Spoiler Warning: I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers and don’t go into specific detail about any plot points, but you still might want to be wary of some vague spoilers here and there if you have not yet played this game, especially in the second paragraph.
An appropriate tagline for BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, the DLC follow-up to BioShock Infinite, might be “Irrational Games returns to what they do best”. They tried something similar but different with the sky-high action in the sunny city of Columbia, and while I’m glad BioShock’s successor took us to a new setting, I can’t deny that there’s nothing quite like the halls of the deep-sea city of Rapture. I love the opening section of Burial at Sea: Episode One because we get the rare chance to experience a small piece of a dystopian society when it was still a utopia. Stepping out of Booker’s office and exploring a Rapture that is bright, clean, and active with citizens who haven’t lost their minds is a treat, and I love the more open nature of this starting environment as well as the environments in Burial at Sea as a whole. Walking through the populated bars and shops of Rapture, with massive windows looking out on the city’s neon-lit skyscrapers (seascrapers?) made me reflect on how cool living in a city at the bottom of the ocean would be…before it all goes to hell, of course. The transition to shooting and violence also feels much more organic and less jarring than in Infinite proper, as Booker and Elizabeth are first attacked by the mad artist, Sander Cohen, and then sent on a one-way bathysphere trip to Frank Fontaine’s massive sunken department store turned prison, an incredibly hostile environment crawling with Splicers that resembles the Rapture we know and love from the original BioShock. This was a fairly smart way to have a game that takes place in Rapture before it fell and still have a first person shooter where you freeze people and shoot them with a shotgun. Exploring the derelict clothing departments of “Sub-Rapture”, feeling on edge every time a crazed Splicer lurking somewhere out of sight would ramble into my headphones, I felt a kind of tension that Infinite lacked. Perhaps it’s the closer quarters, or the often smaller groups of enemies, or the respawning enemies that kept me on edge, but something about the combat here just clicks with me more than in Infinite; it feels easier to manage but also more impactful somehow. It’s too bad Episode One seems to enjoy withholding resources such as plasmid-powering EVE and money from the player, because the episode’s short length means plasmids and weapons will mostly go without full upgrades and I felt like I was constantly running out of EVE and ammo in the middle of a fight, which limited my options in a brawl. I would have loved to have fully upgraded the Old Man Winter plasmid, which I had a blast combining with Bucking Bronco to freeze enemies in midair before they fell to the ground and shattered into icy bits. Also unfortunately: Episode One’s narrative starts out strong, but ends with a silly twist that only serves to muddle Infinite’s already muddled narrative even more. To be fair though, this is only part one of a two-part story…
Burial at Sea: Episode Two once again opens in a unique and interesting way, in a beautiful-looking and memorable sequence that is somehow simultaneously silly and inspiring. If there’s one thing Irrational seems to nail, it’s opening its games. Immediately after the opening, the narrative becomes even more messy and convoluted though. After making a shallow effort to explain the logic behind the twist at the end of Episode One, the story then throws an even more abstruse twist into the mix that feels like a contrived attempt to explain why Elizabeth can’t use her Tear powers anymore and that just raises more questions and injects more plot holes. Despite all this, once things got rolling I felt way more connected to Elizabeth as a playable character than I ever did to Booker (although I think much of me caring a lot about Elizabeth is owed to Courtnee Draper’s great voice performance as opposed to the game’s writing). I felt close to Elizabeth after playing Infinite and Episode One and cared about where her story went. By the end of Episode Two, however, Burial at Sea seems to be much more concerned with tying into the original BioShock in neat ways than delivering a satisfactory conclusion to Elizabeth’s story, which I found to be disrespectful to her character. While I think the tie-ins to the original are, as I said, neat, I wish the original BioShock had remained something separate and the links between it and Infinite had remained tenuous; instead, Burial at Sea ends up being a straight link to the original, shoving its overt connections in the player’s face and tying everything together in a neat bow. It’s an interquel, and ultimately little more than a prologue for the original game that overall cheapens Infinite as its own distinct entity and that doesn’t do justice to the character of Elizabeth, a character that I’ve been invested in this whole saga and whose ultimate fate basically amounts to being a catalyst for the events of the first game. It could’ve been worse and the story does do a fair job of linking Elizabeth’s story with the story of Jack and the Little Sisters, as well as overall connecting Infinite with the original, but I can’t help but feel Elizabeth as a character got cheated. I’m just a bit mixed on the whole affair; I’ll admit that having all the Irrational BioShock games being one big sealed up story does feel somewhat satisfying, but this overt link certainly wasn’t needed and I question whether or not it devalues the original, rather than adds to it.
Anyway, while the narrative and the idea of Infinite, Burial at Sea, and the original BioShock all being one seamless, connected story is a point of contention for me, I actually quite like the other aspects of Episode Two’s design, even more than Episode One. Episode Two is a much lengthier and more complete and focused experience than Episode One, and makes that previous chapter feel like simply a warm-up. This time, the player finally takes on the playable role of Elizabeth, who has basically been the main character this whole story anyway (finally playing as her just feels right), and Episode Two places a large focus on stealth, on running and hiding and sneaking up on enemies. It accomplishes this in part by giving the player new plasmids and weapons, such the ability to turn invisible and see through walls and a crossbow equipped with tranquilizer darts and knockout gas, that encourage players to go about things in a quieter, and shockingly, non-lethal way. Players still have the ability to kill foes, but the game is principally designed around stealth and right from the outset, the narrative makes this clear (the more moral way of doing things is perhaps shoved a little too much in the player’s face early on). I’m disappointed that choosing to kill or not unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much significant impact on anything in the end, but I appreciate the new options and gameplay approach and like that the less violent combat choice suits Elizabeth, who isn’t a pathological killer like Booker. Stealthily creeping through huge environments crawling with Splicers, sneaking through vents, using sneak attacks and trying to use a limited amount of tranquilizer darts puts a whole new spin on the classic BioShock design and makes Episode Two feel like a whole new experience. Trying to survive with only the crossbow and non-lethal means, which is the way I played, also makes for a much more challenging and tense experience. All this really pays off, as the game feels incredibly fresh, despite taking place in the familiar Rapture setting. I also love the environments in Episode Two, which feel varied and include a handful of creepy lab sections that focus on building atmosphere and story rather than combat, and quite frankly, I love that shit.
Overall, Burial at Sea is a mostly welcome return to Rapture, and despite my reservations about the narrative, I overall enjoyed it quite a lot, perhaps even more than Infinite proper. Episode Two is easily the star half of the package, not only because I’m a sucker for stealth games, but because of how well the stealth elements blend with the atmosphere and tenseness of the scenario. Elizabeth is alone, stranded without her reality-bending powers and with little to defend herself in a hellish deep-sea prison filled with ranting maniacs who will kill her on sight. She’s vulnerable, but also highly intelligent and extremely capable. All of this combined with Elizabeth’s heightened sense of humanity compared to Booker invested me in her character and the experience on a more serious level than anything in the Infinite saga prior, making me carefully consider every step I took and adding a sense of weight to the proceedings that flying around as Mr. DeWitt, sawing into people’s necks and electrocuting them until their heads popped off, before eating potato chips and chocolate bars off the floor seemed to lack (though some of that latter aspect is still present, admittedly). Episode Two also rarely felt repetitive and was never boring for me and some parts will probably stick out in my mind as notable moments in any game I’ve played, such as the unique opening and one late-game sequence that is notable for how uncomfortable it made me, which was definitely the intent.