Every year, a handful of games are released as part of the Xbox 360's Summer of Arcade, and you can always count on one of them to be a true standout. There's always one game that really shines as something special, reinvigorating the medium and reminding you that there is greatness to be had in bite-sized gaming. Deadlight is not that game. Deadlight is a dull slog through repetitious puzzles that's weighed down by horrible writing and worse voice acting. There's very little reason to bother with it, unless you have some kind of medical condition that requires you to play every single zombie game that comes along.
Deadlight drops you into the ruins of the Pacific Northwest, several months after "Patient Zero" kicked off a zombie apocalypse. You play as Randall, a surly grump trying to make it through the wreckage to rejoin his family and friends. Randall is thoroughly unlikeable, jaded and bitter, which is a reasonable reaction to the end of the world, but makes it difficult for you to really give a damn if he reaches safety or ends up an appetizer for the undead horde. Perhaps it would be easier to find a place in your heart for Randall's grim toughness if either Deadlight's writing or voice acting was up to the challenge, but both are amateurish at best. A man desperately trying to reach his wife and daughter, praying that they've been spared a horrific death, should be emotionally wrenching, but despite saying that he's worried about them, he never actually sounds like he is, so we aren't, either.
Without characters to care about, all Deadlight has to offer are its puzzles, which fall flat. The game's 2d world is overrun with zombies - or Shadows, as the game calls them - but your goal is to evade them by climbing out of reach, clambering across rooftops, or just plain outrunning them. A zombie game in which combat isn't the point would be quite appealing, and the first few levels offer enticing opportunities to use the environment to your advantage, either by luring the Shadows into a trap or just getting yourself out of the way, but the gameplay basics begin to repeat all too quickly. Climb to get out of reach, leap across a gap, make it to the next level and do it all again. The puzzles never feel like they're getting more sophisticated or daunting, just more involved; you might pull a crate to reach a high ledge in one area, then have to hit a switch to release a crate that you'll then drag over to an out-of-reach ladder in another. There's no sense of victory because you're not really puzzling through anything, just doing mechanical busywork until you settle on the correct sequence of events.
Any difficulty you have with the puzzles will likely stem from Deadlight's habit of twisting common sense in favor of design. You can jump up and grab that ledge, but not this fence of similar height. Why? Because that's the way the puzzle is designed. Randall, who can scarper around like Persian-born royalty, can't so much as dog paddle and drowns the second he drops into a few feet of water. Because lowering the water level is a puzzle element. Puzzles stop being fun when you feel like the rules for them keep changing. Deadlight's distinctive imagery is lovely, but can also obscure environmental details, making it hard to tell that there's a handhold available or a Shadow about to eat your face. This is ameliorated somewhat by the placement of helpful arrows and glowing outlines pointing out important items or areas, but even those sometimes blend into the background.
Though they may at times make the game harder to play, Deadlight's visuals are still its most appealing feature. Running through a zombie-infested wasteland isn't exactly an original idea, but the environments still manage to feel distinct and striking, making smart use of light and - no pun intended - shadow. Randall is working his way through familiar locations like apartment buildings, neighborhoods, and alleys, but they don't feel like you've seen them in a dozen other games already. The world of Deadlight is in chaos, but it's intriguing and enjoyable to explore. Poking around will also net you rewards as you track down collectibles like pages from Randall's diary and other mementos that fill in the backstory of the calamity that created the Shadows in the first place.
Bottom Line: Deadlight starts with a solid idea but never lives up to its potential. Outsmarting zombies, rather than facing them head on with whatever weapon is handy, is a great idea, but the game's environmental puzzles feel too samey after just a short while. The story has its own share of clever seeds, but it's presented so poorly that you probably won't bother to find them. Without satisfying mechanics or narrative, there's nothing pushing you forward towards Deadlight's conclusion.
Recommendation: Everything that Deadlight does has already been done better by another XBLA game. If you want zombies, play The Walking Dead. If you want a 2d puzzler with gorgeous visuals, play Limbo. Save Deadlight for when you've exhausted all your other options.
Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Microsoft Studios