Let there be no mistake: The Deer God is gorgeous. The intro, showing the eponymous deity punishing a hunter for shooting a fawn by transforming him into a deer, is dazzling. The soundtrack is a delight to the ears. I was hooked, ready to be awed; I wanted to partake in the hunter’s journey of redemption. However, the luster of the game’s colorful pixel aesthetic soon faded and behind that façade all I found was a dull, repetitive mess.
The Deer God is a lackluster game that tries to tie a bunch of other games together like logs on a crudely made raft doomed to fall apart. You play as a deer who has to earn redemption by doing favors for his fellow deer and the various humans that populate the world (witches and priests and the like). The Deer God’s most obvious inspiration is runner games, like Bit.Trip, and the primary way you interact with the world (presented as a series of beautifully rendered and diverse 2.5D biomes) is by running and jumping through it, either left or right. You attack other animals by headbutting them. There are also offensive spells, like fireballs, that you can obtain if you find certain puzzles. Unfortunately, the combat never feels anything other than tedious, spells or otherwise.
An inventory you can stuff with usable items that give you buffs or grant you temporary abilities is ultimately superfluous, as is a karma gauge that’s affected by what kind of creatures you kill. Hurt other deer or rabbits, and you’re a bad deer; hurt humans and other predators and you’re a good deer! Apparently the karma system determines whether you’ll come back as a fawn when you die or if the Deer God will resurrect you (briefly) as some other animal, like a badger or a porcupine incapable of jumping. This might sound neat but it’s actually rather frustrating because more than likely you’ll be stuck in a small area and be unable to actually go anywhere until you revert back to a fawn. It’s essentially timeout and it’s rather poorly done, which is par for the course when you consider how bad of a job The Deer God does explaining its concepts and rules to the player.
There’s probably a lot I don’t know about The Deer God. It seems like it’s trying to imitate the mystery of a Souls game, encouraging you to find out for yourself what’s going on, but the problem is that it’s not hiding enticing lore but basic, need to know information instead. For example, I couldn’t remember how to use an item in my inventory, so I opened up the menu to find the controls listing only to discover that there was no control list. I had to go online and look through a forum to find the answer to my question in a thread where someone had asked the same thing. Even worse: quests in the game are activated by finding NPCs and these NPCs can be terribly hard to spot at night, especially if you’re running past them (doing what you’re supposed to do in a runner game). So it’s possible just to keep on running past the quest giver, unaware of what you’re supposed to be doing. The troubles don’t end there either. Sometimes after you finish a quest an NPC will drop an item. To pick up that item you have to run over it, but often the item doesn’t stick. There were two occasions where I had crossed the map to deliver an object needed to complete a quest only to find out my deer hadn’t picked it up, so I had to go all the way back to run over it again.
There is no crime in stealing ideas from other games if you know what to do with them. Just look at Danganronpa, a game that shamelessly nicks concepts from Phoenix Wright, Persona and Virtue’s Last Reward and puts all those elements to great use so that they coalesce together in a darkly comic and compelling way. However, The Deer God’s elements—the runner bit, the inventory, the rogue-like elements and karma system—don’t ever come together because they embody merely the shell of what makes its influences great and not their respective substances, especially when it comes down to The Deer God’s rogue-like tendencies. The game’s “Normal Mode” is set so that if you die without an offspring to transfer your soul to—which you get by mating with another deer—the game is over. Your save is wiped. Not bad as a concept, and it could be a great idea if properly implemented. Too bad death in The Deer God is often unfair and annoying. The great rogue-likes, like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, never have a situation that’s outright unwinnable. You can always snatch victory from the jaws of defeat if you’re skilled enough.
In The Deer God, a bird can fly off-screen while you’re standing on a platform and nudge you into a spike pit that kills you instantly. Falling from a jump can land you in sinking sand that kills you too. If you’re talking to an NPC and are attacked, there’s no way to immediately leave conversation, so you’ll probably die. If you make the slightest timing mistake when trying to jump on a train, you’re crushed. Heck, if you try to go into a train tunnel when there’s clearly no train inside, you still perish inexplicably. All of this is what happens when the game is working.
After the first major glitch, one where I fell through the ground to my death, I decided to play the game in “Passive Mode,” which removes permadeath. You still can’t save on your own and whenever you die (unless you’ve picked up a rare talisman or two) you’re taken back to your first form (a fawn) and have to level up back to being a buck by killing other animals, which is a long, boring process. The player being unable to have multiple save slots for a single game is ultimately what sucks most of the joy out of The Deer God. It’s super easy to get your deer into an unwinnable situation thanks to technical issues. I had two glitches that trapped me in the ground and ended my run. After several attempts, I finally managed to beat the game. I hoped that the ending would somehow have made all the effort worthwhile but alas, it was not to be. The final few moments of The Deer God, like nearly everything that comes before it, are a disappointment.
The Deer God is, sadly, a mediocre game suffering from an identity crisis hiding inside of a grandiose shell. The promotional material for the game says that it will “challenge your religion,” but all it ever did was try my patience and continuously disappoint me by asking me to run around and do chores while occasionally throwing penguins and boars at me. It’s a shame, really. The art and the music, both equally entrancing, deserve to be part of a far better game than the ragged bundle of other games The Deer God turns out to be.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.