Review enough games for a living and eventually you’ll come across one that feels like it has everything going for it — looks, concept, the lot. The Deer God falls squarely into this category. On paper, it has the makings of an indie darling. In execution, it is a muddled little game that doesn’t seem to know what it wants from itself or the player.
One of the The Deer God‘s strongest moments occurs almost right away. You’re a hunter, out in the woods late at night. There’s very little light but there’s a buck you’re tracking and you haven’t lost him yet. Your hunter lines up the shot, finger on the trigger — only be mauled by a wolf at the moment of the kill. Your hunter passes out during the attack and when you awaken you hear the voice of The Deer God ringing in your ears. Your shot went off and struck a target, not the buck you were aiming at but a baby deer that happened to walk in front of the buck at the last second. You didn’t see them because, in total fairness, there was a wolf trying to chew on your throat. The Deer God, in its infinite prey animal wisdom, decides that as penance for your horrible deed, it won’t be a wolf that got you. You will live now as a baby deer like the one you killed. To be returned to your human form you must prove your worth to the Deer God.
As stage setting goes, it’s pretty tight. Complex, interesting and layered little piece of storytelling. If it also sounds like you’re getting a bit of a raw deal, you aren’t the only one to think so. I didn’t mean to shoot the wee bab and I got owned by a fucking wolf for my trouble in what seems like a pretty clear cut slice of moral comeuppance.
The game then trips itself up immediately, sending you on your quest to prove yourself by telling you nothing about how to proceed or even what your goals are. I know there are people who like having no clear objective and figuring things out along the way, but even those games use some facet of their design to communicate the options that are available to you. The Deer God doesn’t do any of this. The idea, as I understand it, is that if you complete enough quests and take down enemies of the deer, you gain experience and eventually turn into a buck much like the one you were trying to murder a while ago. The problem is it took me an hour to realise that an animal I had spoken to had given me a quest and it took me another hour to figure out how to even begin completing these quests.
I restarted my save from the beginning four or five times because I was convinced I’d missed some key piece of information that would explain everything about the game but I hadn’t. The Deer God is just frustratingly quiet about its goals and expectations. On top of this, its controls are equally oblique. As a platformer, it gives you the option to use either the Switch’s D-pad or control stick to move about. The wrinkle here is that you can enter buildings to talk to other characters, accomplished by pressing down. But not down on the D-pad. Down on the control stick. Only on the control stick. So if I prefer to play with the D-pad and I come across a house I want to enter, I have to move over to the control stick, press down and then go back to the D-pad. This might sound like a thin complaint — just move your thumb, David, you asshole — but pressing down on the D-pad does nothing. It’s unbound! So why do I have to use the stick instead?
Look, I have my complaints but it’s not all bad. The Deer God runs with the sort of gorgeous pixel art style that has served games like Sword and Sworcery and Kingdom: New Lands so well before. It uses a three-plane scaffold that lends the background art a wonderful sense of depth, blending the background and the foreground into a single entity that evolves and undulates as you charge ever onward. The sun rises and falls as you travel to give a sense of place and time. This changes the light from moment to moment, offering some really pretty vistas to take in as you move from one area to the next.
Music and sound are further standouts, taking a minimalist approach that drives home your character’s physical and mental isolation, and the pushing encroaching nature of the woods themselves to the fore. They give the whole game a lovely blend of tranquility and creeping dread. Great stuff.
As good as these elements are though, they can’t save an experience that feels this half-baked. I don’t mean that to come across as cruel or glib, I really don’t. There’s great ideas here but The Deer God doesn’t seem to know what to do with any of them or even how to implement them in a way that feels meaningful. A ponderous, frustrating experience.
Highlights: Great ideas; Lovely art and sound design
Lowlights: Can’t capitalise on great ideas; Frustratingly oblique
Developer: Crescent Moon Games
Publisher: Crescent Moon Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, Mac Os, Linux, Mobile
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a retail code provided by the publisher.