So light is her footfall...
The second and final episode of Burial at Sea provides a space to say goodbye. It's possibly the last we'll hear of the BioShock Infinite and definitely the final time we'll see anything of its scale from the talented minds at Irrational Games. It's also a farewell to a generation of software defined through linear and story-focused shooters, with Infinite, arguably (of course), serving as the pinnacle of that particular experience. How far Episode 2 goes to distance its gameplay from BioShock Infinite's blueprint is outmatched only by the indulgent spectacle of its writhing narrative - a risk not fully conscious of its consequences. Through success, failure, and to simply to admire the sunset of a generation, the conclusion of Burial at Sea is a worthwhile experience.
The first episode of Burial at Sea bears mentioning. Split down the middle between a leisurely stroll through Rapture and a plunge through dynamic combat sequences, it only had something interesting to say when it reached its conclusion. Episode 1 wasn't so much about the build-up as it was the inevitable rug-pulling moment right before the credits rolled and a four month blockade was erected to guard Episode 2. Stated more literally, an alternate-reality Booker, hot on the trail of a Little Sister named Sally, was mortally wounded by a Big Daddy. Booker was also exposed to the reality that he was also Comstock, a revelation paramount to BioShock Infinite-proper, which simultaneously alienated Elizabeth. These revelations created a few too many winding threads, and it set the tone for the parade of crazy ideas sprinkled through Episode 2.
We'll get there, but first it’s necessary to characterize how much differently Episode 2 plays from its brethren. Objectively, it's a stealth game. Taking the role of Elizabeth, the player has considerably less health and a different combat dynamic from Booker. Likewise, Elizabeth is also predisposed to lighter movement and lacks Booker's history of violence. She's neither capable nor effective at Booker's brand of ultra-violence. Episode 2's gameplay caters to Elizabeth's adjusted methodology, offering the coveted chance at a no-kill playthrough. This change in approach doesn’t change the pacing and design of BioShock Infinite; it's still huge set pieces and connected areas stuffed with patrolling foes - not to mention the brief but egregious dump of aggressors - but plays a bit differently than before.
The best new tool to aid Elizabeth's approach to combat? The Peeping Tom plasmid. At the onset it burns Eve to allow Elizabeth to see aggressors and tunnel locations through walls. It can also grant her the ability to move while completely invisible. Finding some upgrades along the way, it transforms her into a pure stealth machine, negating Eve cost if she remains completely still. On one hand it's a responsible narrative approach to stealth, allowing her to sneak up behind fools and incapacitate them with a well-placed blow to the head. On the other, toward the end of Episode 2, it completely breaks the game. Enemies can only be non-lethally dispatched when they're not-alert (handily revealed though a yellow hue in the user interface), so my strategy became revealing myself to draw them in, going invisible until their alert-status went away and then cleanly getting rid of them. All of them. A bit of difficulty was added through teleporting Splicers and armored foes, but nothing that felt insurmountable or un-cheeseable.
While I didn't favor a play-style that obliged lethal options, there are a couple evenly divided through Elizabeth's combat suite. She has the option to carry a few firearms, albeit with limited ammo, though I found it much easier to use her sleep-dart-loaded crossbow. At two opposing ends of the spectrum, the Old Man Winter plasmid now knocks foes out while Possession seemed disposed to excessive, although indirect, violence. Ironsides, the other new plasmid, boasted the ability to absorb bullets and refuel ammunition. She can also use Infinite's famous skyhooks, which, though lacking their racetracks, still make escape-favored movement a breeze. In any case ground littered with guard-alerting broken glass and loud splashing water forces the player to err on the side of a cautious approach.
The most alluring and engaging hooks of Episode 2 lie with its narrative implications. Oddly, they pull BioShock Infinite’s grand story in opposing directions. In some areas they expand upon the revelations merely hinted at through Infinite, and in others they go completely crazy trying to haphazardly intertwine the worlds of BioShock and BioShock Infinite. The delivery has been improved; key-details are assigned to direct-delivery as opposed to being hidden away in audiologs. Among these details are reaches, ret-cons, and realities revealed consistently throughout Episode 2's five-hour runtime, almost as if the game doesn't know when to ease off the gas or plow ahead full-throttle.
I found it disappointing. Rapture's cameo in the closing moments of BioShock Infinite was cool because it was a cameo, because it merely hinted at larger narrative with, well, infinite possibilities. I understand that fans, not to mention Irrational personnel, might enjoy the opportunity to see and experience Rapture with six years of new technology and expanding ideas behind it, but to me it cheapened the experience of its presence in BioShock Infinite. Coupled with the fact that Episode 2 changes the motivation of a particularly important figure in Infinite and ruthlessly tries to assert connections that didn't require an explanation and it felt more like (extremely) well produced fan-fiction and not the masterwork of a world-class studio. Its dependence on BioShock and BioShock Infinite's finer plot-points and its obsession with filling in the blanks executed any sense of Infinite's alluring ambiguity. I felt tasked to think about details from games I played years ago rather than ponder the presented fiction of Episode 2.
Even in its mild failure, Episode 2 remains interesting as a specimen of its time. Who am I to expect something as marvelous and revelatory as the proper game? Why can't it just be a cool one-off approach rendered in AAA assets? What if Irrational knew they might be on their way out so they just delivered a wild deep-dive into their own fiction? Do any of these ideas matter to you? At times these things are more interesting to think about than Episode 2's surface value, and call to mind the recent surge of narrative-focused independent titles. Nothing of that caliber will look this good or boast a scope this grand for years to come, so what's the harm in enjoying a brief dalliance in an extraordinary realm?