Spooktober 2019 – The Deer God

So here’s a new thing… I did a video version of this review. Yup. Actually put a lot of effort into it, too. I’ve embedded it right up at the top here, and you can still read the text version below if you so choose.

It’s that time of year again: October! At that means it’s time for spook-’em-ups of all sorts! Actually, we’re already a week in and I haven’t done even a single thing relating to a pumpkin or a mummy. I am a terrible Halloween fanboy.

So here’s a video game! It’s called The Deer God and it’s from 2016. It’s a video game I bought because… the main promotional image is of a lone deer with eerie, glowing eyes standing atop a stone pillar against a nighttime backdrop with a prominent full moon. You can see why I thought that maybe this would be seasonally appropriate.

Spoiler: It’s not.

There are some spooky things in The Deer God. Namely the intro, where a hunter is killed by wolves and then reincarnated as a baby deer by a gigantic disembodied deer head. Also there are ghosts and liches and skeletons in this game world, which felt strongly out of place at first. But as I played the game more, it slipped farther and farther from being grounded in reality, to the point where the skellingtons seemed downright normal.

So, gameplay loop. You are a baby deer. Your job at the outset is to survive. You accomplish this by not being mauled by animals, and eating various flora to keep that belly meter full. Your deer will grow bigger every so often, and sprout up big, majestic antlers. Once you reach stage two, you’re able to mate with random does around the land, and the offspring serve as respawn points should you die. Also you can find regular extra lives that keep you from having to restart as a fawn.

It gets even more video gamey than that, however. At the very beginning, you walk to the right for about a full screen length, and there you meet a grizzled, old deer. He tells you about finding statues or somesuch to collect runes and powers, blah blah blah. Oh and he also gives you a double-jump. Because apparently this is a metroidvania? Yes, and also no. The Deer God is a completely flat game, where as long as you continue moving to the right, the next event trigger will eventually be generated in front of you. So while you do collect abilities that expand your exploration options, you’ll never need to double back to reach previously inaccessible areas or keep track of a gigantic map.

This is a nice twist, which keeps the game moving at a brisk pace. You never need to worry about where you are, you simply need to keep running and jumping Eastward. There is some platforming to do, but it’s generally pretty basic. Though insta-death spikes are surprisingly common, there’s rarely a situation where they pose an actual threat. Various animals, both friend and foe, dot the landscape, but you almost never need to engage any of them. Friendly animals will follow you around until they inevitably fall into a spike pit or walk into a wall of fire. Enemies are basically the same.

I’d like to take a moment to point out that one of the first violent animals that I met was a rhinoceros. You know, the age-old nemesis of the deer. Note that this game has a fairly clear North American setting, judging by the random wandering hillbillies and the Old West biome. Rhinos, if you weren’t aware, are not endemic in North America. I find this much more distressing than the presence of glowing bedsheet ghost monsters.

There’s also a morality system that appears to be based on what kind of creatures you kill, if any. I have no idea what it affects; I’d guess it has something to do with the ending, but I haven’t done the research to validate that hypothesis. You’ll also collect a variety of items over the course of your journey, but they’re generally pointless. The item that spawns attack bees was actually fairly helpful against the final boss, but otherwise items just felt unnecessary. I never found an item that filled my hunger meter, and that’s the one thing I ever really wanted for.

I encountered one notable glitch during my playthrough, which was when I dropped through a tight passage between some rocks, and then was not able to jump back out because my sprite couldn’t fit between the geometry somehow. I was effectively soft-locked by falling into an oubliette. I tried dying by starvation, but I just spawned back in the hole since I had seven extra lives. I tried resetting the game, but the autosave kept me lodged in the hole. Then I had the bright idea of quitting out while mid-jump, and surprise, surprise… it actually worked. When I re-loaded the game, the deer was stuck halfway up and in the wall, which allowed me to clip through the rocks and escape. Neat! At the very least, I would have eventually been able to death-warp out when my lives ran out and I respawned at the last fawn. So it wasn’t a game-ending bug, but unfortunate all the same.

The Deer God is, for the most part, a pretty game. The world is rendered in a 3D pixel art style, and it looks really nice in motion. The lighting effects as day turns to night are very nice, so much so that I’d sometimes stop jumping around like a lunatic to appreciate the digital sunset. But the character sprites… they’re all over the place. The deer and friendly creatures look fine, and humans are drawn in a boxy style that I’m comfortable with, but a lot of the enemy animals look squashed and are sometimes indistinguishable. Like, there’s this one little thing, I think it might be a beetle? It seems to have a shell and a horn? I really don’t know.

The Nintendo Switch version of The Deer God retails for just over $9 Canadian, but I bought it on sale for just under two bucks. For the three-ish hours that I spent with the game, I don’t think that I’d have regretted buying it for the full price. I don’t see myself ever replaying this game, though it was a mostly enjoyable ride while it lasted. Ultimately, it boiled down to running and jumping to the right until the next Important Thing spawned, but it was fun to figure out the rules of the game world, and the story beats were just interesting enough to keep me moving along.

It still wasn’t very spooky, though. Bad choice for Octoberween.

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