It looks like an Uncharted for Xbox 360 and PC, said some upon seeing screenshots of Deadfall Adventures. “What is it?” asked others, confused by its vague title. In its marketing, Deadfall is a first-person action game that blends shooting, exploration and puzzle-solving to tell an exciting pulp adventure story. In reality, it falls short on every one of those claims.
Pop culture has a funny way of eating itself. Deadfall’s story is a strange Ouroboros of influences: it’s based on the Allan Quatermain adventures from the 1880s, but set in the 1930s, presumably to be more like Indiana Jones and to have more Nazis available to shoot. You are James Lee Quatermain, an adventurer seemingly solely because his great-grandfather was. Quatermain would like to think he’s a roguish antihero, but really, he’s just an asshole. Misogynistic, anti-intellectual, and whiny, he draws attention to his callous destruction of cultural artifacts so frequently, he must enjoy it. When Doctor Jones says something “belongs in a museum”, he means it. When charlatan Quatermain says it, it’s frat-boy sarcasm.
Quatermain is joined by US agent and useless AI companion Jennifer Goodwin on a quest to find the Heart of Atlantis, an ancient MacGuffin of unexplained but unimaginable power. Of course, the Nazis are also after the Heart, so the game quickly becomes a race to find it before they do, or before magic Mayans kill everyone.
This is pulp adventure, so a silly story is excusable. Poor presentation, however, isn’t. The script is overwritten and full of anachronistic references to the likes of BioShock, The Terminator, and curiously, Jerry Maguire. There’s a cringeworthy romantic subplot, with Goodwin swooning at Quatermain’s descriptions of her “well-shaped ass”. The voice acting doesn’t fare much better: AI barks like “Still think I’m a rookie, Quatermain?” are more grating than gratifying.
The gameplay is familiar from the first shooting section, where a troop of Nazis suddenly appears unannounced: get behind cover, and start shooting in the first of many chest-high-wall galleries. There are two types of enemies: humans, who behave identically whether they’re Nazis, Russians, or Arabs; and mummies of varying origin, fought using a flashlight mechanic swiped from Alan Wake.
No enemies present any real danger, however, as the AI is so dumb it will continue firing even if there’s a crate directly in front. At least mummies have an excuse to be stupid. Difficulty ramping here equals throwing more enemies at the player, and by halfway through, the combat sequences become such a repetitive chore you’ll simply sigh and run past them to the next save point.
Deadfall is not all about combat, though: a heavy emphasis is placed on exploration. Egypt, the Arctic, and tropical Guatemala look as gorgeous as anything in AAA gaming today, rendered in Unreal Engine 3 with sweeping vistas and beautiful colours throughout. But while they may look great, these areas are frequently vast and empty. Getting around requires Tom Cruise levels of legwork, which is hampered by clunky movement and inconsistent geometry.
Quatermain constantly clips through objects or gets snagged on invisible walls, occasionally requiring a checkpoint restart to escape. Checkpoints present another issue: they’re extremely sparse and don’t autosave upon upgrading skills or collecting treasure, the hunting of which is often dangerous or deadly. “Saving content” messages are a godsend when they eventually appear.
One could of course flag the treasure, but for the game’s insistence that searching for it is how it’s meant to be played. Quatermain’s compass directs him to nearby treasure, onscreen treasure-hunting prompts constantly appear, and maps indicate its location, though they are often more confusing than helpful. Somehow, treasure upgrades Quatermain’s tools and abilities, but the upgrades are uninteresting, of the “fire slightly faster” or “have slightly more health” variety, and after a while, the novelty of treasure hunting fades.
Deadfall also puts a lot of stock in its puzzle-solving sequences. Egyptians and Mayans guard their secrets well, with numerous puzzle-locked doors and enough traps to make Admiral Ackbar go hoarse identifying them all.
The puzzles are generally variations on symbol-matching or timed button-pressing. There are a few inspired ideas, but it’s mostly repetitive puzzles reminiscent of Nickelodeon’s “Legends of the Hidden Temple”. However, thanks to a lack of player direction and despite a notebook mechanic designed to help, some puzzles simply become a blind trial-and-error process. In a better game this would be freeing; in Deadfall it’s frustrating, not because it’s hard but because the level design is poor.
Worse are the traps. It’s hard not to feel cheated when Quatermain is killed by something that can’t be seen, or if its kill zone extends beyond its visible model. The slightest misstep can be met with instant death, the checkpoint system teleporting Quatermain miles behind the location of his demise, forcing the player to replay lengthy sequences and hone those speed-running skills. It’s a punishing slog, and the instances where traps can be turned against enemies only leave you feeling like you’ve tamed a tiger that’s just torn your legs off.
There’s a setpiece in the Arctic that adds a rare burst of energy, a spectacular and improbably long mine-cart sequence. Midway through, Quatermain exclaims “This is huge! It’s like they told them to build, but never said when to stop,” a statement that can also apply to the game itself. There’s too much volume and too little variety. The pacing of each chapter is the same plodding routine, and the gameplay quickly becomes boring. Deadfall Adventures commits the cardinal sin of gaming: it’s just not very much fun.