Let me start out by saying that The Deer God is absolutely jaw-dropping. I settled in not sure exactly what to expect and found myself in a serene, dangerous and beautiful world that took me right back to my childhood. At first, I was reminded heavily of Potato Man Seeks Da Troof by Team 17 by the game’s gorgeous pixel art and the aim towards a subtle, almost metaphysical level of thought. For a game touting that it will make you question your own religion and world view, it took me from scoffing to a single, silent nod. It made me question everything, and that is a tall order for any game.
There is no real story; it’s mostly just a flowing narrative. You begin as a hunter out hunting deer who meets his end one night. For your crimes, you are brought before the deer god and given a second chance. I’m a big advocate of the simple approach to stories over complex ones. With the right touch, a simple concept can expand into something so incredibly complex and beautiful all on its own – and that touch is fully used in The Deer God.
The pixel art is stunning. The atmosphere created by the game’s clever light effects, dream-like music and different environments is something to be admired. Lots of developers seem to be taking a crack at pixel art games once more, trying to draw nostalgia out of the older, more cynical crowd. Many fail, but recent years also saw the release of Shovel Knight, a game boasting beautiful graphics and a very clever, albeit simple, story. The Deer God leaves a good bit of the story to the player, as the only goal ultimately is redemption or failure. What you do with your second chance is up to you, and you can fall to either side of the roleplaying spectrum of good versus evil.
Following up on that thought, the slight RPG elements made use of in The Deer God are interesting. Items are scattered about, but are not in massive abundance, making the challenge well-paced and balanced on a normal mode. Every time a new game is started, the world is always different. Some things will always be the same, but relocated. The only downside to this is that if a player uses the wrong item at the wrong time, or dies with items in use, they may very well find themselves stranded and unable to move forward. Personally, I enjoyed the adventurous feel of it so much, I hardly even minded. The game rewards clever players who try different approaches and tactics. There’s no hand-holding here and for that, I am quite happy. You can also have little baby deers to reincarnate yourself if you happen to die, so long as the babies are still alive. The puzzles range in difficulty from the trademark moving boxes to more complex puzzles that earn you various powers and skills.
The only downside to the gameplay is that the player is thrown in without much explanation on what to do. A pointer to find more deers, powers and quests is granted but there is no tutorial and not a lot of help otherwise. This can be fun and challenging, but some players may find themselves frustrated at having to restart at times. Backtracking is a big gaming sin in most titles, but at least here it’s a pretty journey. I’d warn to proceed with caution: think out your moves before acting on them, and always look out for clues and helpful items.
Another thing to be mindful of is the enemy difficulty. The more players explore, the quicker they will find themselves stacked up against some nasty opponents, even when their deer is still practically a baby. Foxes and angry hawks don’t seem so bad initially, but crazed alligators, coconut-throwing monkeys and insanely fast cougars all become overwhelming if you’re not careful. There are also hunters to watch out for that will be shooting at the player with varying speeds.
Either which way, there a thousand and more ways to die in The Deer God. If the player is trying to play a good or pacifist route, the hit detection is going to be a pain in the small, puffy tail. If other deers are following along or there is a friendly creature nearby, bucking or using powers may accidentally hit them as well. If they die, the player understandably gets some points in the evil department; shame quit mode engaged.
The short of it is: play smart, play safe and think before you toss a springboard mushroom on top of an alligator’s back.
Replayability is one of those words that is often tossed around between mostly everyone in the video game industry. I feel there are lots of games that I can play once, maybe even twice, and then they will rest inside my Steam library or on my shelf pretty much forever. The experience is the same with movies – and really any other form of media. That being said, readers wondering whether The Deer God is deep enough to warrant multiple playthroughs should know that when playing it for this review, I came back to it no less than seven different times. A part of me hopes that I’ll never completely finish The Deer God. I want to keep coming back, whether it’s to question everything and feel like I’m floating in space, or curse the giant scorpions, mountain lions and hunters over and over.
Something else that really impressed me about The Deer God is the sound design. Running, jumping, animal noises, running water – all of it sounds just right. The ambient background music is really what won me over almost immediately. I closed my eyes and tried to let it create images as it pleased and I thought of space, underwater, transcendent beauty and quiet in all of its forms. While this sounds silly, most soundtracks are presented to add to the presence of the game or character, to let players remember their experience. Here, I felt as though the music could be almost anything. That would work against a lot of games, but it works here. It allows players to react differently and conjure their own images; an impressive feat.
Thinking upon the game and the experience of playing it, The Deer God accomplishes what it set out to do: make players question things like religion, karma, reincarnation, and so on. That alone is pretty damned impressive and fairly rare in the video games industry. The most emotional games in the last few years have tugged at the heartstrings, presenting sad, thoughtful and emotional stories or ideas. I can’t say I’ve played many games that touched that emotional strength via quiet contemplation versus a powerful emotion.
Overall, I’m impressed and even a bit humbled by The Deer God. Its developers, Crescent Moon Games, have not only made a riveting title, but they’ve truly gone an extra step by making players think and feel. What few flaws lie in being dropped into the game with little explanation, occasionally having to backtrack and tough opponents popping up early on are hardly noticeable by comparison. It’s more than worth a playthrough and I can only hope other players get as good an experience as I did.