Reviewed on Playstation 5
Sequels are largely about the fulfillment of potential – the element of surprise largely removed, they rely on whether the premise can live up to the promise. Dying Light, released five years ago, established an intriguing blend of melee combat and urban parkour in a decaying, zombie infested world; It worked better on paper than in practice, hampered by a ridiculous save system and the inevitable shortcomings of first person brawling. Supported by five years worth of post launch content and a cult following of devoted fans, we have arrived at the inevitable point of a follow up, one which largely improves on it’s predecessor but still shows considerable room for refinement.
It’s a game that emphasizes RPG-style flexibility without ever really committing to it, frequently offering key decisions that alter the world around you, just not as much as initially inferred. Split between warring factions in the last real urban stronghold on Earth, you play as whitemeat cookie cutter hero Aiden Caldwell (the surname might as well be Pierce, he’s so bland). Searching for his long lost sister Mia, he arrives in the fictional European city of Villedor as a much maligned Pilgrim, typecast by others as a vicious mercenary courier when in fact he is far more noble (and banal).
He’s not the only one guilty of verbal faux pas and poor characterization though. Much of the other voice acting is hilariously bad, with stilted dialogue, faked accents, uneven tonality, and a flatness of delivery I’ve not heard since the late 2000’s. In one side quest, I engaged in dialogue with a rather suspect character which escalated into lethal conflict, with him threatening me in a completely different accent than the one used in the dialogue wheel. It all tries too hard at certain moments, but not hard enough in key ones.
The main story path is also punctuated with horrendous flashback scenes that look and feel like a bad horror game from 15 years ago. They could all have been done without using a horrible filter effect on the visuals and some of the most cringeworthy writing I’ve seen in my 34 years of gaming. These moments, albeit rare, kill the flow of a game based around flow itself, and belong in a bad indie horror game, not a large budget AAA.
There’s a charming innocence to many of the world’s less aggressive inhabitants though, feeling at times like a game from two generations ago. It can be awkward, and there’s a wistful naivete to a lot of the NPC dialogue that seems strange in a world steeped in cynical brutality. This does add a degree of levity however, one sorely needed in a game about the retention of humanity in the most dehumanizing conditions. It’s very much a European game: Direct, unironic and emotionally unrestrained, as opposed to the bombast and sarcasm that often dominate North American game design these days.
Other than an appearance by Rosario Dawson as Lawan, a fierce and revered sniper who you meet well into the campaign, there are very few remarkable characters in the world, and many of them talk at such excruciating lengths of exposition I found myself tuning out and forgetting their names halfway through conversations. For a game with such focus on RPG style choice and consequence, much of the dialogue is simply not up to par.
Beyond all this however, it looks, sounds and (mostly) feels like a high end modern open world. The graphics are crisp and immersive, as beautiful art design nicely juxtaposes the game world’s gruesome nature. Frame rate was smooth and consistent, and other than the odd clothing overlap in cutscenes, very rare pop-in of textures and an occasional flickering effect on objects and enemies, the visuals held up nicely. The soundtrack in particular is worthy of mention – warm and optimistic at dawn, tingling with menace as the sun sets and all the nasties come out to play. At times it’s jaunty and adventurous, others moody and contemplative, but never jarring in transition or emotionally overstated.
DL2’s main selling point is it’s parkour, and from the beginning it feels comfortable and intuitive, with a more generous allocation of stamina this time around and a slight magnetization when leaping towards ledges, ladders and such. The jumping feels floaty at first, and there is a strange cadence to it until certain skills are unlocked, but it’s not hard to learn – even early in the game I felt confident experimenting. Good games teach through failure, as this one often does, and even failing produced some interesting results – miss a ledge, and you may end up grabbing a railing just under it. Much like Insomniac’s recent Spider-Man outings, the game usually adapted intelligently to misjudged leaps and grabs in a way that felt fluid and natural, and often yielded unintended strategic benefits.
First person platforming has long been a point of contention, and this was the first time I felt truly confident doing it outside my ridiculous vertical expeditions in Cyberpunk 2077. Where others swear by Mirror’s Edge and it’s brand of freerunning, I found it overly finicky and discouraging to the point of not even completing the tutorials – not the case here. The world is brilliantly designed to allow for on-the-fly adaptations and “Oh shit!” pivots out of lethal situations, in a way most other first person games can only dream of.
Environmental traversal puzzles also lacked the necessary, repetitive failure of games like Doom Eternal, with it’s obscure, convoluted scenarios that kill gameplay momentum instead of enhancing it. The game world is much larger than it’s predecessor, not only in terms of spread but verticality, but the detail and mechanics hold up as well at ground level as they do scaling the skyscrapers of the urban centre. Even early on, I felt pretty confident at heights and speeds that would normally give pause in other first person titles, but I suppose that’s the overall idea. On the occasions I fell to street level, the world seemed no less interesting or detailed.
The combat is far less reliable unfortunately – for every death defying highlight reel kill, there is an awkward moment of being inexplicably stuck to objects while trying to avoid enemies, or a death resulting from mechanical overlap as the game tries to overcomplicate simple attacks or evasions. It holds up pretty well in open air scenarios, as verticality allows one to turn the tide of most battles. However in a crowded room it can be infuriating, with unreliable blocking and grappling systems and a tendency to grab tiny wall hangings or light fixtures while trying to move, leaving the player hung out to dry, literally. Here the parkour mechanics overlap to kill the combat, and given how nebulous blocking and countering windows are, standing your ground with multiple enemies in close quarters for long simply isn’t viable.
Certain attacks are far too contextual and inconsistent in their application, and it’s frustrating to see elegant, skillful approaches to combat fail as such. Far too often, the answer is to channel enemies into a tight corridor or doorway and just bash away at them and their stupid AI in a straight line. The melee mechanics try to do too much at times, and at least half of my combat deaths were from the game overcomplicating maneuvers or simply glitching out and leaving me stuck to environmental objects, unable to move.
They are even more jarring faults in a game that is so liberating and reliable in traversal, as dying in parkour was almost always a matter of misjudgement and human error, and thus an opportunity to learn. These issues are also inexcusable in any game of the last three console generations – they’re late 90’s gaming problems, not modern ones.
Certain combat skills are awesome – there is a macabre delight in mushroom stomping the heads of crawling zombies, or shoulder tackling bandits over railings into rivers. But others are either completely useless or even counterproductive, like a crouch jump with no practical application: It amounts to a forward roll, which is all too easy to accidentally toggle in the heat of battle. This is the single worst skill or perk I’ve ever learned in gaming, and it’s cost me half a dozen close battles.
It’s rarely a matter of skill or challenge, as combat is nowhere near as challenging as a tough modern FPS like Shadow Warrior, and mostly seems to plateau in difficulty fairly early. As such, the stress in battle was more about whether I was going to get screwed by technical shortcomings or environmental obstacles, and less about enemy AI and skill levels. Human enemies are usually not the brightest, repeatedly climbing up ladders to get knocked back down, and often running off the side of buildings to splatter on the ground below. The acquisition of bows and arrows do level things out a bit, but they often felt like a necessary crutch for situations that become more difficult than they had any right to be. Thrown projectiles help little, and need several levels of upgrading to become even half as effective as they are in other games.
Far too many battles against a dozen or more were easy, while others against two or three were rendered excruciating due to glitches and unreliable combat mechanics – including an incredibly underwhelming and stupid final boss who actually got trapped inside a wall and moved at a snail’s pace, despite showing remarkable agility in earlier cutscenes.
Another flaw I must mention is the awkward save system, one which completely turned me off the original game within the first hour or so. It’s back here – no checkpoint reload from the pause menu, just a respawn from the nearest safe zone or cutscene in the event of death, with any resources used usually remaining gone. It’s a good thing safe zones are plentiful and rarely require much backtracking, but it’s jarring to get killed in a tense fight as part of a quest, respawn and travel hundreds of meters back just to kill one guy. Likewise, to waste a ton of resources while dominating a mini boss fight, only to get stuck to a tree (yes, really) and killed, and have to gather hours’ worth of resources just to be able to try again.
Say what you will about living with mistakes and adapting as a gamer, but as a busy player who beats at least 15 games a year on hard difficulties without aim assists, I want options on game reloads – save scumming arguments and their false elitist nonsense be damned. If modern games emphasize both long campaigns and accessibility options, as this one does, an inflexible save system more akin to multiplayer games has no place in a story driven affair that encourages risk and experimentation. Frankly, all single player games should have manual saves and multiple checkpoint reloads, especially such a massive one as this.
Yes, the world is huge (almost excessively so), and much of what populates it is routine open world filler: Platforming towers that unlock safe zones, fetch quests in bulk, and bandit camps of considerable difficulty, given the flimsy stealth options. It seems almost every side mission is either a missing person, parkour challenge, or item retrieval. Some are pointless dialogues with people so annoying, I’d rather dropkick them off the buildings they stand on. For a game this size, that lack of variety is disappointing.
Several of these quests also occur in iterative patterns that drag on far too long, much like the conversations that establish and resolve them. A string of mail delivery quests make a point in ten instances that could be made in five or less. A book fetching questline does the same, and even side activities like the GRE Anomalies and quarantine sites feature the exact same scenario, in almost identical surroundings, each time.
But it is a beautiful world, worthy of excuses to explore, even if the reasons are repetitive and predictable. Opportunities for combat and scavenging are plentiful, and while XP takes a while to accumulate, there are plenty of chances to do so. There’s always another random bandit encounter around the corner, or some Infected to wail on. If you are willing to put in a bit of extra time en route to the next mission marker, then it’s possible to acquire most of the skill tree by the time the main downtown district is accessible. Every leap, slide, swing of an axe or shot of an arrow adds to your XP, which is a good thing given how long it takes to acquire skill points.
The problem of first person platforming has finally, comprehensively been solved here, and it’s a wonderful feeling, one offset by a combat system that veers between deeply satisfying and woefully unreliable. It’s a world full of colour, with an art style reminiscent of post-apocalyptic peers The Last Of Us and Metro Exodus, but without being derivative of either. Lighting and shadows, in particular, are as good as anything I’ve seen in a first person offering. There’s beauty (and ugliness) to be found everywhere, from the classic European architecture of Old Villedor to the surprisingly colourful skyscrapers of the Central Loop, and you can climb up pretty much all of it to better appreciate another spectacular sunrise vista or foggy rainstorm.
The strengths of DL2 are quickly evident – spectacular environments, swashbuckling traversal and a deep sense of exploration, with as much loot and combat available to you as your greedy little heart desires. It’s weaknesses are glaring: Janky combat, a terrible game economy full of overpriced clothing and chiseling upgrades to weak equipment, and a generic approach to story and side content that shows more is often so much less. Between the clichéd story beats, cringeworthy dialogue and bland identikit protagonist, it feels like a PS3/Xbox 360 game with modern big budget values, in ways both charmingly sincere and laughably dated.
The game’s moniker serves as a metaphor for a glimmer or brilliant potential, smothered by open world excess – more bland dialogue, more mundane errands that don’t establish true immersion, more buildings with similar interiors so you can get more loot. It’ll keep you busy, and it’ll try (too hard) to connect on an emotional level. Like a desperate leap at a ledge of sincerity a metre too far over a gap of wavering attention span, it falls a bit short.