Developer: Crescent Moon Games, Blowfish Studios
Publisher: Level 77
Platform(s): Switch (reviewed), Wii U, XB1, PS4, Vita, iOS, PC, Mac
Review code provided
When it comes to reviewing a game, there are any number of factors that need to be carefully considered in order to make an even halfway decisive call on whether it can be called ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certain elements do speed up the process, however, and nothing will drive a stake through the heart of a game’s enjoyment factor more than when it feels like actual work to play the thing. This brings us neatly to The Deer God on Nintendo Switch.
The premise is that you are a human hunter who has taken to the forest with one of his hunter buddies with the aim of shooting something upside the head. As your character takes aim at a lone deer in the distance, he is savaged by a pack of wolves that appear from absolutely nowhere. Having been left for dead, the hunter awakens to the spectral image of the titular Deer God, who informs the hunter that he is to be reborn as a baby deer in order to learn how to behave himself in mixed company. As you progress and survive in the wilds, your wee deer avatar grows into an adult. It’s a neat little bit of symbolism that draws a parallel between the aging of the deer and the hunter growing into his newfound understanding and appreciation of non-human life. It does make for a rather compelling opening sequence with an intriguing plot, appealing music, and some eerily charming visuals combining to lay the foundation for a grand adventure about karma and balance among all living things. It’s just a shame that this grand adventure doesn’t actually end up happening. Instead, nothing much happens at all.
This is perhaps one of my biggest problems with The Deer God: that it begins well and thoroughly succeeds in drawing you in before the trap door opens and you find yourself sliding down a massive slope of missed opportunities into a big pool of disappointment. Asides from the story setup, the game also makes a big song and dance about its survival mechanics. As a deer, you have three different bars on screen; red for health, green for hunger, and blue for stamina. This again could make for a compelling mechanic if properly executed, but unfortunately the various bars and levels are just a few more scoops on the sundae of missed chances.
Going in, I was quite interested in the idea of managing my hunger levels, scavenging for materials and carefully planning my progress so as to not overexert my poor deer self and end up foodless. Turns out that I needn’t have worried, because while you do indeed get hungry as you explore, berries and other foodstuffs are pretty much everywhere, so you’ll end up just hoovering up everything as you go like coins in a Mario game. It’s pretty inconsistent as well, as your hunger level seems to rise at a completely arbitrary pace and the same actions appear to deplete different amounts of stamina depending on what mood the game is in. At least your health regenerates automatically, except when it doesn’t.
I now realise that I’m four paragraphs in and I haven’t actually mentioned what kind of game The Deer God is. At its core, it’s a procedurally-generated puzzle-platformer. You run and jump and collect miscellaneous crap that’s supposed to help you out in a wholly unspecific way, provided you can navigate the god-awful user interface well enough to even use them. Along the way you will encounter human characters in need, and other deer characters who offer specific challenges for during your adventure. The rewards for these are items and magic spells, respectively. The human challenges are often laughably easy, with the items required for fetch-quests normally being found in a box literally right next to the quest-giver, while the deer challenges can be obtuse to the point of frustration. This brings us to the next thorn in my side: the procedural generation.
I’ve never had a problem with procedural generation, as games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac show that it can make for a winning formula, but The Deer God is a striking example of how not to do it. For starters, the game’s asset pool is criminally small so you’ll find yourself trekking over the same terrain in the same order confusingly often for a supposedly randomly-generated level. This is exacerbated by the fact that the platforming itself is terribly bland and offers little to no challenge or stimulation, so the very act of travelling through an area feel like an ordeal. Secondly, while the actual makeup of the levels is allegedly created at random by the game, there are still fixed story events which need to be completed in order to progress. This becomes a serious problem when the game decides to spawn a puzzle without spawning its solution.
To give an example: at one point in my playthrough, I encountered an elder deer who wanted to ‘test my faith’ by asking me to make a dramatic leap into the Great Falls, promising me a new skill in return. Now, at this point we were plonked in the middle of a desert so I was a little perplexed as to where exactly these ‘Great Falls’ might be located, so I decided to to move on and explore a bit. I met the bugger three more times before the game bothered to load the waterfall in question, at which point I managed to complete a challenge which felt like it had been set a lifetime ago. A similar thing happened later on, when I found my journey blocked by a high ledge. I had navigated an identical ledge earlier on in the session thanks to the use of an item, but sadly this time around the game hadn’t thought to give me another one. I’m no game designer, but I’m fairly certain that random generation isn’t supposed to be this random.
It’s all just so clunky and uninvolving, and at times it honestly feels like the the game is actively working against you. In short, everything feels a bit pointless. The hunger mechanic is entirely token and can be safely disregarded lest something as terrifying as tension infect this rollercoaster of an experience. The game keeps track of the number of days you’ve survived as a deer for absolutely no reason, even if you die this tracker doesn’t reset so no worries there. Speaking of which, if you do die you’re born again as a baby deer, which may sound like a setback but you get to keep all your progress and items so, again, it serves no purpose. The platforming is bland, unvaried, and unengaging to the extent that you may as well be running across a single open meadow, and the various enemies offer no challenge whatsoever and can be ignored entirely if you’re quick on the jump button.
The one point that I’ll make in favour of The Deer God is that the music is rather pleasant. It fits nicely with the feel of each environment and can actually be rather catchy at times. It’s almost as if the music is trying its best to calm you down while the rest of the game endeavours to piss you off as efficiently as possible. While the music is good, it can’t work those kinds of miracles, and all it really makes me do is wish that it was attached to a more enjoyable game.