Due to their accessibility and prominence, platformers have long been associated with being games for children. Popular series such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog rarely ever focused on storytelling. And when they did bother to, the games merely told players to beat the final boss in order to achieve a happy ending for everyone.
One of the great side effects of the rise of indie games has been seeing unique twists on established genres. This has led to titles such as Braid introducing deep, intricate stories to platformers that could be mistaken for a game targeted at children. The latest platformer to fall into this niche is Crescent Moon Games’ The Deer God, which manages to tie in a thought provoking tale about reincarnation and repentance into a gorgeous puzzle platformer.
In the opening cutscene, the player’s character fatally shoots a baby deer during a hunting trip. The hunter, who meets his own end due to an unfortunate encounter with a wolf, is then reincarnated into the young fawn he had just killed. Now a deer, the player must atone for their character’s sins and learn to live a new life.
The overall gameplay starts off in basic fashion, as the player’s deer can only run, jump and attack enemies by dashing into them. While The Deer God is very simple to control, it also forces the player to manage three stats at all times. These three stats – health, hunger and energy – need to be constantly monitored if you want to survive. Health and hunger interact directly as being full helps heal the player, but being famished depletes your health bar gradually.
With no clear goal given at the start of the game besides learning to live like a deer, you must wander The Deer God‘s beautiful environments. Eventually, players will find humans and animals that need assistance (such as a wife with a sick husband or a deer caught in an avalanche). Aiding those in need of help is usually done by either solving a puzzle, or finding a specific item.
This is sadly where The Deer God runs into some issues. To help the wife with a sick husband, your deer must find a plant called Witch Hazel. The plant, which is randomly placed in a barrel, can take quite some time to find. This means the player will have to run through the same desert area as it repeats endlessly until they find a barrel that contains the item. This task isn’t a test of skill by any means. Instead, it just tests your patience.
Despite the design choice of making players literally run in circles until they finish a quest, The Deer God does manage to reward players handsomely once they do complete these goals. As you go along, you’ll gain different special abilities, such as being able to throw fireballs at enemies, which helps the game feel fresh throughout. The skills roll out at a consistent pace, as well, so you’ll always be improving.
A deer being able to cast fireballs isn’t the only example of supernatural occurrences in The Deer God. As stated before, reincarnation is one of the key themes that help establish the game. It is not only a plot device, as it also applies to the gameplay. Once the player dies in-game, they are then reincarnated into one of the fawns that you can father (the ability to mate is used as a checkpoint).
The player’s deer becomes more powerful the longer they survive (the size of their antler, which increases over time, even dictates which abilities can be used), so dying is a major setback. For example, when you’re a fawn you can only use two of your special abilities (fire and light). This adds a bit of a rogue-like quality to The Deer God, although it never taps into the addictive nature of the subgenre.
The whole thing eventually builds up to a pretty memorable boss battle that requires the player to use all of their abilities to defeat a powerful foe. Immediately after the combat high, you’re given an interesting choice that affects what ending you’ll receive for beating the game. The conclusion is just as compelling as the setup, so thankfully, the overall story delivers.
Ultimately, The Deer God is a puzzle platformer that is unlike anything else on the market. From its unique and gorgeous 3D pixel aesthetic to the interesting aging mechanic, you’ve never played anything like Crescent Moon Games’ latest offering. While it doesn’t fully realize all of its features, and having levels endlessly repeat until a player completes a task is just bad game design, this is a beautiful platformer that fans of the genre should definitely seek out.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which we were provided with for review.
The Deer God is an intriguing platformer that manages to tell a thought provoking story while being visually stunning along the way. Despite never managing to reach its full potential, there are enough interesting gameplay mechanics here to make it worth playing.