Don’t rage against the dying of the light—just let it happen

I was a fan of the original Dead Island. I didn’t think it was the end-all, be-all of zombie games—and the open-world undead action-adventure has come so far in such a short time—but I thought developer Techland had laid a wonderful foundation of gameplay mechanics, and I was excited to see what they’d do next. Then they gave us Dead Island: Riptide, practically a carbon copy of their first game that did little to further the gameplay or lore of the world. It left a sour taste in the mouths of many, myself included.

The announcement of Dying Light gave me hope that maybe Techland had merely hit a sophomore slump with this genre and that a new franchise would be just what they needed to get back on track. Dying Light would offer the developer a fresh start, with a new open world to craft, new characters to explore, and new gameplay mechanics to tinker with. Unfortunately, it just serves as the latest failure to enthrall the zombie-enthused masses.

Techland’s biggest blunder comes with the story. Dying Light stars Kyle Crane, possibly the most incompetent special forces agent in the history of video games. In the opening cutscene alone, Kyle botches his insertion into Harran (the fictional city that serves as the setting of this latest zombie outbreak), gets himself infected, and allows the guy who saved him to be killed. As the game progresses, Kyle’s stupidity begins to feel like a running joke, more sad than funny (I mean, I think I murmur more intelligent things in my sleep than this guy said over the course of the entire game).

Kyle is only the start of the story’s problems, unfortunately. Dying Light is full of one-note characters like the primary antagonist, Rais, a man reminiscent of a cheesy B-movie villain who kills hapless henchman on a whim and angrily pontificates about order versus chaos. There’s also the strong independent woman/potential love interest, Jade, who’s pretty and nice to you—and, therefore, you must care about her and her plights.

At times, though, Dying Light does seem to stumble onto some potential emotional gravitas. On more than one occasion, Kyle’s ineptitude gets friends killed, usually as a result of unwittingly leading Rais’ men to where survivors are hiding out. Despite Techland dragging me around by the nose like Curly in a Three Stooges short, I still grew to care about some of these survivors. Techland mercilessly stomped on those moments by quickly moving into prolonged action sequences, however, instead of allowing me to feel the full weight of their deaths.

Whereas the story completely failed in its endeavor to entertain me, at least Dying Light’s gameplay remains as a bastion of sorts from the loophole-laden cutscenes and dialogue that haphazardly forces the story forward. Take the day/night cycle, for example. During the day, the zombies, while still hostile, are far more manageable than at night, where the horde has larger numbers, moves faster, react more intelligently, hit stronger, and several new types of purely nocturnal zombies come out—some of which can deliver one-hit kills.

Daring to go out at night in these worsened conditions rewards the player with double experience—and even an XP bonus if you survive until sunrise. This provides an enjoyable risk/reward system, and adds some much-needed tension to the story’s scripted nighttime sequences.

The best part of Dying Light’s gameplay, though, is its world-traversal system. I’m hesitant to refer to it as “parkour,” because you’re rarely ever truly parkouring—and even if you are, because of the first-person camera, you really can’t tell. But being able to actively climb on almost anything in the world, grabbing onto nearly every ledge, and quickly conquering the world’s verticality is an invigorating feeling.

The parkour makes traversing Harran more enjoyable, and it also gives you the option to run away from a fight if the zombies ever become too much to handle—you simply scramble up the nearest scaffolding or building façade. This helps keep the repetitive hack-n-slash melee action seen in the game—also an issue in Dead Island—feeling a bit more fresh.  

Not everything borrowed from Dead Island becomes less humdrum here, however. Dying Light uses a similar crafting and weapon degradation system, encouraging you to tediously look through or lockpick nearly every crate you find. Sidequests are also the same—unexciting fetch quests I’ve become far too accustomed to at this point. Some, infuriatingly, require multiple stops before you get the little bit of cash, XP, or item the questgiver will award you. Plus, the two distinctive areas of Harran don’t change or improve if you complete these quests. They just feel like a cheap way to lengthen the experience dramatically, since there seem to be about three sidequests to every story objective.

I did appreciate how different Harran’s two areas felt—they even forced me to change how I played. The game begins in the Slums, and about 60 percent of the story takes place here. The Slums have a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor to them, and although the area isn’t as graphically vivid as I’d like, the world feels crafted to take advantage of the traversal gameplay with plenty of ledges and easily crossable gaps between shacks.

Old Town, meanwhile, is the exact opposite, with grandiose buildings and towers that have a Western European feel. Bright colors and exotic signs are everywhere, and the area’s not nearly as scarred by the outbreak as the Slums. Old Town offers much wider streets, however, making it more difficult to traverse safely across the rooftops without the aid of a zipline. I found the differences between the two areas enjoyable, even if I’d rather play in the Slums.

Like with most of Techland’s work, I see the potential in Dying Light. But it comes across as yet another project where the developer can’t seem to get out of their own way. The parkour and risk/reward systems of the day/night cycle are nice aspects, but whether it’s in the writing or the game design, Dying Light tries too often to offer something for everyone—and instead offers nothing of real note to anyone because it never digs past the surface of its characters or mechanics.

Maybe one day, Techland will be able to put it all together and make that grand zombie epic they’ve been dreaming about. Given Dying Light’s boring, repetitive quests and complete mess of a story, though, we should just let it quietly fade to black.

Developer: Techland • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 01.27.15
The parkour and risk/reward of the day/night cycle are nice features, but they aren’t enough to overcome the abysmal writing or the boring, repetitive fetch quests that unnecessarily bloat this game.
The Good Risk/reward system of the day/night cycle; parkour is surprisingly competent.
The Bad Abysmal writing; the entire game is one long monotonous fetch quest.
The Ugly We’re starting to scrape the bottom of the zombie-naming barrel with descriptions such as “Biters” and “Volatiles.”
Dying Light is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review.