Dying Light reviewWritten by Laird Allen

Dying Light
Zombie Parkour Action

Dying Light is something of an inevitable hybrid. It’s a first person zombie action game – so far, absolutely standard, even somewhat retro for 2015. There are collectible systems, an open world, quest hubs and safehouses. Customizable weapons that give different effects of the shocky, burny, melty variety. There are unlockable skill trees, etc. What really makes the game stand out though is the movement mechanics, all based on parkour and some bizarre hybrid of judo and rugby. It’s a weirdly compelling combination that fits into a weirdly compelling game.

Dying Light takes place in the fictional city of Harran, a middle-eastern industrial berg that has been overtaken by a zombie apocalypse. Quarantined by the rest of the world, the overwhelming majority of the population has been converted to zombies ranging from the classic slow Romero-type shamblers to 28 Days Later runners and Left 4 Dead style mutated monstrosities/exploders/spitters.

Your character, Kyle Crane, is a combination secret agent and frat boy parkour enthusiast, sent in by a multinational coalition overseeing the quarantine to find a rogue agent and recover some information. All of this goes out the window in the first minute of the game, where you parachute in, get beat up by a bunch of masked men with pipes, get bitten by a zombie and then get rescued by a world class gymnast with dreadlocks.

From there, you uncover a conflict between two groups of survivors, one led by your rogue agent, and start taking on tasks for them in order to get to him and achieve your mission. This is a weak enough justification, and much like Far Cry 4, there’s so much to do that what starts out as a reasonable effort rapidly turns into weeks of game-time spent collecting flowers and crayons and the game slows to a crawl until its final denouement. But keen readers will note that Dying Light is a product of Techland, the same studio that produced Dead Island- not a story-heavy developer.

So, the things Dying Light does well – the basic gameplay is great fun. You run through the slums of the dead city, pursued by zombie hordes. You loot every container you come across, hoping to find an energy bar or a hammer. You improvise weapons that range from a simple board with a nail in it up to an electric poison katana. You harvest plants to make combat drugs and kill special zombies for their organs. You wait, in mounting fear, for the singular horrors and greater rewards of nightfall, and when you are trapped you barricade yourself in a hovel and hide under the bed, hoping for live til dawn. The main character, who starts out generic, begins to be more relatable as he expresses the frustration the player feels. You follow a plot that is thin to the point of vanishing, but there’s always tons to do, even if some of it means getting pounded into jam over and over again until you figure out a strategy that works. The parkour, vaulting buildings, mantling walls and zombies, kicking out knees and throwing baddies off of overpasses – when it works, it has a fluidity that make Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge look like total chumps. 

That said, the game has big problems. First, it is very difficult sometimes to know when and where you can jump to/climb on/vault over. The design is consistent everywhere except for the more story-centric sections of the game, where the stakes are highest. This makes for frustrating moments in the game where, for plot reasons, you have to find a circuitous route up a radio tower rather than just climbing the obvious cable tray that goes right to the top. Not infrequently, you will get mauled because what looks like a climbable ledge just isn’t, and you’ll bounce off into a zombie horde. The game penalizes you for death with experience point loss, which keeps you from learning new skills. The irony of Dying Light’s advancement system is that the game actually gets much easier as you play it because you unlock things like “my weapon doesn’t break as much” and “slide kick”, so that when you get them, you’re grateful but the early part of the game has an artificial heightened difficulty curve in your absence. It’s enormously frustrating.

There’s another issue that I’d like to point out, and it would be less troubling were it not for the fact that developer Techland famously included a statue of a dismembered female body in a bikini with their previous game Dead Island. Dying Light is a game of brutal violence and action, and for some reason, the developers felt the need to include a ton of female zombies in their underpants. This is already kind of icky, but considering that you need to set these zombies on fire, kick them onto razor sharp spikes, and immerse them in acid, it ends up feeling really gross from time to time.  I’m not saying that games can’t have female antagonists, but when they are represented solely by faceless monsters that scream incoherent pleas and then get kicked until their heads explode, it begins to reflect badly on the development team. While the game is totally inappropriate for any but adult gamers anyway, I was actually embarrassed to play it in front of my female friends because it comes off horribly tone deaf.

Dying Light is not a bad game, by any means- merely ill-considered in places. Though it lacks the beautiful art design of Far Cry 4, the ruined city hellscape of Harran is compelling and frequently a desolate beauty creeps in. The storyline, as mentioned, is thin but effective and bolstered by the borrowing of excellent infection and hallucination sequences, which are becoming very common in modern games but still thrill when done well. This game is a solid recommendation if you are not put off by gore, horror, and the occasional controller throwing frustration. A recommend.

Dying Light is by Techland. It is available PS3, PS4, Xbox360, XboxOne, and Windows, and retails for about $59.99. It is suitable for mature gamers only.