Going off developer Crescent Moon Games’ Kickstarter page, I originally had no idea what to expect when it came to The Deer God. Touting a wonderfully realized 3D, pixel art world, and gameplay that will ‘challenge your religion’ (I should probably mention that I am already pretty jaded in that particular area), my mind immediately jumped to the negative. As we’ve seen with high-profile Kickstarter projects as of late (here’s looking at you Mr. Molyneux), it’s all too easy to over-hype and over-sell a project, because at the end of the day, if you don’t hit that fundraising goal, it’s all over.
It’s a relief, then, that The Deer God manages to deliver on its promises, offering up a mish-mash of various genres and gametypes which somehow manages to coalesce into a single functioning game, without tripping over its lofty ambitions.
Before I jump into the premise and gameplay, I feel more than obliged to gush about just how good The Deer God looks and sounds, which is a compliment in and of itself. As I mentioned before, the game utilizes a 3D pixel art style, shaping a traditional two-dimensional world into a living, breathing 3D one by essentially adding distinct layers onto the screen. You won’t be shifting from foreground to background during gameplay, but the depth is noticeable enough to distinguish the game from your traditional 2D fare, though the emphasis on pixel art has drawn a few comparisons to the stellar Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.
As for the audio, while the term “ambient electronic soundtrack” may have lost some of its punch in recent years, what we get with The Deer God is no slouch. There are only a few games where I can wholeheartedly recommend seeking out the soundtrack separately from playing the game, and The Deer God is one of them.
Things kick off with a rather curious cutscene, which doesn’t depict the player as a deer, but rather as a hunter, who is stalking some prey on one fateful night. Taking aim at a deer far off in the distance, the unnamed hunter is soon mauled to death by a pack of vicious wolves, but not before he (purposefully or accidentally) fires off a shot, killing the deer shortly before his own life is robbed of him. In a flash, he’s transported to the heavens above, only to find that the textbook definition of “God” is a few pages off (this is probably the ‘challenge your religion’ portion the developers spoke of). Instead, you’re greeted by the ‘true’ form of god; a female deer. She informs you that you must redeem yourself for your actions against her kind, and decides to reincarnate you as a baby deer before sending you back down to Earth.
It’s at this point where you’re given control of your deer, and for the most part, left to your own devices. While The Deer God does not hold your hand, there is some form of guidance in the early portion of the game; you quickly gain the crucial ability to double jump, but after that you can choose to tackle the game’s world in any fashion you choose. For the most part, you’ll be running directly to the right, almost to the point where you feel like you’re playing an endless runner.
The Deer God (presumably) loads an endless world for you to explore, but before long you’ll be seeking out berries and fruit to keep your hunger level down, and brawling with the local wildlife. Contrary to what I thought forest life would be for a deer, you’ll spend a staggering amount of time defending yourself from wolves, mountain lions, bears, and plenty of other creatures. More friendly animals also populate the world, which you could choose to ignore, or beat down should you discover the violent side of your inner deer.
This is but one way to progress through the game, though there are also inexplicably placed block puzzles strewn throughout the world, tasking you with moving blocks onto beams of light. Doing so awakens a nearby deer statue, which will award you with upgrades and powerups. It’s at this point where I fully embraced the rather odd nature of The Deer God, which eschews more realistic gameplay design in lieu of being able to shoot fire and ice… as a deer.
Completing more puzzles, growing and levelling up your deer, and gaining access to previously gated areas makes up the core gameplay, though there is a rather mysterious karmic-driven narrative underpinning the entire experience. I won’t venture into spoiler territory, but different actions (such as defeating predators rather than harming innocent creatures) sways your morality meter towards dark and light, and there are multiple endings, which are tied directly to your actions and karmic status.
Of course, all of your progress could come to a most depressing halt should you perish, as you’ll quickly be booted back to the main menu for another go. Yep, The Deer God is one of those permadeath/roguelike games you’ve heard so much about. As a lover of titles such as Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light, I normally welcome permadeath with open arms, though it does feel at odds with the progression-based nature of The Deer God. Having to level up an untrained fawn into a seasoned deer can grow a bit tiresome should it happen over and over again, and unlike the strategic and skill based world of Spelunky, death in The Deer God can sometimes come simply based on poor luck, making each respawn feel a bit less fair.
Granted, there does exist an in-game ability to trigger a checkpoint (which is done by mating with an adult female deer), but when you respawn, you’ll take control of your greenhorn of an offspring. Assuming you actually managed to keep him alive up until that point, having to venture onwards as an inexperienced deer does not do you any favors.
You also have the option to play co-operatively with another friend online, though to be honest, I feel like this option detracts from the world that The Deer God has so lovingly crafted. While it’s a bit easier to play the game with a partner (as you can respawn as an offspring if your friend can find a suitable mate), tackling the game with a friend by your side takes away from the emphasis on self-growth and exploration, especially if (like me) you’re voice chatting the entire time, focusing on communicating and strategy rather than simply taking in the sights and sounds. Still, the option is there for those who want it, though during my time testing the online co-op, my partner and I found a distinct lack of control cues or tips, making it a bit hard to figure out how to progress.
Still, despite the odd choice of permadeath and the general lack of even the most basic of handholding, The Deer God somehow manages to deliver on its lofty promises. Having spent the last couple of weeks reading and hearing about failed Kickstarter promises, the lack of accountability in independent game development, and the skepticism that comes with the notion of crowdfunding video games, Crescent Moon Games has swooped in at the eleventh hour, once again showing to me that amidst all the negativity, there are still developers out there who have the passion for creating unique and original games. To me, there’s no proof greater than The Deer God.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
While the inclusion of permadeath and the lack of handholding might be a deterrent for some, the beautifully crafted world of The Deer God is more than enough to warrant a look, especially for those with a penchant for exploration.