Nature has its own visual spectacle.
Trees towering over the horizon, long seas of leaves and branches dancing with the wind, grass shivering at the edges of the path, and vast stone structures sit solidly amongst the drifting flora and fauna, populating a moving work of art. These gorgeous works of art aren’t just beautiful, they’re enthralling. They command the eyes and capture the attention, providing a faux-2d visual spectacle for not only onlookers’ eyes, but also their souls. Therefore, watching a piece of nature dying, any piece, is a tragedy to behold.
This is the catalytic moment for The Deer God, where the protagonist’s life is at the nexus of striking out and being stricken from existence. In the opening moments of the game, a hunter lines up a shot on a distant deer, and is struck from behind by wolves. As he falls, he fires. The shot goes a little wild, hitting a young fawn that falls as well. In death, the hunter finds himself face to face with the Deer God in the afterlife, who informs the hunter that he must atone for his transgressions against nature.
He is reborn in the forest as a young fawn (nature may be cruel, but it’s not without a sense of irony), suddenly surrounded by lush greenery, beautiful sun beams, and the quiet chimes and sonorous sounds of a soundtrack that evokes the most pleasant memories of Minecraft‘s natural aesthetic and fantastic minimalist ambiance. In these early moments, the quiet forest at the heart of The Deer God is joy to both explore and manipulate. The plant life and passing animals are beautiful, melding seamlessly among the bountiful life that dances in the shadows. Sun beams cascade as the player moves from one place to the next. In all directions is the subtle presence of so much vibrant life, all without managing to become overloaded or too busy to suit what’s naturally on the screen. It may have a lot in common with Superbrothers: Swords and Sorcery when it comes to its art direction, but there’s so much more life to The Deer God‘s world that it’s hard to think of a recent game which comes close to matching it.
After those initial moments of wonder fade away play begins, The Deer God plays like a fairly standard action platformer. You’ll have to face the challenges of hostile enemies, hostile landscapes, and occasional intangible hazards that are hard to quantify and appear randomly. Gorgeous, lush scenery is procedurally generated for each playthrough, linking different and often very disparate biomes together while still managing to remain cohesive – no easy feat when handling level design and pacing over to an uncaring algorithm. Some laden with hostile crows and spiked pits, others with lush fruit life and does to mate with. What order they appear in, or why, is less important than simply succeeding in navigating through the zones in order to progress far enough to find new challenges and new items.
As you progress, you gain new skills from elder stags, and new ways to explore areas that were previously closed off behind destructible objects or previously impossible jumps. However, since the levels are procedurally generated, the opportunity for finding uses for these skills – or whether or not the newly accessible areas do anything – are entirely haphazard, which can throw off the pacing and sense of progression somewhat.
Compounding this issue is how you interact with these mechanics. As you learn new skills, your ability to finely control how you attack, defend, and behave diminishes slightly. Skills that were previously safe in many situations become dangerous because of the many things can – and often do – happen offscreen. Dash attacks, for instance, can very easily throw you into numerous off-screen spike pits. Death for attempting to use the game’s mechanics is disheartening, and it makes defensive paranoia become a necessity rather than potential strategy – especially given the revival system. Permadeath may be in vogue when it comes to indie games at the moment, but The Deer God‘s punitive approach demonstrates that just because you can implement something, doesn’t necessarily mean that you always should. Too often it feels as though your progress comes down to the God of Random Number Generation smiling down on you favorably.
Revives are meted out either via revival tokens, which can appear anywhere from in unnecessarily abundant numbers to nearly none at all throughout, leaving the player to fend for themselves in a world absolutely jam-packed with hostility. However, many of the game’s areas will have at least one doe, who can birth children to take the player’s place if they die during their adventure. While these rebirths are appreciated, the fawn that the player becomes is the lowest “age” a deer can be, and will have a slower run, a smaller jump, and a less effective attack. So, regardless of how many skills a player possesses, a sudden death without a revival token can feel like it can set them back so much progress.
Unfortunately, the flaws aren’t limited to revivals. The game has a built-in karma system, cut between “kind” and “dark,” which are determined by which animals are killed near you, either at your hand or otherwise. This means that in zones where both friendly and unfriendly enemies are spawned, it’s possible to gain dark karma simply by passing through, or having a friendly target fail to clear a spike pit or fire as they follow you. It makes for an oddly disjointed game, where dark karma almost seems inevitable, regardless of how hard the player may try to be exclusively kind, simply by virtue of passive creatures dying at the hands of enemies, or accidentally killing themselves. However, this can also benefit the player, as hostile enemies will sometimes charge into spikes and other hazards themselves, which is a blessing, as combat in The Deer God is currently rather unfulfilling.
Combat mainly consists of dashing and headbutting. The damage you cause is low, meaning combat feels protracted and drawn out even when it’s going successfully. In part, this is due to the stamina system, that drains suddenly by using skills and dashing. Though stamina recovers at a pretty quick pace, having to jump around avoiding enemies waiting for energy to refresh if frustrating. With a little more leeway the fights would be faster-paced. As it is, the game feels too clunky.
Between the mechanical clunkiness and the haphazard karma system, The Deer God is an interesting game. Beautiful in motion, absolutely gorgeous to experience and explore albeit not terribly captivating – at least right now – as an actual game. However, The Deer God is still in beta, and there are plenty of changes that could be easily implemented to improve these quibbles. As it is, The Deer God feels like an art piece and your appreciation of it will largely come from how highly you regard its gorgeous presentation
To their credit, Crescent Moon has created something hauntingly beautiful: the kind of experience that lingers in the mind long after play and begs just one more moment of lavish experience, pulling at the edges of your mind even as you lay down to sleep. The visuals are utterly decadent; the game packs so much intent behind little behaviors that it’s easy to wonder how much thought went into each and every moment and whether it has some deeper purpose.
Crescent Moon has made something that well and truly evokes the seeming beauty that so much nature embodies. It treasures life, something that is surprisingly rare in a medium obsessed with causing death.
For a game inspired by a tragic road accident, there is a lot here to love; but The Deer God never descends into triteness. As an art piece, The Deer God is astounding, breathtaking, and utterly gorgeous. As a game, The Deer God is currently not quite as clever or successful as it feels like it could – and should – be.
But the overall experience on offer makes The Deer God well worth looking into – an experience that is utterly captivating, and unerringly human – even in its flaws.
You can grab The Deer God now on Steam Early Access.