The Deer God PC Review
The Deer God is a 2D-pixel-art-side-scrolling-linear-platformer-indie title that revolves around the player taking on the life of a deer on a quest to redeem oneself for mistakes made in a previous life. It’s another successfully Kickstarted game that received a final pledge of $51,953 (about £34k) in the summer of 2014, which also reached the stretch goals for the game to see a release on the Wii U, Xbox One, and even the OUYA. Currently though, it is only available on Steam for PC and Mac and has recently come out of Beta to see its final version pushed to the store.
The game starts with two hunters in the forrest giving up for the night as the rain heads in, unsuccessful in their intention to take home a trophy; likely in the shape of a stag’s head. One of the men stays out a little longer and notices a great opportunity alone in the distance, just as a pack of wolves start taste their own victory as they close in on him unawares. Right as the deerstalker takes the shot a young fawn hops merrily out of the bushes only to be killed by bullet, whilst simultaneously the man is taken down by the wolves. Upon death, for your transgressions, you are informed by, presumably, the deer God that you will face karmic retribution and must be reborn as a deer to learn how it feels to be the hunted instead of the hunter. Nice solid opening… if you ignore the fact that you were literally just murdered by wolves, which kind of pre-emptively presents the player as prey in the food chain, even as a human.
So now you are a new baby deer. You can run left, right, jump, and dash and the first thing you do is speak to a wise elder, the elder of agility, who bestows upon you the power of the double jump and informs you that you are the chosen one, the one the prophecy spoke of – the trans human. I thought we were being punished for our moral sins? Apparently we were instead reincarnated as a being of legend, not so bad after all. Anyway, the quest now begins! It’s time to move right and jump over simple spike pits endlessly in a loop of ‘dynamic’ level sections until a quest marker appears. To be fair there are several types of terrain such as snow, desert, and swamp etc, but it’s a shame that each one has probably only 5 or so sections that you can see repeating time and time again as you try to progress. At this point I would have preferred that the designers had instead simply designed a long, unique world to explore, even if it was a world that could only be experienced freshly once. At least that way I wouldn’t have had my immersion broken every time I moved to the next slice of level that I’d already seen 50+ times.
So you continue moving through the world anyway, which also contains a variety of creatures, from spiders, to foxes, to human hunters, and many more. It also becomes apparent that some of them want to kill you, whilst others remain docile. So I began to ‘fight’ back with the more ferocious critters as I would in any normal video game, ‘fight’ meaning to hop over them effortlessly until my stamina recharged so I could begin to dash attack them again; repeating until victorious. This was when I was presented with the binary morality/karma system – killing attacking enemies rewards good karma and killing harmless enemies rewards bad karma. I suppose that makes sense in a video game logic kind of way, but in a game that’s trying to be spiritual and expressive I was pretty shocked to see that the meaningless slaughter of anything didn’t punish me with negative karma, especially since I was playing as a deer, which are herbivores that don’t need to kill to survive. Shouldn’t I have instead been rewarded for sparing the lives of predators and fleeing? Isn’t that the purpose of ‘prey’ by definition? Well, it’s certainly not to avenge fallen comrades in the everlasting battle between deers and things that want to eat them.
Questing. Throughout the game there are several ‘quests’ that you must complete. This basically means talking to one person, then talking to the next, and so on. Rarely they require a little bit of skill or thinking, but it’s never very challenging or interesting. I started out with one mission where I was told to ‘return’ once I’d completed the task set, so I completed the task which had taken me a decent amount of time to reach, and now I had to return all that way to continue the mission. This quickly became a chore as the world is flat with no shortcuts in the metroid-vania fashion. So one time I just figured ‘to hell with it’ and continued moving right to see what I could find. This was when I learnt that if you continue moving right, the world will eventually generate the area that you needed to return to, so you never have to go left. From this point on all I did was jump-dash-double jump-dash my way right, stopping only when my hunger meter was low to chow down on some grass and whatnot, until I found the next section that would allow me to move forward in the story.
As you progress your deer grows through several stages of life, until finally culminating as a fully grown stag that seemed to be able to jump higher, attack harder and take more hits. In fact, the only thing that should kill you at this point is the instant death spike traps, so be sure to run around the world several times picking up all the extra lives you can find because dying sucks. If you die with an extra life, you simply start from where you just left off, but if that was your last life you will need to start as a baby fawn again. Of course that’s if you’ve been ‘good’ with your time as a deer. If you’ve been ‘bad’ you might anger the deer God and get reborn as one of the others animals in the game. This is completely pointless as you can barely manoeuvre around the terrain with tiny jumps and slow movement speeds and are basically forced to find away to suicide your soul free so you can come back as a deer again. Why are deers ranked so much higher than other animals in the rebirth chart? Wasn’t the point of the story to show that all life should be valued equally? Apparently not, and deers are the supreme beings of the universe.
Once the story is complete and you’ve redeemed yourself by helping humans, witches, ghosts, and a couple of deers for good luck you are once again confronted by the deer God. This time you are told that you have earned to right to choose your path – go back to being a deer as an elder, a guardian of the race, or return to live the life you lost in the beginning. Both choices are equally disappointing, especially since I had to run through the game a second time just to see what the human ending was like. There’s also a few other things I haven’t mentioned yet like the fact you can mate with deers along the way and have kids, that you apparently will re-spawn as if you die and have kept them alive with you on your journey. This would be pretty cool if the AI of all enemies and allies was not so bad that they instantly jump into any pit that they come across, unable to jump and escape; even if it wasn’t filled with spikes that had already dispatched them. There’s also the puzzles that you can solve to be rewarded with special powers such as growing vines that you can use to reach higher places, or the ability to shoot fireballs from your antlers so you can murder wildlife much more easily. Ah, the spiritual, peaceful, life of a deer.
I feel that The Deer God simply failed in both gameplay and effective story telling, with the main problem being that gameplay and story didn’t at all seem in sync. It’s as if different teams developed each section and somebody haphazardly tried to merge them into a single experience. If you want to play a good 2D pixel art game, with a main character that’s an animal, that also successfully told a mysterious and oddly deep tale – try Full Bore instead. I’m afraid that whilst The Deer God was boasted as “a breathtaking 3d pixel art game that will challenge your religion and your platforming skills”, the only thing that it really challenged was my patience. It did look pretty nice though.