The concept of “style over substance” is a real dilemma for the broader indie game scene. While finding a novel and satisfying gameplay hook is the bedrock of many smaller games, the task of finding that gameplay loop gets more difficult every year with thousands of indie releases across console platforms and Steam Greenlight. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for games to root their appeal in an interesting artstyle or a deeper message. Unfortunately, that is all that can really be said about Crescent Moon Games’ The Deer God.
A lot of what The Deer God brings to the table is the serenity of nature and a strong message about reincarnation. The game opens to two hunters with one of them is tragically killed in a hunting accident. After a flash of light and a majestic glow, the titular Deer God takes center stage — reincarnating the hunter as the playable deer.
Your first moments in The Deer God will be visually impressive, even for the cliched pixel aesthetic that is so common in modern indie games. However, with multiple background layers, varying scrolling speeds, and dynamic lighting, blocky textures are given new life. God rays tend to always look stunning regardless of artstyle, and The Deer God will be visually tempting in ways untouched by more modern games.
And despite that visual allure, I had to constantly fight myself to put time into The Deer God. The game is aiming for a message of serenity that it may accomplish too well — despite obstacles and feral animals looking to take a bite out venison, the game always felt like it lacked conflict or purpose. Although I was running across the 2D platformer for the sake of running right and progression, rarely did I feeling rewarded by the gameplay.
Integrally tied to that idea is the mystique of The Deer God, which seems unwilling to explain the basic tenets of the game. If this is a game you intend to stick with until the end, you are well served by checking the nearly three years of collected knowledge about the game — because developer Crescent Moon has no intention of explaining it to you. For instance, early on in the game I quickly learned that combat was a fruitless endeavor — baby deer are just not well-equipped to headbutt their way out of hostile situations, and running is likely your best line of defense. However, as the game progresses, your deer will age and become much stronger, making combat a viable option when going toe-to-toe with mountain lions.
And while organic discovery of gameplay features is something that I deeply appreciate — for instance, how the dedicated The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild community is still finding new ways to twist the in-game physics to this day — leaning too heavily into that risks a feeling of aimlessness. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people who try this game go on to think that the easily-grabbed double jump is the only platforming quirk found in the game. Those looking to invest more time in the game will happen onto useable items, magic-like abilities.
In short, The Deer God has a pretty strong barrier to entry, and many people are going to drop out before the first hour of gameplay. But even after you have passed that hurdle, there isn’t much for you to get invested in. Even after three years of being on the market, The Deer God comes with notable glitches baked in and a few occasions that will make you restart from the beginning. The game can be completed in under a half-hour for those looking to speed run but will generally clock in around 3-4 hours. And, most importantly, the game’s actual platforming feel stale and uninspired, which is the real bummer to the package. Other Kickstarted titles (like Shovel Knight) have managed to do much more when it comes to interesting and varied mechanics, where other more recent games — like Celeste — show off how bland mechanics can become engaging with brilliant level design.
The Deer God may be a great visual experience to unwind with, and it has a spiritual message to match. But when it comes down to the actual gameplay, the game just feels too stiff and uninteresting. Despite an almost enchanting presence, the actual mechanics of The Deer God will do as much as possible to push you away.