Reviews

A Letter to Blowfish Studios – The Deer God Review

Dear Blowfish Studios,

I like your game, I really do. I like it because of the potential it has, as well as the tone and aesthetic it presents itself. There’s something beneath the surface of this title, something deep and breathtaking that I just know exists, because everything that’s good about the game just screams in delight about its unique premise. And boy, does that premise on the Nintendo Eshop sell; I was genuinely excited to take this title for a ride for its unique character and promise of a compelling soul.

So please, Blowfish Studios, when you make that game, contact me. I would love to play it.

We can meet. Money will change hands, we’ll whisper some secret pact, and you’ll show me that secret good game. Come on, I know you have it.

Dear everybody else,

The Deer God is a 2D platformer originally released on Steam on February 28th, 2015, and has recently taken the jump last December to the stellar console that is the
Nintendo Switch. Just glancing at any snapshot of gameplay gives you an immediate sense of what the game is trying to convey: beautiful art and gorgeous music served on top a gripping, almost chilling tone of karma, reincarnation, and divine justice. While there’s an expectation of heavy-handedness with its love of nature, the gripping promise of ‘challenging my religion and platforming skills,’ as advertised on the Nintendo eShop, charmed me into expecting a thrilling narrative despite that perceived heavy-handedness. Too bad every expectation in that last sentence was let down, hard.

The first thing that happens in the game is you, the player, are introduced as a hunter. You have a gun. Your friend is going to sleep, you said you’re staying up for a moment, and you notice a deer in the distance so you go to take the shot. At a minimum this is probably the heavy-handed part; you’re the villain! But then you’re eaten by wolves because nature delivers divine justice, and you’re met face-to-face with the Deer God herself. She reincarnates you as a fawn as you’re tasked with redeeming your terrible past by learning about your place in the universe.

You learn quickly the mechanics of the game from there. You have a health bar, a hunger bar, and a stamina bar. You learn that health recovers swiftly over ten or so seconds, while hunger needs to be monitored as you prance along. The item menu is a little cumbersome to get through, but through it, you discover your morality meter, which pits your enemy kills against your friendly kills. You encounter elder deer that act as small tutorials and gates for other abilities, such as magic, and you are introduced to the mating mechanic that serves as an extension of the respawn system, where baby fawn serve as temporary checkpoints. Monsters and carnivores seek to harm you, as well as most humans you encounter, and bosses exist as intended tests of your platforming skills. Friendly, civilized humans need helping, though, and the game rewards you for doing these small tasks. You play through beautiful landscapes crafted by this unique pixel art style, delivered with tranquil, thought-provoking music that brilliantly sets up the tone of what the rest of the game will be.

That’s it. Those two paragraphs are the game, and you’re wrong to expect anything more from it. You’re wrong to think that tone goes anywhere. And you’re wrong for not being a deer, probably.

This isn’t a happy story. I don’t write happy stories. There are no happy stories when I play games, apparently.

The game functionally feels like an extended tutorial to something that was supposed to be far deeper, far more complex, both thematically and mechanically. Sure, there are cutscenes, there’s dialogue, there’s personal choice (kind of). But they feel like afterthoughts, or excuses specifically designed so that The Deer God can be advertised to have packaged a compelling narrative. The depth this game offers makes talking about any of it feel like a spoiler, which makes this whole ordeal kind of sad.

Let’s start with that narrative. You were a human hunter, but in the form of wolves karma swoops in and delivers you to the Deer God’s doorstep, and your adventure after that is advertised as repentance for your crimes as a human hunter. What you expect to learn through gameplay is harmony with nature, and how mankind is disrupting the natural balance of the world. Instead, you’re taught that all the cute, fluffy animals of the animal kingdom are the “good guys,” and you’re expected to kill any wolves, alligators, or bears that you stumble across. How is killing half of nature for the crime of being predators harmony with nature?

You were a murderer before, but to repent you must become murderer. Murder. Murder. Murder.

You’ll come across humans, as was certainly expected from a game that made a human to be the opening’s villain, but unless that human has a gun, there’s a strange twist: civilized humans are the good ones you’re supposed to help, and uncivilized humans are the bad ones you’re supposed to run away from or kill. Sure, there’s the implication that when a hunter picks up a gun they become uncivilized folk, but then so too are the ones with spears. The latter’s igloos and spears make it hard to consider them as anything but something akin to aboriginal folk, and it’s jarring to think The Deer God’s perspective is that they’re just as bad as the civilized folk with guns, while pretty and proper church folk and families are fine and dandy.

It’s a bit of ludonarrative dissonance for the game to even toy with the concept of harmony with nature while mechanically telling you to kill the ones that need food and protect the ones that don’t. While the game feels like it should be heavy-handed in its message, it even fails at that, resulting in a shallow and trite narrative. Working off the promise of that Nintendo Eshop page, particularly the lines about “challenge your religion,” and “It’s a game about survival, reincarnation, and karma,” the narrative desperately wanted to demand I reflect on the hunters’ place in the world, challenged by the revelation that there’s a Deer God. It desperately wanted to be a tale about observing man from a distance with this curse of perspective, while reflecting on nature’s perfect balance of peace and survival with this blessing of perspective, all while toiling through the Deer God’s laborious trials of increasing scale and intensity that demand I consider what the future holds for humanity as a whole. It’s not remotely any of that, not as I kill the “dark deer” but leave that civilized humanity alone. Its heavy-handed message fails whenever I have to punish nature for being aggressive while rewarding humans even though their civilized society produced those hunters to begin with.

Yeah, I’ll use that phrase. I’ll say anything I want. I’ll ludonarrative you! Fight me.

The moral choice the Deer God offers at the end of your trials is most indicative of the game’s narrative flaw: after your trials are completed, the Deer God offers you the choice of staying as a deer or returning as a human. I’ll spoil the first one: when you return as a deer, you return as one of the elder deer that guided you on your path originally, and the gameplay loop persists. The dialogue doesn’t teach the player anything new, though; the dialogue sort of assumes you learned the grand lesson, or at least the protagonist did. You resume the endless toil of eat, jump, punch, and mate, of punishing the hungry and protecting the herbivores, and you never really ask why. Not that you can reasonably choose to return to your human form; the Deer God warns you that, if you do, life will be very different and you may not like it, making it clear that the validity of your agency as a player will be undermined. It’s wrong not to do what the Deer God wants, but it isn’t clear what that is, why it is what it is, or what the bigger picture is. You’re just bad because you had a gun and wanted food, like those evil wolves and bears.

The gameplay is underwhelming; every boss was a tedious “puzzle” that only tested variants of patience, for example; but the controls are solid, I’ll give it that. Jumping and dashing feels very responsive, and the base mechanics of the game can be copy and pasted into a more thorough experience easily enough. Using items or magic is a mess, but you can ignore them easily enough to get to that moral choice moment, which makes me wonder if the game would be better served by abandoning the system. I mean it when I say the controls are solid, particularly the jumping mechanic: I could easily time the double jump and gauge where my jump was going to land, as well as efficiently utilize the dash for that extra distance. There was one moment when I managed to jump on top of the cavern section and work my way backward by jumping cliff to cliff, which was immensely satisfying, at least until I fell and the game broke.

Oh yeah, the game broke a few times. See, when jumping cliff to cliff while backtracking, I think something didn’t load properly in the game, and at one point when I misread a jump, falling didn’t kill me. I just kept falling and falling, all the pretty graphics now far and away above me, until the screen… stopped. The background was slightly glitchy, but still moving, and I discovered that even though my character sprite disappeared, I was still able to functionally move to the left and right. So, for a minute, I just ran to the right, into the void as the sun set on me, waiting for my deer to starve to death so that I could reload and play the game properly, and it was a nice poetic touch that really encapsulated my opinion of the game. Something beautiful that shouldn’t have been a game.

This was ultimately the most relaxing part of this game. Soothing music, pretty background.

The second time the game broke was when a baby fawn followed me onto a breakable platform over some spikes. A spider forced me on top of the platform, which was a clever way for it to kill me when the platform broke and threw me into the spikes. But then the baby fawn followed me, and somehow, someway, the game didn’t register that it died as well. My respawn point became the pit of spikes, so for a minute I watched helplessly as the heavenly hum played high and low on repeat as my sprite respawned into death again and again. That time I had to reset the game properly, and I was a little upset.

The third time the game broke was the least egregious. After having to look up a walkthrough to explain to me that even though the ‘final boss’ has a hit point bar, it will never represent the damage I’ve dealt, killing the bird somehow unloaded the zones to my immediate left and right of the battleground. This time it wasn’t so bad; the game has a cheeky mechanic where, even though the map is procedurally generated, if you didn’t solve the puzzle you’re skipping the game will just load up that zone again. So while moving forward or backtracking was met with an empty void I just jumped into, the game seemed smart enough to think I wasn’t done with this activity, and just reloaded me back into that zone directly. And after half a minute of stumbling like this, trying to decide whether or not I should reset, the rest of the map loaded, so it managed to fix itself.

What’s great about this game – the art, music, and general atmosphere delivered during the standard gameplay loop – is top of the industry, no doubt about that. But you’d have a more satisfying experience watching a Youtube video that showed off The Deer God’s art and music, since it can play in the background while you’re off doing anything else. Sure, it puts you in a thoughtful, peaceful mood, but it doesn’t do anything with that state of mind, and you’re left wondering if there’s anything better to do with your time. Especially since what you’re doing right now could be interrupted by a game-breaking glitch. Which really forces that harsh, finite number you’re expecting at the end of this article.

They could record 30 minutes of gameplay and loop through their whole soundtrack and produce a better product that way.

Like what I said at the start of this article, I like this game, I really do. It screams with all the potential I want out of a game, from the pitch to the tone. Games can be art, and I want to see more games try and be something deeper than a dopamine rush. But the truth is, this game didn’t try. I’m not sure what it tried to do, now that I played it.

Maybe my expectations for this game were too high. Maybe I was spoiled by the beautiful art style and music, and I hoped for a gameplay experience that matched the presentation. But this review took a sad turn much like the last Steam to Nintendo Switch platformer did, so maybe I’m lying to myself. Convince me I’m lying to myself. Make me a more positive person; the last thing I want to be is just another cynic on the internet who wants to tell you your favorite things suck.

Please, remember that this is the opinion of just one person, and if you want to give the game a chance, by all means do. If you end up liking it, everybody wins; you for having a game you like, Blowfish Studios for making money to improve their work, and me for having hope Blowfish Studios will make something out of this title.

Until then, this game blows. It’s bad, it struggles to be functional, and is not worth your money, even at $8. If you want to support the studio and their game but don’t want to risk wasting money, go listen to the soundtrack on Spotify. You’ll enjoy yourself more.

Sincerely,

Calvin Neill Trager

35

Bad

The Deer God

Review Guidelines

I stared deep into the eyes of the deer, waiting for it to speak. There was no grass, no trees; just a white void surrounding me and her heavenly grace as she judged me and my actions. But she did not speak. She did not even blink. As the silence dragged on, I grew more desperate, bargaining with her to just make sense of this, please! What should I be feeling? What should I be believing!? Deer God, what lesson do I need to learn? She screamed, for she did not know. I screamed, for I did not know. Perhaps that was the lesson to learn, that there is nothing to know. Don’t buy this game.

Calvin Neill Trager is a roughly 25-year-old house husband supporting his high school sweetheart as they storm the weather far away from their hometown of Michigan and reside out in the country of Japan, who spends his free time between practicing Magic, working to Platinum all of Kingdom Hearts on PS4, and writing.
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