When developer Techland added the subtitle "Stay Human" to Dying Light 2, it seemed to signal the team's intentions to rediscover (and showcase) the humanity nestled at the core of the story. Since 2018, the team has made promises about the numerous narrative branches Dying Light 2 players would find in the game. Those branches are there, and they are indeed plentiful, but experiencing them felt equivalent to falling out of a tree and hitting my face on every branch on the way down. While Dying Light 2's most crucial element, first-person parkour, is certainly better than it's ever been in this massive sequel, much of the rest of the game fails to keep up.
Dying Light 2 is set in the fictional Villedor, a new city in the story, and features a fresh, grizzled hero central to its conflict. As a "pilgrim," an outsider perceived as dangerous to the few remaining safe zones in the world, Aiden Caldwell ventures into Villedor in search of his sister Mia, whom he last saw years ago when they were both kids. Through hazy flashbacks that aren't clear enough for even Aiden to rely on, his and Mia's story is poorly delivered early and often. It feels as though simply telling players that Aiden and Mia are siblings is meant to be enough for the player to care about their hopeful reunion, but Techland struggles to show why anyone should be invested in Mia beyond the familial connection. She becomes a living Macguffin, meant to justify Aiden's video gamey escapades as a side-questing superstar leaping across tall buildings in a single bound.
Surrounding Aiden is a wide cast of characters who can sometimes be diverse and interesting, but ultimately share one thing in common: poor voice acting. While Aiden's actor, Jonah Scott, does well, and Rosario Dawson deserves some credit for her role as his part-time ally, Lewan, that's about it in terms of voice talent. Other characters try and fail to pull on heartstrings, in part because of the subpar acting, and the less important the quest is, the worse the acting tends to be too. Sometimes the only thing more awkward than how a character said a particular line is that they said it at all. The writing routinely misses the mark.
It doesn't help that the game's tone shifts so frequently that players might experience emotional whiplash. When accepting a wildly silly or deadly serious character for who they are, it's a constant struggle to feel invested in what they're asking of Aiden because they so often come off as wooden and disjointed. It can be difficult to account for precisely how a conversation will be heard in a finished game with so many branching paths, and that can lead to line delivery issues, but Dying Light 2 seems to sidestep the years of progress made in RPGs to address this particular hurdle much to every character's detriment. There was no one I cared to spend time with other than Aiden himself, because he's nearly the only character who sounds like a real person.
Dying Light 2's bad story manages to get even worse by its end, when a final act and frustrating final boss upend any possibility that there would be something to salvage by the game's 50th hour. This is a game that was billed as offering 500 hours of content, largely due to its number of quests and branching paths, but if my job didn't require it, I'd have skipped every cutscene and dialogue option after the first hour or so.
Should you decide to play that way, you'll very likely enjoy your time in Villedor more than I did. That's because, for all of its story woes, the open world and how you explore it are genuinely fun. First-person platforming is a tricky feat, but Techland flexes its muscles and improves on something that was already very good. After a few upgrades, it becomes clear that Aiden is faster and more impressive than Kyle Crane ever was in the first game. Aiden is better equipped too, with sandbox staples like a grappling hook and glider to further enhance his travels.
In some ways, this core strength makes Dying Light 2 work where so many other open-world games don't; rather than players focusing on the major beats–the main quests and most exciting side missions–and leaving a lot of the so-called filler untouched, here those peripheral activities represent the game's finest work. Parkour time trials or even just scaling some of the game's biggest skyscrapers is quality, repeatable fun. Tightrope-walking a mile above the city while the wind threatens to leave you splattered below provides an immersive guttural sense of dread. Meanwhile, exploring abandoned stores for valuables while the undead sleep hunched over like something out of a horror movie puts the emphasis on scares in a way I wish there was more of.
This is aided by a skill tree that has very few undesirable perks. Each time I could acquire a new skill, I had to pause and really consider what I'd want–need, really–next for Aiden. These skills are broken into combat and parkour, so I farmed XP pretty reliably just by doing the things I wanted to do better anyway. Armor and gear perks add an additional role-playing wrinkle that had me feeling less like a hoarder, but rather, smarter for keeping different outfits as builds for the anti-hero.
The combat doesn't shine as brightly as the parkour, but it's not the game's darkest blemish. When faced with hordes of infected, including many new special types such as Howlers that signal a mass of monsters, and Anomalies, grotesque mini-bosses waiting in arenas at night, the combat is at its best. Managing a crowd when different types of monsters are slow or fast, tank-like, or agile, makes for the good kind of stress this game was always meant to have. Even after 50 hours, it's difficult to control a crowd of zombies without working up a good sweat in the process.
Combat with humans, most often the tropey Renegades who dress like Legion of Doom superfans, is less enjoyable because it regularly comes down to performing the same small moveset on every crowd of bad guys: dodge, slash, and slash. There's room for doing some cooler moves, like a vaulting ability that lets you catapult off one enemy onto another, but rarely is there incentive to be so stylish. I eventually ditched a lot of this fluff in favor of the dropkick that sends villains satisfyingly flailing off of rooftops. That one truly never gets old.
Stealth mechanics are such an afterthought that it's hard to rationalize why they're involved at all. Infiltrating enemy bases and taking them out quietly is the sort of fun Far Cry has been driven by for a decade, but Dying Light's intent to mimic it fails because there are so few tall grass areas in the world, which is about the only way to hide from human enemies. Dashing across rooftops while the infected lurk in the streets at night has a more enjoyable feeling to it, but even then, going to street level even for a moment can prove frustrating because Howlers spot Aiden so quickly. This reimagining of the series' night cycle basically turns every touch of the sidewalk into a run for your life. I found myself wishing for the original game's vision cones at times. At least that way made a bit more sense from the player's point of view.
No matter what you're doing–be it chasing down a story lead, parkouring for the fun of it, or running for your life, the soundtrack masterfully reacts to every step in a way I've not seen done in games before. The dynamic music composed by industry titan Olivier Deriviere shifts from story to side mission to open-world exploration without missing a beat, even going so far as to let the air out of the soundtrack whenever you take a jump, helping to give you that rollercoaster-like sense of weightlessness. Strangely enough, the music ends up creating a much stronger sense of atmosphere and consequences within Dying Light 2 than its story.
Despite all the time in the figurative oven, Dying Light 2 still feels a bit unpolished too. Bugs weren't at the forefront of my bad times with the game–usually–but I witnessed things like sandbox activities being broken, a windmill puzzle that refused to be climbed, and a particular river that, when I fell in, would often not let me climb back onto land. Most often seen was an issue with the game's geometry, where I'd get stuck on some objects for reasons I couldn't understand. Thankfully a bit of button-mashing usually fixed those hiccups, and bugs rarely affected any of the game's best bits: the first-person parkour.
Playing co-op in Dying Light 2 does make the experience a bit more fun. Bringing friends to activities like military convoys, bandit camps, and GRE anomalies makes them all a lot more manageable, and with the exception of the prologue, you can play the entire game in co-op, right down to its lackluster final boss. I've seen my co-op sessions disconnect several times already, which is frustrating, but if there's any saving grace, it's that frequent auto-saves mean I'm not losing much but a few minutes to reboot the session each time.
Though you can complete missions, side missions, and even earn achievements or trophies in co-op, every box is checked according to the host's instance of the world. I took weapons and XP back to my own save file, but my map was still disappointingly full of things I'd already done in co-op. This limitation ultimately leaves me feeling like co-op is a fun distraction--and best in the endgame--but not how I'd play the full experience.
If all of this sounds rather inconsistent, it's meant to. Dying Light 2 is a perplexing game. Its story and characters are headache-inducing, and it appears to lack polish in many areas. But even a dozen hours after I rolled credits, I've found myself going back to the game to do another parkour challenge, rummage through another abandoned science lab, or just see if I can get from Point A to Point B without ever hitting the ground. It's rough around the edges and it asks players to invest a lot in its weakest element, but once you realize the story, like gravity, is only going to pull you down, you can begin to defy it and enjoy the things Dying Light 2 actually does well.