Karma – it’ll get you. Enjoy your deer hunting with a bit too much gusto, and karma’ll get you mauled to death by wolves. But it’s not done yet! It’s going to put you in the power of the Deer God, who’s going to reincarnate you as a deer. Now the shoe is on the other foot! (Uh, hoof.)
So begins The Deer God, an odd little endless runner/platformer/spirit quest hybrid where the player must learn the lesson the Deer God seeks to impart by living life as a deer. David Attenborough would raise an eyebrow, though; the life of a Deer God deer involves a bit more metaphysical suggestion and combat against panthers, snakes, and porcupines that one might expect to find in nature.
Starting as a tiny fawn, players canter through pixellated landscapes at a good clip, avoiding the pit traps that lie in wait and dodging or battling the wide array of hostile animals, people, and undead (of course) that want to turn him into venison. Fruit trees and shrubs can be raided for a snack, and keep your fawn well-fed enough and he’ll eventually grow into a bigger deer with a bit more puff, continuing through four stages until he becomes a mighty antlered stag.
Perish though, and the cycle begins anew: permadeath awaits, and it’s back to the start. Fortunately, this fate can be postponed – find a willing mate on your journeys through the wilderness, let nature take its course, and you can produce a new fawn who is ready to carry on your legacy. The player’s son will follow them along, or can be commanded to wait. The latter is always a good idea, as despite the temptation to push your respawn point along a bit, the survival skills of the fawns prove more lemming than deer.
Occasionally, the deer comes across people in need of cervine assistance: a ghost who wants to send a message to his widow, or a priest who needs parishioners. Solving these quests is mostly just a matter of jogging across more of the landscape until you find the required person or thing, and then back to the quest giver. Complete a quest and the game lets you move on to the next chunk of generated landscapes (miss a crucial door though, and you’ll stay on the same long loop back to it until you figure it out). This is where the problems start, because the gameplay starts to get extremely samey.
Make no mistake; it’s lovely to look at and listen to. Much care has gone into the artwork and sound design, and there really is a bit of a “back to nature” feel at times as the deer bounds through the dappled greenery or the endless sands of the desert. When the background visuals and music combine with the sometimes hypnotic nature of endless runner gameplay, it is possible to drop into a bit of a Zen-like state and mentally become a deer who lives only to run.
But you’re always dragged out of it by combat against hostile animals whose sprites let down the rest of the game in the graphics department. Which is a bit rubbish, and always comes down to either “jump over enemy, charge attack, repeat”, or “ignore it and run on”.
There are various items to collect – speed boosts, special attacks, and the like – which are obviously meant to spice things up here, but these are rarely deployed beyond an initial novelty try-out, or in the odd very occasional boss battle. In a way, it’s a shame the game includes combat at all.
There’s no Zen to be had in being taken apart in two seconds flat by a large, random pack of hostiles or falling offscreen only to land in spikes, either, and the annoyances bring the repetition into focus. Too quickly the feeling of meditative emptiness and suggestions of themes the designers seemingly want to explore are interrupted by one’s own irritated questioning. Haven’t I seen these rocks before? Where did all these warthogs come from?
The Deer God has some lovely visuals and interesting concepts, but ultimately it seems like a triumph of concept over gameplay. As a game, it might make for a good palate-cleanser for a half hour or so when a break from other things seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t seem like a title that will attract serious dedication.