DYING LIGHT 2: STAY HUMAN Review - A Zombie Title Lacking Teeth
Dyllon Graham calls the horror sequel a bloated example of why more isn’t always better.
What makes a video game compelling to play? Where in between narrative expression and the scope of the world lies the hooks that embed themselves in us, reeling us through the experience? For each person, that qualifier is going to differ depending on the expectations they’ve set prior and what they’re looking to really attain from their time with a game. Unfortunately for Techland's Dying Light 2: Stay Human, my personal expectations were set appropriately high due to my adoration for their inaugural entry in the franchise, Dying Light (2015). That bar was apparently set too high.
Following that initial viral outbreak in Dying Light that mutated the ground zero citizens of Harran into zombies, the world had begun to heal. A vaccine was successfully synthesized and mankind appeared to be returning to normalcy. However, the Global Relief Effort (GRE) that was responsible for the vaccine continued to secretly tamper with mutations of the "Harran Virus" despite promises to the contrary. What followed was an outbreak so massive that some 22-years later, 90% of the world’s population has been decimated. Players will take up the role of Aiden, one of the remaining survivors—a wandering "Pilgrim" who’s stumbled into one of the last fortified cities, Villador, on a search for his long estranged sister. Using his extraordinary agility and strength, Aiden must keep to the rooftops above the zombie laden streets to uncover the secrets of his past, choose a side, and find what it means to stay human. Dun, dun, dunnnnn.
As far as a premise goes, Dying Light 2 isn’t breaking any molds—intending instead to tell a narrative compelling enough to justify its mechanics. Traditionally I wouldn’t get too hung up on the story, considering Dying Light’s narrative was mostly middling. Leading up to the release of the sequel though, Techland was very clear in the marketing for their game, stating proudly that it required over "500-hours" of playtime to experience all of the branching paths, side quests, etc. They also went on to proudly promote the over "40,000 lines of dialogue" the game bolsters. If we were having a conversation, this is where I'd tilt my head down, leering above my glasses to make eye contact with you because believe me when I say that the story in Dying Light 2 was not the material worth promoting here.
The biggest failing is lack of character development, favoring the scope of the cast over depth of interactions you have with that cast. You see, while many of the missions have branching paths that try to force tough choices on the player, all of those choices lack the appropriate weight because none of the characters are developed enough for you to even begin caring about them. When picking between a character who was accused of poisoning the scarce supply of water and subsequently, a civilian, or a character who actually poisoned some water to teach local bandits a lesson, I didn’t truly care about the choice. I’d only spent moments with either character, so why did either of their fates matter to me? Examples of poor character development unfortunately plague most of the game, only further undercutting the gravity of more interesting plot lines as they unfold. This all culminates in a story that you’re sort of subjected to experiencing in order to gain access to mechanics, rather than a story that you are invested in watching unfold.
Mechanically, Dying Light 2 feels more competent in its execution in comparison to its predecessor. Unabashedly, I have had most of my fun during the free running time trials, or entering an incredible "flow state" to escape from the hunting hordes at night. My biggest gripe about the mechanics are really tethered to the first game. If Dying Light 2 is your first gameplay entry into the franchise, you’ll likely feel fine with the abilities granted to you as your journey begins. The basics of running, leaping, vaulting, and climbing do feel great when there is a sense of novelty attached.
However, having played the first game, it feels a bit regressive that Aiden, a wandering pilgrim, can’t do a running slide or doesn’t know how to drop kick zombies. Considering the skill trees between the first and second title share a good handful of abilities, many of my first hours were spent in pursuit of the "new" experience that the second installment was supposed to offer. Additional inclusions of RPG mechanics like gear stats and Breath of The Wild-esque stamina and health unlocks feel like bolted on afterthoughts that gate the intended free-run experience behind more arduous stealth missions.
That being said, free running mechanics are only as good as the world that you’re set to explore. Villador has some incredible strengths. Much of the world feels like a meticulously intentional highway, offering little entryways and onramps that merge onto the main thoroughfares as you move between key locations. Initially, locales are smaller and more quaint, eventually opening into expansive areas with stunning skyscrapers and vistas. To accommodate this type of growth alongside the fidelity at which Dying Light 2 runs though, there had to be sacrifices.
Villador’s streets often feel quite a bit emptier than the streets of Harran in terms of enemy density. When night falls, this does change a bit as many of the hostile derelicts flood the streets from their daylight hideouts. Despite this, the evening "chases" feel less terrifying and lethal than before, often having fewer of the incredibly feared "volatile" zombies seen in marketing and Dying Light. That is to say that most of the world of Villador lacks the teeth and stakes that the narrative ploddingly tries to convince you exists.
In many ways, Dying Light 2 feels like an example of quantity inhibiting quality—more dialogue, more options, more stats, but why? Much like the zombies that lurch around the world, most of what there is to see in game is bloated. Luckily, the unique juxtaposition between zombie and parkour allows the game to show off some of its most compelling reasons to play. Despite feeling let down by the lack of mechanical innovation, I truly think that this is what the majority of players will see and remember, especially if they’re new to the franchise.