Dying Light – Final Review

At its core, Dying Light’s narrative is characterized by an abundance of potential, potential which is rarely realized. A very human dimension is present in the story, with a major emphasis upon suffering, the united inhabitants of the zombie-infested city of Harran in constant danger, constant oppression. Frequent are efforts at pathos, at evoking some larger emotional response, as the dire state of these individuals is communicated. Frustrating is the tangibility of a vaccine, a permanent end to these hardships, which, despite its tangibility, remains elusive, its acquisition dependent upon Kyle Crane, the protagonist, a particularly gifted, agile and resourceful fellow, capable of achieving feats unachievable by those others stranded in Harran; he becomes a savior of sorts, though his likability is similarly elusive – a mere everyman, his character is far from endearing, instead being of a more mundane sort. Still, this mundanity is gradually destroyed as the narrative progresses onwards, Crane showing considerable character development. Initially dropping into the city for reconnaissance and even for exploitative reasons, he rallies together the population, imparting a sense of strength – and making great progress. He who was once devoid of a conscience gradually grows to possess a swelling, compassionate conscience, prompting conflict with his employer, the shady GRE. Instead acting upon his heart, his everyman status is partially destroyed – endearment is, in the end, evoked. 

The cast of supporting characters is expansive, and swells considerably as the narrative progresses. Introduced in the very opening is a central character, who makes many contributions, assisting Crane, though herself showing trepidation and uncertainty, grappling with the role into which she has been thrust; here are no vile intentions, the altruistic overtaking all – Jade is characterized by her empathy for those suffering in Harran. An implicit romance erupts between she and Crane, imparting some depth in both figures involved in the relationship – love can still blossom in darkness, if it is eagerly sought, or arises organically. In further efforts to seize upon human aspects, almost every NPC in the gameworld is named, even those totally inconsequential to the narrative. In practice, this muddles the narrative, as dozens and dozens of names are thrown around. Still, some characters display excellency, humanity. Beyond Jade and Crane, there exists the skeptical leader, Brekkan; thrust into a position of power for his immense resolve, he is characterized by much internal conflict, showing character depth; his hesitancy regarding his leadership role is in time displaced by an embracing of that role – the people need another savior beyond Crane, and he assumes that mantle eagerly. Various medical figures are also introduced, having an especially vital role to play when considering their doctoral knowledge, their capabilities to stave off total destruction, while another, plucky youth is also central to the narrative, serving as companion to Brekkan; with his youthfulness, he staves off total dejection, even as the world disintegrates around him – Harran is a place of survivors.  

While the infection proper is a central antagonist, another, secondary antagonist is promptly introduced – Rais. As a figure, his motivations seem cliched, centering around the acquisition of power, an exploitation of Harran’s survivors; given the immensity and numeric greatness of his supporters, success in this endeavor is a tangible possibility; just as Jade is characterized by her altruism, Rais is characterized by total darkness. Repeated are the efforts to convey that dark corruption, even as his appearances are relatively infrequent, emerging from time to time to oppress and belittle Crane, that compelling, resolute figure. With his darkness, his indifference for the fate of Harran, attempts at pathos are again made; this man is a man of power, and with that power inevitably comes disaster, emotional destruction. Despite his rather compelling if unoriginal characterization, the ultimate showdown of which he is participant is rather lackluster; all throughout has his menace been communicated, and yet the conclusion, the final battle, falters greatly. After a literal odyssey, the vaccine discovered and constructed, combat erupts atop a towering skyscraper, its ascension being another, smaller odyssey. Here, the engagement devolves into a mere quick time event, cinematic but unengaging. To the last, he clings to his vileness, even on the verge of death, willing and eager to plunge Harran into perpetual darkness, even as he stands to gain nothing consequential; the people could, must, go free. But no. Here, his antagonism is emphasized for one final moment; let all of the citizens burn. Cliched though he may be, something indefinably appealing is attached to his character, given the resoluteness he displays in always pursing his objectives, whatever they may be.    

Harran as environment can be dazzlingly beautiful, possessive of considerable uniqueness, embracing as inspiration Middle Eastern stylings, with trees suitable to that setting lining many of the game’s streets, existing also on the fringe of the maps, even as urban environments receive the greatest emphasis; towering, dizzyingly high buildings stretch ever upwards, conveying a commanding sense of largeness. Actually scaling these structures helps communicate the game’s expansive draw distance, proving also the opportunity to admire the game’s beauty from above; larger buildings are visible in the distance, while a sprawling sports stadium looms majestically, far removed from the city, a reminder of happier times, where leisure and gaiety were permitted, were realities. Plumes of smoke fill the air, sprouting from fires which exist in menacing abundance, themselves signs of destruction, Harran’s devastation. Subtle particle effects are blowing always in the wind, also conveying destruction, permeating the very air, breathable but only just. With the fires and vehicles lining the highways, the spontaneity of abandonment is conveyed, showing Harran’s citizens as being caught unawares of the zombie outbreak, safe and happy one moment then promptly overwhelmed by opposition, possessive of strengths far dwarfing their own; with the fires, with the particle effects, with the stranded vehicles, nothing has been able to escape unscathed the outbreak; environmentally, then, constant are the successes, believability expertly captured, as the survivors cluster together in various settlements, realizing there is strength in numbers. Some settlements are isolated, the population not excessively large. Others, like a tower area which serves as mission hub for much of the narrative’s first act, are thronging with people, life, and lingering vestiges of hope.    

Dying Light’s gameplay marks its greatest success, whether congregating with the citizens in their settlements, or braving the immense dangers of the wider city proper. Central to the gameplay are parkour and mobility freedoms, marking commanding originality, resulting also in persistent player engagement – it is difficult to describe how engrossing, how perfect and liberating these systems are; fluidity and gracefulness characterize all of Crane’s movements, exhilarating sensations abounding, subtle motion blur when moving conveying the immensity of speed achieved. Despite the apparent complexity of these systems, they are intuitive, easy to learn, though rather difficult to truly master. Accompanying that mastery, though, are remarkable feats of agility. As the narrative progresses onwards, more and more skills are unlocked, only bolstering the joys of mobility; the game shows considerable ambition in these skill systems. While the Crane of the beginning is certainly competent in parkour, having a preternatural skill for the activity, the Crane of the conclusion is of a decidedly different, stronger sort. Barely crossing perilous gaps, the wide city streets some fair distance below; surviving a fall from great height by landing upon a trash-filled dumpster or stranded vehicle; effortlessly scaling one of the city’s many towering skyscrapers – countless are instances of enjoyability, these systems central to the game’s overall identity. Whatever are its failings, here is a massive achievement., verticality being central to the various design philosophies – everything is deliberately constructed around these systems, though somehow the organic and plausible are maintained, environments believable without seeming constructed around design tropes, avoiding “gaminess.” Were these systems of a more cliched sort, or were underdeveloped, the game would be deprived of its greatest strength, devolving into mundanity, becoming a title like any other. Instead, novelty, and, more critically innovation are realized.   

Beyond exploration and locomotion, the second key gameplay pillar is related to combat; parkour may be emphasized, evasion encouraged over direct melee, though inevitably full out conflict will erupt. Superficially, these systems show no depth, seeming uninvolved, rather derivative, stealing ideas from other melee-focused games; swing the weapon about wildly, indifferent to stamina, instead focusing solely upon maximizing damage. At the opening, this, seemingly, is the expectation. In acting in this manner, though, swift and total destruction arise, the game being of a punishing sort, necessitating concerted effort in mastering the systems, which eventually show considerable depth. Central to success in combat is the mentioned stamina meter, every combat action accordingly draining the value of that meter; regular attacks deplete a fair amount, power attacks depleting it considerably; finding a balance between these two attacking styles becomes a necessity. Once the meter is depleted, Crane is essentially helpless; attacks can still be made, but they are of a slow, laborious sort, ineffective. The end result is a more measured fighting style, rather than a simple flailing about or a mashing of the attack button. Similarly central to success – and incorporating elements from the parkour – is a dodge maneuver. Crane can dodge in nearly every detection, evading the oppositions’ blows, or simply proving redirection, new tactical freedoms. Cleverly – and forgivingly – these options are not dependent upon the stamina meter, instead being available always. Dodging, striking, waiting for the meter to recharge – it can all be rather riveting. Given the mindless nature of zombies-as-figures, the opposition is not always engaging to combat, instead embracing the generic, which can lower combat enjoyments slightly, though even with their generic nature, even the most basic of grunts can pose a considerable challenge; getting mobbed by these foes also results in prompt and total destruction. Alternate enemy types do inject some life into the combat, though, with especially hasty enemies and those which can spew damning acids at the player.    

The progression systems are also profound achievements, character growth immense, extending even beyond agility, growth also extending towards combat, while larger, more general upgrades are also obtained in one tree, titled Crane’s “survivor level.” The end game is vastly removed from the game’s opening. While this is a blanket statement which could be attached to almost all games with robust progression systems, it is especially prominent here, the extent of change magnified. Taking vague inspiration from the Edler Scrolls series, every action confers experience points; surviving a fall from considerable height or clearing an especially large gap awards agility points, the precise nature of the action completely determining the amount of points dispersed; every action, no matter how basic, reflects constant character growth, and raising these points was an especially enjoyable affair. Scaling a skyscraper or radio tower is an exhilarating, enjoyable affair in its own right, when considering the engaging nature of the core gameplay. But scaling that same structure knowing that the act of ascent will reward considerable agility points incentives the action, only amplifying the rewards. The agility tree is leveled up organically, gradually elevating as Harran is explored. Combat growth is a natural occurrence, too, even as the growth here seems rather sluggish when relative to agility growth, which increases so rapidly as a fast-travel system is absent – locomotion is again emphasized. The survivor level is similarly important, and is increased whenever supply drops are delivered to quarter-masters, or when completing a primary or secondary mission. Also generously distributed, growth is fairly rapid, and when considering these systems collectively, grinding never becomes a necessity, growth instead being a natural offshoot of traditional gameplay. This absence of grinding, meanwhile, results in a constant maintenance of the game’s always brisk pacing. True, supply drops can be deliberately sought out, a diversion which can take a considerable span of time, but even if these are ignored, new skills and abilities are always in sight. Were the skills boring or lackluster, none of this would matter. But not so, with purchaseable combat abilities like a jumping kick or sliding kick, abilities which permit the crafting of a grappling hook, abilities which permit the scaling of larger objects, a camouflaging ability, and abilities which can increase stamina in combat and mobility, with these abilities useable in clever synergy, incredible feats accomplishable upon their unlocking.  

Even with all of these abilities unlocked, the game is frequently of a brutal sort, its punishing nature occasionally veering into cheapness. In almost all locations in Harran – save for the various safe zones – the zombies exist in fair abundance, some specific areas having a dramatic overabundance. Given the mobility options and opportunities for evasion, in many instances this opposition can be avoided, open combat turned away from. But if speed and momentum are lost, and especially if Crane is on the ground, away from the perpetual bastions found while far above, far removed from the city streets, the zombies can seize upon Crane – and, likely, deliver swift and total death. Even these basic grunts can possess considerably exaggerated health bars, stronger than would be expected when given the role of basicness they embody; in other titles, such enemies would be mere cannon fodder; but not so in Dying Light, challenge existing in and thriving in almost all scenarios – every opponent is uniquely threatening. The cheapness arises, though, when considering the positioning of certain enemy types. One especially threatening zombie possesses the ability to self-detonate, while the blast radius for that explosion is often immense, right alongside an immensity of inflicted damage; should Crane come in range of the explosion, death again is almost a certainty. Fair enough. The frustrating aspects, though, stem from their positioning, often being located around corners or congesting corridors which must be explored for progression – there is no way of discerning their location here without first stumbling upon them – and dying. It is a bizarre design decision, and with every emergence of these characters came undue tension.

Balancing issues are also present. In some engagements, melee combat is departed from, replaced instead by combat with firearms, fighting in these scenarios confined almost exclusively to Rais’s men, with absurd damage outputs – here are talented marksman. Objectively, these gunplay systems are not totally uninspired affairs – animation quality and recoil patterns are admirable, though it is impossible to shake off the comparative basicness of gunplay relative to melee combat – here are no stamina meters, no dodges, no heavy and light attacks. Instead, here is crude unrefinement. The balancing problem arises when considering the dearth of ammunition for these guns; it is possible – and likely – to stumble into these squadrons with insufficient ammunition, and accordingly no chance of success. A lazy overlooking is implied, as if the developers failed to realize the existence of these flaws, to compensate for them – a bit more generous ammo distribution, just enough to succeed, could rectify these immense combat failings, the pervasive sense of cheapness.   

Playing on the hard difficulty, certainly some of these challenges are justified, resulting in a maintenance of tension, artificial though that tension may be. Successes – and failures – arise when considering the game’s positioning in the survival horror genre, the tropes of which are here eagerly embraced. Crafting becomes central to gameplay, with weapon blueprints scattered about the many environments or won by questing. Each of these blueprints requires a predetermined parameter of items for their construction – a flaming weapon may require a sword and alcohol for construction, alongside many other materials, sometimes in short supply; even when judiciously searching for the rarer items, they can remain elusive. When they are found, then, certain excitement arises, their discovery equating to an escalation of power, with various applyable effects, bleeding among them, alongside weapons which deal shock or fire damage, and more exotic ones which can inflict toxic effects. The survivor elements shine through in a different element of crafting, though, namely around that involving the construction of more crucial items, such as med kits, grenades, or molotov cocktails. Med kits and cocktails have an overlap in ingredients needed for crafting, often resulting in the difficult decision to choose between the two – one implies continued survival, while the other implies greater damage output and success in combat. The nature of this choice is highly compelling and complex, giving each individual item its own distinct value. When considering the occasional scarcity of these items, it is possible to spend hours exploring Harran, looking for these ingredients and continued success; going into a gunfight with six med kits as opposed to two has massive consequences.    

In somewhat of a failing, Dying Light suffers from a needlessly elongated length, my playthrough ending at roughly the fifty hour mark. Long video games such as this are not objectively bad things, some of them offering particularly enriching experiences, if the player is engaged in the core gameplay loop. Here, though, repetition gradually and totally set in, staleness overtaking all. At around the forty or forty five hour mark, all steam to complete the game had been totally drained away, instead playing the game merely to see its conclusion, ignoring the side content which was earlier eagerly embraced. In neglecting this secondary content, though, the overall experience seemed soured. As a title, Dying Light shows a stark imbalance of enjoyability. The campaign missions, actually, are rather frustrating and unenjoyable, given the emphasis on combat, the frequency with which tighter, more claustrophobic environments are explored. When situated therein, the game’s greatest strengths – the parkour – are all but totally removed, resulting in a rather unfun experience. The imbalance arises, though, when considering the secondary content, and how enjoyable it can be. But here are many paradoxes. For lore purposes, this secondary content shows a poverty of interesting scenarios, many being mundane fetch quests – obtain this item or that, deliver it to the quest giver. The framework for these quests, too, can seem rather lazy, with poor voice acting and unengaging text. On the surface, then, this content is pointless. But any added incentive to explore Harran is excellent, given the total soundness and excellence of gameplay systems, pointless though the objectives may be.

While belonging to a very saturated genre, and thus being largely devoid of originality, Dying Light does just enough to assert its own unique identity, much of that uniqueness stemming from its core gameplay systems, parkour being most notable. Avoiding enemies rather than engaging them directly is not especially novel – examine Outlast or Amnesia. But here, if combat does erupt, the player is not of a defenseless sort, capable of achieving success, even if it is difficultly won, the game a perpetual challenge. The frequent vacillation between combat and exploration results in continued gameplay freshness, even as the experience morphs into a simple slog, with the latter pillar being far more compelling than the former. Whichever pillar is currently dominating the gameplay, their soundness compensates for a flawed, unfocused narrative, one with potential for greatness, though which never strikes a truly resonant chord. Harran is oppressed, both by zombies and corrupt organizations. Still, despite the nature of the suffering being excellently conveyed, no poignant statement is ever made. Frequent are the game’s frustrations, even in gameplay. Enemies are impossibly resilient, remaining difficult even as skill points are won, abilities purchased. True, a highly compelling risk / reward scenario is present, exploring in the night conferring greater experience gains alongside the increase in opposition, the day / night cycle being frequently beautiful – and terrifying. Despite this beauty, the diversity of environments explored, manifold are the failings, even as mobility options offset those failings, showing the game as making some attempts at achieving originality, of asserting its own unique identity. That this ambition is present at all communicates the developer’s great love for their project; love being central to success, understandably many successes are achieved.

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