If you had any lingering doubts about whether Cormac McCarthy really is this year's zombies, then let Deadlight solemnly persuade you that it's The Road rather than Romero that's currently foremost in gaming's collective consciousness. You'll see the novel's influence in Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, and you'll have seen it in Ubisoft Shanghai's surprisingly coherent view of a post-apocalyptic world, I Am Alive.
And you'll see it again this summer in Deadlight, one of the brightest propositions in store for Xbox Live Arcade, and quite possibly the sparkling gem in this year's Summer of Arcade. It helps that in many ways, Deadlight brings to mind two previous summer beaus on the 360's download service, Limbo and Shadow Compex, with its side-scrolling 2D gameplay that's told with a strong artistic bent.
Deadlight's set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop that's riddled with the walking dead. It's a scenario whose weary familiarity is countered with often breathtaking art design, its lighting veering towards monochrome while its ambiance lays on a thick, melancholic horror. (Spanish developer Tequila Works comprises many ex-MercurySteam staff, and the quality of both Jericho and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow seems to have carried across with them.)
It all kicks off in a Seattle that's been bearing the brunt of a viral outbreak, before embarking on a tour of a destroyed mid-80s Northern America. It's an America made up of beaten-down warehouses washed in thick yellow light, of crumbling alleyways and rickety rooftops.
What's truly impressive is how Tequila Works has brought this oppressive locale to life, managing to inject an incredible amount of depth into a game that's played on a strictly 2D plane. Vistas stretch far into the distance, while the camera will occasionally pan to draw attention to another story that's unfurling in the backdrop; a group of survivors making free in a stolen ambulance, or a flock of birds that shoot up from an abandoned traffic jam. This is a 2D platformer with a keen sense of cinema.
It's a borrowed cinema, but it's been borrowed well and furnished with some other, more surprising influences. Lead Randall Wayne is a park warden with a mysterious past and more than a passing resemblance to Viggo Mortensen, but with his lithe leaps his real ancestors are Flashback's Conrad B. Hart and Another World's Lester Chaykin.
Deadlight takes the platforming and puzzling of those '90s classics, but more importantly it also shares their sense of isolation. Randall's utterly alone, picking through the flotsam of the catastrophe that's struck the earth and often finding himself ill-equipped to deal with the undead swarm that's in his path.
Combat doesn't seem to be the norm in Deadlight, and aside from one satisfying encounter told through the business end of an axe it's often best to simply flee when faced with the enemy. To that end there's some wonderful staging on Tequila Works' behalf, escapes being timed perfectly so that the rotting fingernails of your assailant will be scraping at your coattail just as you break free.
The environment's a threat as well as an ally, though. In one abandoned car park, a small pool of water can be charged with electricity, allowing you to beckon the undead and lead them towards their own demise. Elsewhere, in the bowels of a dusty garage, a car can be sent crashing down on the crowd of zombies that waits below.
It's simple stuff, but at each turn Tequila Works pulls you further into its world, and in the stumbling and heaving of Randall's animation it reminds you of your vulnerability. Deadlight's a zombie game, but in its nature it's more of a Frankenstein, cobbled together from classics old and not so old. It's been cobbled together with a real sense of craft, too, and it's Tequila Works' impressive artistry that makes this more than just another post-apocalyptic romp.