I’ve always been one for philosophical intrigue, the kind that goes far beyond the daily mantras you can find on any ol’ Facebook post or whimsical blog; the kind that make me go, “Well, then.” When The Deer God happened across my feed one day, I figured there was something there worth exploring. Once I got my hands on it, I wasn’t disappointed per se, but my philosophical expectation wasn’t the only thing that kept me from what this game tries to create.
So Stuttereth Deer God
The premise is simple: You’re a hunter out with your buddies, and one evening you’re encountered by the Deer God, who punishes your misdeeds by putting you in the hooves of the very creature you have been hunting. Beginning as a fawn, you spend the game running through a randomly generated world filled with caves, swamps, grasslands, mountains, and snow. You come across save points in two ways: a runic node or a female deer that will spawn offspring as a respawn point for you if you perish.
Things are honestly hard enough as you survive the hard environment, but not being able to see what SHOULD be on screen is another problem. Plenty of times I faced a long jump where the bottom of the valley was off screen, so I didn’t know if I’d land on solid ground or fall in a fatal bramble pit. This forced a constant leap-of-faith sensation, and while that might loosely be the point to it, since a lot of life is indeed out of our control, not having the option to look before you leap doesn’t seem congruent to the message intentions to the game’s overall metaphor. Still, there’s a decent array of venues to traverse as well, but the variety itself quickly loses its luster out of repetition and blind progress.
There is an advantage to this repetition, however. Quests and puzzles are scattered randomly through the game, and the randomization of it all means that a puzzle or a quest may appear before you have the ability to solve it. Through completing these events, you obtain abilities that can be used to help traverse the game as well as solve certain puzzles. Don’t fret, because if you either can’t complete the puzzle or quest, then continue moving on. These puzzles will come back eventually as will your opportunities to solve them by finding the abilities you need. The charm of this game lies in the fact that you don’t have complete control over your situation; hence, being a deer out in the wild.
You’ll also have the likes of cougars, crocodiles, hunters, wolves, birds and snakes all vying for your demise as you run infinitely to the right, and this creates an ever-present sense of tension, at least in the early going. Once you’re a full-fledged buck stacked with abilities and powers, the game becomes rather simplistic. In fact, the hardest boss fights I undertook were at the beginning, mostly because it all felt new at the time; this could have been dumb luck based on how the game generated for me. Once I began to understand what was going on, fights and interactions became simple. In fact, a lot of times I could approach a bigger enemy just enough so they would just stand there while I threw fireballs at them. The challenge wasn’t there, and the underlying push for survival loses its luster in these far-too-frequent moments; even the final boss was a pushover, though it didn’t suffer from inertia like some of the other animals along the way.
Granted, playing through Deer God multiple times will yield different ways to approach the game, but it hits a point where you’re capable enough to handle anything with ease, especially once you obtain the stomp ability. I couldn’t quite nail down its intricacies, but it seemed to grant a momentary immunity once the attack landed when none of the others do.
What’s rather interesting about this game is that you’re given the chance to atone for your crimes against deer-manity, but you also have the chance to continue wreaking havoc on the innocent fauna around you. Yes, you can dispatch rabbits and beavers and even fellow deer on your way to Evil status. Most of the powers you obtain are earned through your good-bad affiliation, something like Mass Effect’s old Paragon system without the dialogue options. When you kill a herbivore, your evil meter goes up; and when you kill a carnivore (or human), your good meter rises. It was an interesting moment when I died a complete death while Evil, because I was made to repent when the Deer God reincarnated me as a beaver with no abilities and no way to attack. I was susceptible to everything around me. Even when I died, I reloaded as a beaver. To get out of it, I had to reload my game entirely. So, while the consequence wasn’t necessarily permanent, the point came across in a very interesting way; show rather than tell.
Technically speaking, Deer God is far from impressive. Nonetheless, the clever lighting and ambient, simplistic sounds made the entire game rather tranquil. In fact, when I didn’t play with sound, the game just felt like a theme-based side scroller. The lighting adds to the effect nicely, especially when night turned to day and vice versa, because the Sun beams from behind the horizon and the deer, and the effect is calming in and of itself. Then the night comes, and everything gets dark and difficult to see. On one hand, I respect that things are much harder to see at night, particularly small creatures with big teeth, but from a gameplay perspective I feel there should have been some balance to it. It is a game after all.
The Deer God – PS4 vs PS Vita
The PS4 version doesn’t have this discrepancy as badly, but the PS Vita version is a crap shoot a lot of times at night. Combine this with rather frequent frame rate hiccups (that somehow don’t slow things down?) and a complete loss of the tranquil lighting effects mentioned earlier, and the end result is something that loses the luster that the PS4 manages to polish out of a somewhat clunky game. You ultimately get the same gameplay as you would on PS4, but without the polish the game loses a lot of its subliminal intention. As such, I will score the PS Vita version 5/10.
The Deer God has made its rounds on multiple consoles, and while its PlayStation outing shines more than it fades, it still has a lot of technical and balance problems that keep it from a clean experience. It’s a shame, because the message behind its efforts should far outweigh anything else. Still, the charm is there, and there’s enough polish on the PS4 version to at least imply its desired intention. The PS Vita version, however, has much more room to improve.