As is the case with all game reviews on the blog, this review assumes that you’ve played the game in question. As such, it contains spoilers for both the main game and the DLC. You’ve been warned.
Episode 2 of Burial at Sea opens with Elizabeth enjoying a lazy afternoon in a fantasy version of Paris. Children frolic in the streets, while artists and shopkeepers joyfully hawk their wares. There’s a bright sun in the sky, and flowers line the windowsills. This fantasy not only represents an indulgence for Elizabeth, who has always wanted to visit Paris, but also for the player, who could spent a good half-hour just soaking in the sights and sounds.
Of course, this indulgence isn’t real, and the fantasy soon gives way to grim reality: Elizabeth is passed out, hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface, and she’s no closer to finding Sally than she was before. Thus, episode 2’s introduction serves as a recap of one of the messages of the main game: a constructed reality is nothing but a temporary indulgence; it can’t last.
Given the game’s warnings against indulgence, it’s ironic that episode 2 ends up feeling quite indulgent, as if it’s just as interested in amusing the devs as it is in entertaining players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it holds the DLC back from its full potential.
Before proceeding further, let’s answer an important question: is episode 2 better than episode 1?
Of course it is. Episode 1 was an embarrassment. All episode 2 would have had to do to improve on it is being basically competent and functional. Episode 2 does that and more.
For starters, episode 2 isn’t a broken mess. There are a couple of bugs. Sometimes, Elizabeth becomes immobile after taking damage and won’t budge until I make her fire a shot. But other than that, the game works.
Where episode 2 really improves over the first, though, is in the gameplay department. Episode 2 puts a welcome focus on stealth and survival, which is a much better fit for Rapture’s tight, closed spaces than the main game’s loud, explosive gunplay. The limited mechanics and resources make it feel like a survival horror game; the player never gets a chance to feel tough or powerful. The stealth mechanics are slightly undercooked, however, and being able to climb and lie prone would have been helpful additions.
The story is also much improved (though not perfect – more on that in a bit). Whereas episode 1’s plot was rooted in a twist that not only was utterly predictable but also robbed the entire thing of any emotional resonance, episode 2 chooses to convey all emotionally relevant material upfront, instead making mysteries out of its plot details. By concentrating on Elizabeth and her state of mind, Burial at Sea engenders empathy for her in the player, which is no small feat, considering that episode 1 nearly made a villain out of her. A lot of credit has to go to Courtnee Draper, whose stellar vocal performance brings Elizabeth to life.
Episode 2 also provides some possibly welcome quasi-retcons. It shows us that the Luteces told Daisy Fitzroy to sacrifice herself for Elizabeth’s good. Voxophone recordings provide some further justification for Daisy’s decision to start a violent uprising. It’s hard to tell if this was the plan all along, or if these quasi-retcons were made in response to accusations of the main game’s racism. Either way, adding shading to a previously uncomplicated character is welcome, but if the latter is true, I can’t help but feel as if Irrational sort of missed the point. As I’ve argued elsewhere, BioShock Infinite is racist not because of Daisy’s characterization, but because of how it treats the Vox Populi; they follow Daisy’s call to rebellion unquestioningly, thereby becoming another faceless set of enemies. What would have been more welcome than learning additional facts about Daisy would be learning about more individual members of the Vox and what their feelings on the rebellion were.
If episode 2 falls somewhat short in the storytelling department, though, it soars in the art department. Irrational has really outdone themselves here: Episode 2 features stellar art direction, making it feel as if the player is really walking through Paris, Rapture, and Columbia. Putting all three settings in one game reveals the clever tricks the artists use to make them feel like different places; they all use different colour palettes to great effect. Paris is recreated with light grey-browns and pastels. Rapture is all blue and grey, punctuated with occasional neon lettering or a splash of deep colour. Columbia is mainly red, brown, and gold, set against a dazzling light blue sky. Irrational’s art team really indulged their creativity and skill here, and it pays dividends.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the DLC’s conclusion and how it makes me feel about the story. I’ve always thought that Infinite’s sociopolitical side was more interesting than its timey-wimey aspects, and I bemoaned the DLC’s focus on the latter. While this focus fell flat in episode 1, it quite nearly works in episode 2, because it concentrates on how Elizabeth’s time-travelling affects her emotional state. The ending, however, isn’t really about Elizabeth; it’s the revelation that she was responsible for setting the events of the first BioShock in motion by passing the “Would you kindly” code phrase to Atlas. It’s a somewhat compelling ending, but it also feels a little too clever for its own good. It’s as if the game’s writers wanted to show off their ability to tie wholly different plots together, when their profound character explorations or analyses of sociopolitical issues, while less flashy and indulgent, would have been more welcome.
For that reason, I’m reluctant to declare episode 2 of Burial at Sea a triumph. It falls victim to the very indulgences the main game decries, rewriting BioShock’s history for its own ends. It’s still a fine piece of DLC and well worth playing. But its insistence on doubling down on the main game’s least interesting and most confusing aspect means that it falls somewhat short of its potential.