First impressions can be very important, and The Deer God makes an excellent first impression. It's a shame, then, that it loses momentum so quickly.
Let's get that first impression out of the way first, though. The Deer God is an absolutely beautiful game. In it, you play a hunter whose soul has been trapped in a deer after his accidental death in order to atone for his crimes against nature. In your new form you'll travel through dense forests, arid deserts, frozen tundra, lush jungles and many more breathtaking environments.
Visually, the game has a modern retro feel to it. It employs 3D pixel-style art and makes smart uses or parallax scrolling to give the illusion of depth to its varied environments. All of the environments feature beautiful lighting effects that really make them come to life. The Deer God is truly one of the few games that as is attractive in motion as its marketing materials may try to make you believe.
Admiring the sights in The Deer God is indeed a pleasure, but there is a game lurking underneath those gorgeous visuals and it isn't nearly the work of art you might expect. Mechanically, The Deer God is very similar to 2D side-scrolling games of old. You can run left or right, jump and attack, but that's about it. As you travel, you'll grow from a fawn into a strong buck. The world is similar to that of a roguelike in the sense that the environments are randomly generated.
The idea of randomly generated maps is good in theory, in that it provides the player with something unique and interesting in each play session - however, in the case of this game it's the biggest failing. The goals in The Deer God aren't immediately clear; you'll meet with an elder early on who will give you the ability to double jump, and this sets the pace for the rest of the game. Occasionally you will run into someone in need of help, or find a simple puzzle in need of solving. The game progresses through completing these quests, but the environments often get in the way more than they should.
The majority of quests in The Deer God involve finding an item and returning it to the person that requested it. Sometimes this means the item is mere steps away from the person, but at others you can be running for 15 or 20 minutes before finding it, coupled with another five or ten to find the NPC again. Running through the colourful environs of The Deer God is fun, but the environments are built out of only a handful of pre-defined elements, meaning you'll see frequent repetition of puzzles, cave structures and platforming challenges. Moreover, the longer you play, the more pronounced the load times become as the game struggles to build more elements for you to explore. In our experience we noticed considerably longer load times the more we ran.
The disappointing decisions don't just stop at the world building, either. This game is incredibly easy, even in hardcore mode. In hardcore mode the idea is that once you are out of lives the game is over, permanently; your save is deleted and you must start over from scratch. However, the world is littered with opportunities to resurrect yourself. Extra lives are available in the form of deer skulls, but you can also mate with deer which will let you reincarnate should you die. Each time you die you will be reincarnated by the Deer God as a different animal, depending on your karma. If you have good karma, which you get by killing hostile creatures and humans, you'll be reincarnated as a fawn. Amass too much bad karma, and you'll be reincarnated as a helpless bunny until enough times passes, at which point you'll change back into a fawn and be allowed to mature again.
Enemies in general didn't seem all that threatening in our experience, and combat was unsatisfying. Combat is essentially just charging at enemies, though none of the enemies pose much of a challenge, bosses included. Aside from the karma aspect, The Deer God offers no real motivation for killing enemies, as fleeing is often easier.
We also would have liked to see The Deer God make better use of the Wii U's GamePad. In it, action is mirrored to the display, but we wish we could manage inventory from there. Hitting the Y button during gameplay pauses the game and displays an inventory screen which allows you to assign items to one of two inputs; everything is laid out in a practically GamePad-ready grid, and it would certainly feel less cumbersome to drag and drop items than highlight them with the d-pad and select them.
The Deer God is beautiful. Sadly, that beauty is only skin deep. Poor design choices take away from fantastic visuals that really have to be seen. With the right level of polish, this could have been one of our favourite indie games on Wii U.
Instead, clumsy quest design, repetitive environments and poor performance ensure The Deer God will be remembered as little more than eye candy.