Review: Dying Light 2: Stay Human
One thing that being a game reviewer for nearly a decade now has taught me is that it’s not really possible for me to dislike an entire genre. Sure, there are some genres out there that I’m not much a fan on – fighting games for example – but then the occasional game comes along that strikes all the right chords for me.
I’ve never hid the fact that I’m not typically a fan of open-world formats in games. Survival games don’t really do it for me, either. And I particularly do not enjoy zombie-focused media, believing it a fad that has run its course but (ironically) just won’t die. But sometimes a game comes along that wins me over, despite the pre-formed opinions I had going in.
In this case, it’s a long-awaited sequel to a fan-favorite game that completely missed me when it originally launched in 2015. A game that blends all three of those things I don’t typically have interest in, and creates an experience that had me locked to the screen, hours flying by, excited to see what would happen next.
Developed and published by Techland, Dying Light 2: Stay Human is set for release on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S on February 4th, 2022, with a Switch version planned for later this year. The PS5 version was played for this review.
Rock On Down to Old Villedor
Some time ago, the world was ravaged by a virus-induced zombie apocalypse. Humanity is on its last legs, mostly gathered together in the few cities that still stand, just trying to survive.
Dying Light 2 follows Aiden, a “Pilgrim” who makes a living going out into the wider world to scavenge valuables and deliver items or news between settlements. During his travels, he has been searching for his sister, Mia, from whom he was separated when they were children. The game begins with Aiden receiving a tip on where he may find Mia, leading him to a large city named Villedor.
It’s in the city that Aiden becomes entangled in a slowly building civil war. The Survivors, people just trying to live their lives in the city outskirts, versus the Peacekeepers, self-styled police who claim they’re keeping Villedor safe from bandits and zombies. Not only this, but Aiden has also come into possession of a piece of valuable tech, which immediately makes him the target of a third party…someone that may be linked to his past.
The story here is at the forefront of the Dying Light 2 experience, enough so that the game spends its opening hours establishing the characters and setting before letting the player loose into the open world. Techland seemingly put a lot of care into the development of the game’s core cast and, for the most part, I would say they succeeded in spades.
The characters here are immediately memorable and, surprisingly, often relatable (which is weird to say for a game taking place in a zombie apocalypse). Each of them have their own histories and reasons guiding the decisions they make during the game, and some provide moments that are shockingly emotional. Characters on both sides of Villedor’s struggle have legitimate reasons that can sway you to support one or the other, without either feeling like the obvious “correct” choice.
Really, my only issue with the characters and writing comes down to Aiden himself. Unlike the rest of the cast, Aiden is rather bland, a fairly generic protagonist with a do-gooder streak and almost-single-minded focus on finding his sister. I can kind of forgive this, but the fact that the story is written so that the dialogue choices you make can greatly alter the story creates some…odd moments.
For example, after mostly supporting the Survivors in the first few hours of the game, one of the main characters from that side discovers that Aiden has had contact with the Peacekeepers, leading the Survivors he’s working with to try and kill him. After killing all of these people and confronting the leaders of the Survivor group I was working with, I was given a choice to continue working with them or not. Choosing the former (because I wasn’t really interested in supporting the Peacekeepers), Aiden seems to near-completely forget that he was nearly murdered by these people, and the leaders of the Survivors rarely if ever mention again how many of them Aiden just killed.
Small quirks like this aside, Dying Light 2 otherwise does a good job of reflecting the choices you’ve made in the story. After spending so much time undermining the Peacekeepers early game, Aiden becomes justifiably worried about having to work with them in later story moments. He did just kill numerous Peacekeepers and bomb one of their main strongholds after all (at least, in the storyline I was following).
Some of the available sidequests can also tell surprisingly affecting tales as well. Typically I would bee-line the main story in games like these, but the early game required me to take on some sidequests. While some of them were nothing to write home about, others provided well-written mini stories that really help to bring perspective to the plight that these characters are living in.
A Hop, Skip, and a Jump
Dying Light 2 isn’t really one thing at its core. Rather, we have a blend here of action RPG, survival horror, open-world exploration, and parkour simulator. It’s doing a lot of things at once…and it all blends together amazingly well.
Just following the core storyline will take you all throughout the various regions of Villedor, offering up entertainingly varied setpieces and story quests. One moment might have you sneaking through a bandit camp attempting to take out its leader without raising alarm…that is, unless you want to go in and just kill everyone there. Another might have you getting chased through an abandoned building, testing out your skills with the game’s parkour engines and on-the-fly decision making.
Combat is quite interesting here, as Techland opted to make nearly 99% of it melee-focused. Aside from getting access to a bow later in the game, you’re required to get up-close-and-personal here. How fun the combat is really depends on what you’re fighting though. Zombies, the core theme of the game, are typically the most boring to fight. Aside from some unique ones here and there, zombies mostly just run at you en masse, and all you really have to do is hack away at them until they all stop moving.
Human enemies, though, put up much more of a fight. Blocking attacks, faking swings, attempting to flank you, fights against these groups take much more thought. They also give you the opportunity to use your parkour skills in battle and, really, nothing’s more fun then getting a perfect parry, vaulting over the guy you just stunned, and planting your feet in another guy’s face.
Speaking of parkour, the flow of movement in this game is what really got me invested aside from the story. Aiden is particularly spry and nimble (and also enhanced by medical experiments), letting him climb buildings and vault over gaps with ease. Just approach a grabbable object in the environment, jump, and (if you have enough stamina) Aiden will grab and interact with it.
The parkour aspect works reliably well enough, and Techland did a great job designing the environments to help flex its muscles. With fast-enough reaction time, it’s easy to run from point A to point B jumping and vaulting, climbing and sliding, while barely needed a moment to stop and breathe. Having interactable parkour objects often colored yellow in some way or form makes them easy to spot on the fly as well.
I did have a few issues with the parkour system, though, in moments where speed is enforced. Often, when I just had to move without any time to think, I’d often find Aiden missing grab points or grabbing on to the wrong object altogether. One particular early mission required me to climb to the top of a windmill in two minutes, with the required path taking nearly that exact time just to climb efficiently. If Aiden accidentally grabbed the wrong edge or an errant button tap caused him to jump off a platform…well, it was easier to kill myself and reset the mission at that point. I probably ended up resetting the mission around fifteen times or so.
When it comes to open-world designs, a big issue I (and many others it seems) have with them is how developers populate them with an absolute glut of collectibles and sidequests, and call it a day. While Dying Light 2‘s map does become super populated with markers throughout the game, there’s one thing I greatly appreciate it doing: telling the player what exactly they can find at each map marker.
It’s useful stuff, too. It’s not “this marker contains a random collectible out of 200 of the same collectible that’s useless but you’ll want it for 100% completion.” It’s more “you can scavenge weapons here,” “there’s items you can sell for cash if you explore here,” etc. You know exactly where you should explore if you are in need of something in particular. Don’t need a new weapon right now? No need to visit that marker on your map. But it’s there to explore if you need it in the future.
A number of these map points are also completely worthwhile to visit, offering up some unique setpieces and rewards. Windmills and water towers test your parkour skills, electric plants give your brain a bit of a workout with some puzzle solving, bandit camps are out there for when you want to put a knife through some skulls. And, after a certain point early in the game, completing these activities allows you to assign ownership of these landmarks to the Survivors or Peacekeepers, which will alter the area around it (more Survivor landmarks give more parkour options in the world, more Peacekeeper landmarks give more environmental combat options). Hell, some spots are basically entire mini dungeons to explore and loot.
All of the above are built for Dying Light 2‘s survival aspects. The game isn’t super hardcore when it comes to its survival aspects (which I find a definite plus, personally). Weapons have durability, which means you’ll constantly need to keep an eye out for more. There’s a small and straightforward crafting system based around only a handful of different materials, and manages to strike a good balance between “materials being too abundant” and “you’re really going to have to ration this stuff.” Exploring during nighttime is on a timer, so you have to find and activate save zones during the day if you want to extend the time you can poke around once the sun’s gone down.
This relatively light take on survival mechanics helps keep the player in the action, rather than spending all their time in the menus babying stats. As someone who doesn’t particularly like survival-focused games, I really do appreciate this approach. There’s just enough here to encourage you to be well prepared for night exploration or any enemy encounter, without being too overwhelming.
Through Drunk Goggles
I do have to say, Techland appears to know how to make the ruins of civilization look damn attractive. Villedor is a beautifully crafted city, especially once you make it into the Central Loop area and get hints of what this city looked like before the apocalypse. I found myself stopping to take in the scenery numerous times throughout my time with the game.
Character design may be a mixed bag for some people, though. The designs here seem like they stopped just a few notches short of realism, making some characters affected by a kind of uncanny valley effect. Lipsynching during dialogue can be hit or miss, and the way characters move and angle themselves during cutscenes feels decidedly unnatural at points. It’s weird to say, but I could practically see the stage directions for characters during cutscenes featuring more than one on screen.
One major issue I had with the presentation, though, is an absolute overabundance of motion blur. Everything has such a large amount of motion blur that more than half of the screenshots I took for this review didn’t turn out well. It’s absolutely overwhelming, and there doesn’t seem to be any option to turn it off in the graphical menu.
When it comes to massive open-world RPGs, most gamers expect to see some graphical glitches here and there. It’s become (unfortunately) accepted in modern gaming, what with the ability to patch things on the fly nowadays and all. I am glad to report, though, that I did not come across any super egregious glitches during my playthough. Zombies would clip through doors or tables on occasion (and the part that clipped through could be damaged, which I would take into account during some encounters). Hook winches can be used to be quickly hoisted to the top of structures in some areas, and often Aiden would motion to grab the hook and start flying upwards…without actually grabbing the hook.
On the audio side of things, I feel that the voice acting here is very strong. Aside from a few bad accents here and there, I can’t say any character’s voice was out of place or performed particularly badly. Aiden emotes about as well as a wooden plank sometimes, but I guess that fits his relatively milquetoast character.
Dying to Explore More
Overall, Dying Light 2 is an incredibly engrossing and engaging experience. I found myself actively looking forward to playing it each day while reviewing it. And, coming from someone who typically dislikes most of the genres mashed together here, I’m not saying that lightly.
The story here pulled me in quickly, and is well worth paying attention to. Exploration with parkour is just plain fun. The game doesn’t feel like it’s forcing the player to explore and complete every marker on the map, but rather giving the player options for how they want to approach the game. The survival aspects aren’t overwhelmingly hardcore, but feel tuned to provide the perfect amount of tension.
Really, the only things that are holding it back for me here are Aiden’s characterization, some wonky story moments growing out of the focus on choices affecting the plot, and some occasional navigation issues during quick parkour-ing. None of these are really deal breakers, although they occasionally created some moments of frustration during my playthrough. What is a big issue, though, is the extravagant amount of motion blur applied to the graphics. I’m hoping this is something Techland will fix ASAP.
Despite those issues, though, Dying Light 2 is definitely a lovingly crafted game, and one that I’d say is well worth any gamer’s time. Even if you’re just as sick of zombie tropes as I am.
Review copy provided by Techland for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Techland.