many times you can jump through a window, or over a rooftop or a car before you’ve exhausted most of your options. Fans of the genre will be more accepting of the logical inconsistencies that the side-scrolling world throws up, too.
Getting stuck in a corner and eaten alive right next to a staircase that’s inaccessible because it’s in the background highlights the limitations of genre.
The problem is, Tequila fails to fully explore the possibilities that its setting does have and by the time the game wraps up, you’ll be left wondering why it bothered to establish some of its mechanics at all.
What does work, and what raises this out of average platformer territory, is Deadlight’s manipulation of its style and setting. Games like Flashback and Prince Of Persia worked as well as they did because their platforming went hand-in-hand with the design of their worlds.
The same is true of Deadlight. With its Eighties setting, bleak locations and wonderfully dark scenarios, it feels more at home with the Romero zombies of the past and follows in Limbo’s footsteps, only just falling shy of hitting the same highs.
Tequila’s art and platforming really do elevate the whole experience. Puzzles remain simple, but it’s the constant threat of flesh-eaters bursting through a door that keeps the pressure on.
Deadlight’s a dark game, but things don’t get much darker than this.
You’re never truly safe and one zombie can take you out easily if you find yourself unarmed and unprepared. Weapons include axes, pistols and shotguns, but ammo is, quite rightly, scarce.
Deadlight forces you to think around the zombies in front of you instead of tackling them head on. And that’s the beauty of distilling the zombie experience into a platformer.
Though it really should have pushed its gameplay and setting harder, Deadlight’s adherence to zombie lore and classic platformin – that’s not often seen these days – makes this one of the few zombie games on XBLA worth your time.
Xbox Live Arcade has become a breeding ground for twin-stick zombie shooters that consistently go for the headshot rather than building on the tension and scares that are inherent in any true zombie experience.
It’s refreshing to see Deadlight offer an alternative, and it does so with obvious care and attention. That it stumbles slightly shouldn’t put you off, this still has more than enough bite.