Developed by Crescent Moon Games and Cinopt Studios for PC, Mac and Linux.

Published by Crescent Moon Games

 

As night falls over a woodland camp site, a hunter spots a majestic stag that would make a fine trophy. He focuses his sights onto the beast, unaware that a pack of wolves has crept up behind him. The beasts strike fatally as the he pulls the trigger, causing the shot to ricochet and hit a young fawn instead of his intended target. The hunter’s soul is taken into some strange limbo where he stands before a massive deer-like deity who demands he redeem himself for the actions committed against her kind. Cast back to earth, he is reborn as the very fawn he killed, ordered to assist the beasts he previously harmed. Under the watchful eyes of the Elders, this trans-human must prove his dedication to setting things right lest he suffer an even greater punishment.

The premise of a human transformed into an animal as some form of karmic retribution for wrongdoings he or she has committed has been around since at least the time of Ovid. When it’s used in contemporary media however it tends to be executed very poorly, usually to deliver some heavy-handed moral. Unfortunately, this is the approach The Deer God takes, using the premise as a critique of the “evils” of hunting and how important it is to respect nature, a theme which crumbles when actually playing the game.

 

As the transformed deer wanders the land in his search for atonement, his actions are judged based on a morality scale. Defending deer or other animals being threatened by predators or killing hostile creatures contributes to the Light meter, while attacking friendly wildlife or failing to protect a deer in danger fills the Dark meter. It’s a simplistic implementation of morality systems that ultimately undermines the narrative altogether. The tale sets itself up as a way of teaching a hunter to respect the sanctity of life, yet rewards this hunter for killing animals which the deer consider threats even when they aren’t directly endangered. It exposes the Deer God and Elders as hypocrites; they look down on humans for hunting their kind but have their own standards about which lives have value and which don’t.

Both Light and Dark karma accumulate during the course of the game but never deplete, so it’s possible to commit several evil acts and still be judged as virtuous overall as long as there’s more Light karma. The ending is determined by which meter is filled more. In both of my games the Light scale was greater so I had a choice of what fate to accept – a choice which was lifted from the finale of Brother Bear. I could choose to remain a deer and embrace the glory of nature, or return to human form but still be given one final message about how hunting is barbaric and those who participate in it deserve to die. I’m guessing that the conclusion for a fuller Dark meter would have been some smug Twilight Zone-inspired twist to further punish the player, but I have no interest in playing through again to see such an outcome.

The Deer God is a fairly basic platformer featuring (in what appears to be the new standard for games with a retro-inspired voxel aesthetic) several roguelike elements. There’s a small number of varied environments which appear in a different layout with each game. In addition to traditional platforming dangers like instant-death spike pits and crumbling platforms, each biome has its own unique hazards fitting the setting such as falling icicles in the tundra, quicksand in the desert, and wildfires in the forest. Enemies also demonstrate variety in their attacks: hunters attack from a distance with spears or rifles, skunks release a noxious cloud with a small area of affect that damages the player as long as they remain in it, and demons throw projectile energy spheres. Emphasizing the importance of survival, the game employs a hunger meter like in Adventure Island. If the player doesn’t frequently gather food their health will gradually deplete once the meter is empty. Finally, the longer the player travels without dying the more energy they’ll accumulate to grow into a more mature deer. There are four stages between fawn and stag, each having greater strength, attack power and stamina than the previous one.

 

During the player’s journey they’ll be given additional abilities by the Elders, usually after doing a favor for them. The best of these skills is the Dash attack which not only allows for a more powerful head-butt attack but is very useful in crossing gaps, attacking enemies in mid-air, and breaking through stones to open new paths. They’ll also come across up to ten statues which grant special powers after solving their “riddles” (really nothing more than simple block pushing puzzles). The powers obtained are dependent on the player’s karma; Light offers benevolent gifts like a vine to reach higher areas, healing, and taming wild beasts, while Dark unlocks destructive attacks such as fire and lightning.

I had no problem with the keyboard controls concerning movement and attacks; the game handles very smoothly and I rarely ran into a situation where I had trouble with momentum or precise jumping. My only real control issue relates to the inventory and powers. The items that can be collected are quite valuable, ranging from standard health/hunger replenishing plants to mushrooms that create bouncing platforms to objects that can summon friendly animals to attack enemies. The problem is that items and special skills can only be assigned to a maximum of six hotkeys. True it forces players to think strategically about what they’ll need for a specific encounter, but I don’t understand why the developers couldn’t have allowed for more spaces to allocate these power-ups. It only becomes annoying when an item has been depleted and the hotkey must be restocked. I say “must” because there is no way to activate items from the inventory menu; they have to be assigned to a key to be used, which takes up space that could have been set aside for another item. I realize this may sound like nitpicking, but it just feels poorly optimized compared to other inventory set-ups I’ve seen that allow both automatic item use in the menu and control assignment for use during play.

 

The ultimate goal is to collect six relics to place in a shrine as a demonstration of the hunter’s penance. These relics are obtained through defeating bosses or assisting an NPC with a problem. If players lack the items or skills necessary to carry out the task then the game world will loop until they find what they need, eliminating the need to unnecessarily backtrack. I found it odd that despite the Deer God’s demand that the hunter atone for his actions against deer, most of the characters he assists to gather the relics are human.

Surprisingly The Deer God is more forgiving than most roguelikes. Health is gradually restored over time when not under attack. Dying only ends the game on the hardest difficulty, while the normal setting has checkpoints scattered about the terrain. A similar “save” function exists in hardcore which requires players to stand near light-furred does in order to give birth to a new fawn that the player can reincarnate to upon death, though they must at least be a teenage deer to accomplish this. If they die before they can mate again, then the game is over. Whenever the player respawns on either setting they will start over as a fawn and need to regain their growth progress once more. This issue can be alleviated by collecting deer skull tokens that will instantly revive the player after dying without losing any of their progression. In all of these cases, though, the frequency at which they’re encountered is randomly generated, so players will never know how much further they’ll have to go in order to reach the next save.

 

While I mostly enjoyed the gameplay I was frequently taken out of the experience by a number of bugs. There were points where I was unable to reach higher areas because I’d simply fall through platforms, even if they were vines or mushrooms I’d grown. Items would drop from a bush yet I couldn’t pick them up. I had to quit to the menu twice after respawning because my deer became invisible in one instance while everything but the skybox disappeared the second time. The worst problem I encountered was regularly dying because my health would simply deplete at random even though I wasn’t being attacked or near a hazard. This was immensely frustrating on the hardcore setting since it completely wiped out all my progress through no fault of my own.

As I was playing a pre-beta version, it’s very likely that many of the glitches I encountered will be fixed with future patches. Even with these problems resolved, however, I have no desire to return to The Deer God. It tells a story I’ve heard already and never really cared for, its intended message is rendered meaningless by a shallow morality system, and it doesn’t offer anything engaging to differentiate itself from the many other survival-oriented games on the market. Perhaps I’m just not the intended audience, but I’ve seen footage of other roguelike games that provide a more unique experience I’d recommend to fans over this: FTL, Don’t Starve, and Road Not Taken to name a few. True, they don’t offer a deep analysis of complex themes like karma and reincarnation, but then again, neither does The Deer God.

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