‘Dying Light’ and The True Terror of Zombies [Monster Mania]

Dying light

Monster Mania is a monthly column celebrating the unique and varied monster designs in horror gaming.

The first time I watched George Romero’s seminal zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, my big takeaway was, “I could survive that.” Granted, I was 11 then and assumed my adolescent athleticism would make light work of the hordes of slow, shambling zombies (as if another anecdote proving the male brain is slower to develop fully was needed). While the societal nuances of Romero’s work wouldn’t dawn on me for several years, my love of the undead was solidified from that point onward. Zombies’ grotesque levels of bodily degradation and the survival aspect of an apocalyptic wasteland had their hooks in me in a way that few other sub-genres did. While zombie movies were very much my thing, I never associated them with the same level of fear I felt when watching other films of my youth, such as Child’s Play, The Thing, or even Carnival of Souls

After all, how can you be scared of something you can outrun? 

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Danny Boyle’s masterpiece, 28 Days Later, was the course correction of my overzealous attitude towards the undead/infected. The film introduced the concept of rage-filled infected that could haul ass. The notion that you could be hunted by a creature that never loses steam, pushing its body past its human counterparts’ limitations, made the infected terrifying in a way that I had never regarded the undead with before.

However, while undead gaming masterpieces like Dead Rising 2 took the concept of Dawn of the Dead and brought it to new levels of creative lunacy, it never corrected the lack of fear I associated with a majority of zombie games. It wasn’t until recently that I finally checked out 2015’s Dying Light from developer Techland, and I came to experience true terror from zombies.

Albeit, a supercharged monstrosity that is Dying Light’s Volatiles. 

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Techland had previously dabbled in the undead, semi-open world space to varying degrees of success with their 2011 effort, Dead Island. Dead Island took the weapon customization of Dead Rising and blended it with the (drastically restricted) freedom of Far Cry. Unfortunately, Dead Island lacked the polish and world-building to live up to the potential of its undead paradise premise. 

Dying Light rectifies most of the issues Dead Island had while its undead hordes instilled genuine fear in me for the first time, possibly ever, in a video game. The game’s signature enemy, the Volatile, is mainly responsible for this level of palm-sweating fear. These behemoths of meat and muscle tower over their undead compatriots, making them an outlier based on looks alone. Basically, Volatiles are supercharged, special zombie types that cannot only take a ton of damage but dole out carnage and death with a few swings of their fists. 

Unlike Dying Light‘s other undead monstrosities, Volatiles only appear at night. This balances out the Volatiles’ inherent deadliness, adding more tension to their inevitable appearance while giving more credence to the importance of Dying Light‘s day-night cycle. 

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The simple solution to avoiding Volatiles would be, “Hey, don’t explore at night.” Techland smartly incentivizes the player to explore during the night by offering higher XP rewards for all actions, which can help boost your character abilities. While some still may not be enticed by the risk/reward aspect of nighttime exploration, Techland smartly removes the player’s option to avoid the dark periodically by having critical story missions unfold during nighttime.

These instances don’t feel so numerous that the fear of Volatiles and nighttime is ever stripped from them. There is also the feature that allows players to look behind them while running, triggering a brief moment of slow motion. Turning to see a Volatile running full speed through darkness and roaring, snapping at my heels in slow motion, is, to me, always a pants-shitting moment. 

Due to Volatiles’ extreme toughness, the players’ best defense is their mobility, which Dying Light emphasizes with its frequent foot chases. Volatiles will regularly beat the player in a footrace, but this is where the game’s Mirror’s Edge approach to environmental traversal comes into play. While Volatiles can mount walls and leap from buildings to pursue the player, this comes at the expense of their speed, which can often be the player’s saving grace when pursued. However, should the player stumble themselves, it leaves them susceptible to the Volatile’s strikes or spit attack, which can knock the player over, sending them crashing to the ground below. 

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Unlike Dying Light’s other zombies, the Volatile appears on the player’s mini-map, displaying a cone of the direction of their vision to show players their patrol pattern. When spotted by a Volatile, they omit a piercing roar and charge the player with a 40-yard dash time that would make an NFL running back tremble.

With any loot-centric, open-world game, the player will reach a point in their travels where they become overpowered to the degree they can deal with most, if not all, threats. This inevitably occurs in Dying Light, where the player amasses an arsenal and abilities that allow them to drop Volatiles. While not outright neutering their deadliness, the player starts to view Volatile’s as massive XP dumps, should they kill them. This comes in handy when delving into Dying Light‘s DLC content and sequel, which introduces new and deadlier variants of Volatiles. 

What allows this speed demon to remain such a daunting foe for a majority of Dying Light is the few means of combatting them. Firecracker lures here, a shine of a UV light there can deter them briefly, but for a majority of the experience, Volatile’s frequently remind the player that the things that go bump in the night will be nipping at their heels should they slip up and become too comfortable within the world of Harran. 


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