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There's one key trick up Deadlight's tattered sleeve: this apocalyptic 2D platformer doesn't look like a 2D game, and it certainly doesn't skimp on the realism. Most 2D games, wary of their dissimilarity to real and slightly more protruding life, play up the fanciful. Limbo casts realistic physics in stripped-down silhouettes, and Shadow Complex spins a heightened fantasy of underground bases and kickass agents. Deadlight combines the conspiracy and supernatural, mixing in more than a little of Fallout 3's ravaged America for good measure.
This XBLA download looks like a cross section of a big-budget release. In a bleakly beautiful trek through an ashen US post-zombie outbreak, developer Tequila Works' cinematic aspirations are clear - in the way mouldy billboard adverts flutter limply in the breeze, in how shadowy forms flit across background scenery, in how the camera stares down highways that stretch miles to the horizon. Despite zombie holocaust exaggeration, this is a grounded story - just one man trying to stay alive.
It's still a platformer, however, and it plays like one, with ledge-grabs, sprinting, crate-pushing and switch-pressing all standard. It's hardly Mario, however, lacking the fluidity of dedicated platformers or the creative spark of more cerebral ones like Braid, with environments informed more by real life than the devious brain of a game designer.
Combat against zombies too is hit and miss, with less jumping on heads and more dirty, gut-led improvisation. You can knock power supplies or rickety cars off hoists to squash packs of the undead below, taunt with y to bait them towards electrified currents and barbed wire, and scavenge weapons. Early on you'll find an axe (push groups away with b, hold the button down for a powerful swing). Corpses break apart bloodily: Tequila Works are certainly not opposed to a little of the red stuff, even if the physics are slightly exaggerated. It's not yet clear if weapons degrade over time, but if all else fails you've got a perfectly good boot on you.
But platforming conventions aren't what you'll come to Deadlight for. It's all about the atmosphere and setting, the interplay between foreground and back. Small touches, like background zombies clawing at boarded-up windows, or a figure in the foreground writhing in the smashed-out windshield of a burning car, give the illusion of a fully 3D world, while diaries and newspaper shreds flesh out the outbreak's mysterious source as you play: "February 21, 1986. The Soviet Union in orbit..." Overplayed platforming aside, the darkly heavy Deadlight is going to be one of XBLA's brightest beacons.