Following a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, The Deer God has finally hit Xbox One this month as a free title under the Games With Gold banner. It's the tale of a hunter who is killed in a hunting accident, only to be given a chance to atone for his sins and experience the pain he has brought to other animals by being reincarnated as a lowly fawn, left to survive the wilderness alone.
The player starts in this almost helpless form and is given very little guidance on how to proceed. A few basic abilities are available to start you off, but these are limited to simple moves such as running, jumping and bashing objects and other animals. As you explore the world, eat food and kill enemies, you'll grow older and gain further abilities. Once you reach adulthood, you'll be able to mate with does in order to create offspring which will serve as your respawn points, should you perish in the wild. As you will usually return to life in the fawn state, this is a fitting little touch of logic to apply to a game that is already about reincarnation.
On The Deer God's Kickstarter page, the developer stated that the game is dedicated to a small cardinal they ran over recently and fittingly, cardinals feature in the game as a guardian to protect the player from attacking birds of prey. Little nuggets of information like this reinforce the feeling that this is a game about moral choices, considering our impact on our surroundings and taking the time to appreciate the beauty in the world. You'll encounter many foes in the wilderness, from wildlife roaming the forest to other hunters, ghosts and ghouls to name a few. You'll need to be careful though, as each enemy you fight will net you either positive or negative karma which can be used to unlock light and dark powers throughout the game. If you die while your karma is particularly bad, you may respawn as a random small animal, defenceless against the world. We assume these punishments are intended to teach the player about the fragility of life but unfortunately, there's very little fun to be had when playing as a porcupine who is stuck in a hole and doesn't have a jump command. The concept is good, but watching an animal starve to death over several minutes is more irritating than poignant.
Unfortunately, "more irritating than poignant" pretty much sums up The Deer God, since the ideas are good but it's just not very fun overall. The randomly generated landscapes mean that no two games are the same, but can also easily lead to the player being unable to pass obstacles (such as high walls or spike pits) and then having to commit suicide and hope the next life offers better chances to progress. The trade off just doesn't feel worth it and the goals are not rewarding enough to justify spending time willing your character to hurry up and die already.
Even when things are going well, there simply isn't enough to do to make the game interesting. You run from one side of the screen to the other, jumping your way over lava pits, spikes and other obstacles and bashing animals to kill them. Karma seems to be arbitrarily assigned as apparently, killing a rabbit is evil but killing a fox is absolutely fine. Other points of contention include the fact that your deer starts with a double jump, which is a skill normally reserved for later unlocks in these types of games, not to mention one that is so unnatural for a deer that the player is given no chance to identify with it as wildlife rather than a videogame character. Given the underlying themes of the title, this seems to be a serious missed step at best. The puzzles are of the "move the block a couple of squares from point A to B" variety and the blocks have no weight or real world physics, which breaks immersion further.
The 3D pixelated artwork and the sound are an unexpected highlight, however. The music is calming and trance-like and it is easy to forget about The Deer God's many flaws and let the sound wash over you. When combined with a day/night cycle, some beautiful backgrounds and occasionally breathtaking lighting, it is clear that the developers had a great vision. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, it just hasn't made for a very engaging game in its current format, although it would be interesting to see these same themes explored in a different type of game or one that is a little less random in its world generation in order to avoid those game breaking moments where it is simply impossible for the player to progress.
The Deer God will inevitably divide gamer's opinions. Some will love its pixelated art style and be carried away by its themes and the emotions it invokes, while others will find it a frustrating, boring trudge from left to right. There's no denying that there is potential here and there are some very touching moments, but the flaws are so game breaking that at times it's just not any fun to play.