Forever dodging flesh-eaters in Techland’s souped-up but so-so zombie sequel. Here’s our review of Dying Light 2 Stay Human…
Towards the end of my time with Dying Light 2 Stay Human, my biceps disappeared. I tried exiting to the menu and reloading my save. Nothing. Closing and reopening the game. Nothing. Restarting my PS5. Nothing. These tricks worked when I encountered other bugs in Techland’s zombie parkour game, like when an error caused dialogue to blip by unreadably fast, sans audio. But, not for my biceps. My biceps remained stubbornly invisible.
Right or wrong, this is basically what you expect from a game like Dying Light 2, an open-world RPG that prioritises choice to the extent that when I tried to discuss its story with another reviewer, we couldn’t find any recent events in common. There are story-gated moments that all players will see. You’ll always be Aiden, the orphaned nomad whose search for his sister takes him out of the wilderness and inside the walls of Villedor, an eastern European city where human factions fight for turf, and zombies huddle in the space that’s left. Similarly, I doubt it’s possible to complete the game without acquiring the glider, which allows you to navigate the city of Villedor’s skyscrapers, or the grappling-hook, which enables you to swing from them like Spider-Man. There are characters you’ll meet, too, like Lawan, a frenemy played by Rosario Dawson, and Hakon, the easy-going but mysterious survivor who helps you out early on. But your relationship with those characters will almost definitely differ from mine, as will your relationship to the factions of Villedor. Add in simulated zombie rag dolls and it’s a lot for the game to track. Hence, disappearing biceps.
The biggest problem with Dying Light 2, though, isn’t the technical glitches, which improved somewhat during the course of the review period, but the content of the narrative itself. The concept of an open-world RPG where each player will see a different story is catnip to me and many other RPG fans, but Dying Light 2’s story is so uninteresting, its stakes so poorly communicated, its factions so weakly drawn, their dialogue so awkwardly written and clumsily delivered, that I have a hard time imagining why I would want to play through it again to see the variations.
That isn’t to say that Dying Light 2 is a bad time from moment to moment. My experience with it generally ranged from mildly enjoyable to mildly unenjoyable. Basically, any time a character spoke, it dipped into the red. Clunkily written exchanges – “This is a specialised organisation. You can’t just waltz in off the street and get a job here.” “I’m not waltzing. I don’t even dance. Nikolas, he gave me this letter.” – are, unfortunately, par for the course. The times when the game asked me to explore creepy abandoned buildings – particularly a quest that involved hunting down the dog tags of the fallen members of the game’s paramilitary faction in various zombie-infested areas around the map – enjoyment spiked up into the black. In Dying Light 2, the night is dangerous, as are the shadows of unlit buildings. A zombie bite that Aiden suffers early on in the game is not a death sentence, but it does mean that he frequently needs to get to the safe purple glow of UV lights. As a result, the moments that you spend spelunking into abandoned structures are wonderfully tense, and the puzzles that await are terrific fun to solve.
Those forays into the storytelling red are a problem, though, for a game that’s so concerned with big decisions. Often during a quest, you’ll be confronted with a timer as tense music begins to play and opposing choices appear on the screen. But the lack of a compelling reason to care about how any of the story plays out is seriously detrimental to the game’s ambitions.
Fortunately, in between the choices, Dying Light 2 is an open-world parkour game where you jump from rooftop to rooftop, drop down on zombies’ heads, and complete time trials. The level design neatly facilitates this with monkey bars to swing from, steel beams to run along, and mattresses to plop down on from dangerous heights. This all feels decent, though the game locks most of the stuff you need to make traversal really sing behind its skill trees and story progress. Wall-running skills take a long time to unlock, and I was 17 hours in before I got the glider; 40 hours in before I nabbed the grappling-hook. Dying Light 2 is strangely structured that way. Techland seems hell-bent on delaying player gratification as long as humanly possible. The melee-focused combat follows the opposite trajectory, beginning promisingly enough, and devolving over the course of the game. Early on, you’re taught to block enemy attacks at just the right moment so that you can stagger them, then jump over them to drop-kick other opponents. This works well. As the game progresses, however, enemies gain other moves like a power attack and a shove, both of which cannot be blocked. As a result, it becomes easier just to dodge everything and abandon the rhythmic dance of the early hours.
Dying Light 2, then, is a game of mild pleasures and mild annoyances. I doubt I’ll remember much of this game a year from now, good or bad. Its highs and lows are roughly as far apart as the blips on a zombie’s heart monitor.
Dying Light 2 has some standout quests. One, which sends the player and a squad of soldiers on a mission to climb up a skyscraper abandoned to particularly dangerous ghouls and turn on a radio signal, is a strong example of bespoke design in a sprawling world. When you finally reach the top and see the sky stretching above and the city far below, it’s genuinely striking.