At PAX East over the weekend, we had the opportunity to chat with with Raul Rubio, CEO and Creative Director for Tequila Works, and got our hands on their upcoming Xbox Live Arcade title, Deadlight.
Deadlight is a side-scrolling platform puzzler similar in style and presentation to Shadow Complex, but with a much heavier slant towards survival and melee. Mr. Rubio himself went to great lengths to explain the game’s chief influences, and from viewing the game footage and playing it ourselves, it became clear that these influences collectively form the baseline minute-to-minute gameplay of the experience.
As an example, the IBM-era Prince of Persia influence makes its presence known whenever the player is required to move at a measured, footstep-specific pace to jump to an overhanging ledge and pull himself up, or take a standing-jump versus a running jump to prevent over-shooting a ledge. Similarly, the influence of the Amiga-darling, Flashback, can be seen in the silky smooth character animations and transitional animations when the character traverses platforms and clambers over obstacles on-screen. The last of the influences Rubio gives is the most obvious — Shadow Complex by Chair Interactive. Pretty much everything on-screen, from the 3D backgrounds that stretch off into the distance to the size of the player’s character, all have a very Shadow Complex feel to them, though no back-tracking was evident in the sections we played.
With so many introspective and broody 2D side-scrolling, silhouette-heavy platform puzzlers on the market, how can any developer differentiate their game from the pack? The answer in the case of Deadlight is, surprisingly, zombies. Zombies have arguably been played to death in this console generation as it is, but what Tequila Works is aiming for here is to infuse what could easily be dismissed as ‘Shadow Complex with zombies’ with a rich and thought-provoking story, a world-weary protagonist trying to survive, and a heavy reliance on the environments themselves as the primary means to dispatch the zombies.
Gameplay-wise, it all handles like any other 2D platformer, but after only a few minutes of play, it is clear the control scheme is instantly accessible, yet also leaves enough room and nuance in the control scheme for players to improve their locomotive skills and move around the environment much quicker than your average player would. It’s entirely possible to see this game garnering the attention of the ‘speed-run’ crowd after release.
The demo sections featured a healthy dose of long-jumping skill-play, and a few ‘jump-over-bottomless-pit-to-grab-ladder’ sections, too. In an early outdoor environment, the key to dispatching the zombies there was to leap over some electrified wiring, then get the zombies’ attention with the Y button which, when pressed, made the character either whistle or shout. This would then draw them over to the wires and electrocute them. In another section, the solution was to fall into a hole and lure the zombie in there, as the zombie struggled to stand up, we had to quickly run past it and clamber up the side, which of course the zombie could not. There did seem to be a heavy reliance on obfuscation in the puzzle design in certain areas, where key sections of the environment didn’t particularly stand out as being special or interactive in any way, leaving us scratching our heads for a minute or two. That said, that minute or two was about as frustrating as the experience got and, overall, the difficulty curve felt just right.
Melee combat does appear in the game eventually though, and we did sample a little during our time with it by locating an axe. the B button swings the axe and downs the basic zombie type we encountered. Downed zombies, of course, get back up, so holding the B button instead of tapping it will trigger an over-the-head downward swing that finishes them off for good. At only one point in our playthrough did we encounter anything but the base zombie type. Although it looked very similar to these zombies, it required more swings of the axe to stun it and drop it. When we asked one of the game’s developers about the types and variety of enemies, he referenced the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, and referenced its complete breakdown of society, saying, “Let’s just say zombies aren’t the only thing you should be worried about in this game.” Indeed.
Overall, the presentation was slick, stylish and sold the game’s vibe perfectly. Also, as we stated earlier, the puzzles were varied and the difficulty curve felt just about right. The melee combat felt a little too unfriendly however, requiring the player to stop movement before the button press registered and, once the swing was executed, removing control from the player until the animation finished. We feel a mild timing adjustment is all that’s needed to remedy this, though. The only other thing to stick in out collective craw was the voice acting of the main protagonist. It seemed too ‘stereotypical-gravel-voiced hero’ and actually worked against the game which, in every other way, is painted as a realistic, grim survival horror story.
By the time this game hits the Xbox Live Marketplace — and we are hearing summer time right now — it should be firing on all cylinders. Rubio and his developers constantly stalked the demo area, watching over players’ shoulders, feverishly taking notes. There is clearly time available for them to improve on the game before launch, and they’re capitalizing on that. This is a good thing, too, because, from what we have seen so far, Deadlight has the potential to be this year’s XBLA darling.