Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead
As someone who was way into Risk of Rain, a tough side-scrolling shooter that only grew tougher as time ticked by, I should have believed its designers when they called their next game “extremely challenging.” But after clearing the first set of missions in Deadbolt, their stylish new stealth-action title set in the underworld, I was feeling confident. “This isn’t so hard,” I foolishly thought.
Then I made it to the second level of the second act. Karma mercilessly kicked my ass 50 times in a row.
Developer: Hopoo Games
Publisher: Hopoo Games
Released: March 14, 2016
You play as the grim reaper, but not even death is unstoppable. Quite the opposite, actually. Green-skinned zombie gangsters, ceiling-walking vampires, regenerating skeletons, and mercenary demons can wreck his day, often in a single shot. It’s just you, armed with severely limited ammunition and maybe a hammer, against a whole bunch of them. If you’re going to keep the undead down, you’ll need a plan, sharp reflexes, and efficient aim. There’s little if any room to wing it here.
Deadbolt is far more stealth than action, though things can certainly get heated in a hurry. Since you can only hold two weapons simultaneously, and most bullets need to hit their mark if you’re going to have enough to go around for everyone, you’re forced to play smart. It’s easy to take down an enemy or two, but doing so tends to cause a chain reaction across multiple floors. Levels are packed so tightly that someone else — most likely a whole assortment of folks — will hear the commotion and come searching en masse. You’ll die in a head-on fight and, uh, did I mention the lack of checkpoints?
The strategy, then, is to find a way into the building that doesn’t get you spotted and immediately one-shotted, pick off stragglers, and separate the group. There are a few tricks: knocking on doors, turning lights off, or, best of all, going inside the walls. The reaper can become smoke and snake his way through vents to pop up behind his prey or hang out for a bit to take a breather. It’s good fun, especially if you come out of a pipe leading to a toilet that some poor sucker is sitting on. Instakill! But more often than not, this isn’t some all-powerful tactic to fall back on. Running for the ductwork as a latch-ditch escape rarely worked for me since there’s a period of vulnerability when entering or exiting.
As much as round after round of failure should sting, it didn’t. There are cheap moments where the AI does something unexpected or funky and an otherwise solid attempt falls flat, to be sure. Or dropped weapons might sit on top of each other, forcing you to fumble around to pick up the one you need right this second. But I never got genuinely frustrated. I think that can be attributed to the combat, which is satisfying with the weakest pistol or the fiercest shotgun. While there’s inherent precision to aiming with a mouse pointer, guns have bullet spread, so for further-off targets, you can’t perfectly trust your dynamic reticule. You have to line up the shot in your mind’s eye, to some extent, and it’s just hard enough that popping off a headshot feels spectacular. Deadbolt nails the gore and floppy ragdoll bodies.
It also has some killer character designs. Enemies are cool to look at but, equally important, they’re also readable in a crowd. Their attacks, behaviors, and quirks fit their physical appearances. I love the vampires in particular — they’re into the club scene which, yep, that’s pretty good. Some of them place their life force in a jar tucked safely away in a distant room, and unless you seek it out and destroy it, they’ll keep resurrecting. And you’ve also got things like zombie heads strung up as makeshift security cameras, or paranoid skeleton bombers who start placing mines everywhere once they sense danger.
The elaborate boss levels are unquestionably the best. One has you working through two disparate buildings to hunt a pair of vampire leaders who can only be killed permanently if they’re shot down in quick succession, while another is a gauntlet of Saw-esque booby traps that need to be disarmed or navigated around. Then there’s this lengthy stage where you have to move erratically to contend with an off-screen sniper’s hovering crosshairs à la Donkey Kong Country 3. Interesting, varied fights.
Sequences like those were fantastic puzzles to disassemble and plot out. They had me yearning for more. Since the reaper doesn’t acquire new skills along the way, and weapon unlocks are granted sparingly (they’re tied to a currency earned from missions and achievements), there isn’t much sense of progression outside of the cryptic story unfolding and your own increasing ability to play well.
But between the clever level layouts, exciting gunplay, expressive sprite art and animations, and some chill grooves by composer Chris Christodoulou, I was hooked. By the end of Deadbolt, I wasn’t nearly ready to leave. The game felt like it was just starting to become truly great.
I doubt I’ll mess with the level editor or community-made maps for long, but I’ve already gone back to replay the campaign and also start a brutal trip through Hard mode. It is, in fact, “extremely challenging.”
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]