Let’s talk about RPGS.
About a decade ago, it was decided that all games would be rpgs.
So now every game has leveling mechanics. Every game has bars to fill up. It’s extremely rare to find a progression system in a game that isn’t basically an RPG progression system. You shoot guns to level up guns. You buy gear with money. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Unless, of course, you’re an RPG.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is an RPG. It’s an RPG’s RPG. But it’s living in a world of shooter RPGs and action game RPGs and sports game RPGs. And that’s gotta be kind of scary.
“Look at all my bars for you to fill!” it cries, as cars drive past and splash it with puddle water. The world has turned and left RPGs here, and it’s put the genre in kind of a precarious place.
This means that Mankind Divided can’t get by on just being an RPG. RPGs aren’t interesting. Mankind Divided is interesting, but it has to fight for that interest. It has to take RPG tropes and turn them on their heads.
The World. In most RPGs, part of the appeal is exploring a vast wilderness and crushing it underneath your mighty tread. Mankind Divided doesn’t care about that. Mankind Divided is about taking one really tiny chunk of the world, namely a couple of streets in Prague in the year 2029, and filling them with as much detail as humanly possible. This concentration of ideas extends to the side-quests as well. Even though they’re only a short stroll away from each other at most, there’s a thrilling amount of variety to be had if you go looking for it.
Over the course of the game, you’ll uncover secret cults, solve a string of copycat murders, break into a high-tech bank vault, investigate an extortion ring, and show up for work at a secretive Task Force base located far below the city streets. You’re pretty much guaranteed to find something interesting behind every single door you see, even if all the doors are within an acre or two of each other.
This care extends to each individual environment as well. Each seedy apartment and bar is laid out as an art piece. Each space is furnished with unique details. This makes exploring the city a joy because each turn you take leads to something worth seeing.
Take the shipping company that acts as a front for your secret underground task force. It’s furnished just like a run-down shipping company, right down to the singing fish on the wall. It’s only once you go into the dingy back room that the game is like “check this out” and the whole floor starts moving and suddenly you’re in this multi-level high-tech cyberbase and there’s IT people running all over and this giant holo-conferencing thing that you hack into. This type of stuff is 100x more interesting than the usual “wander around a field for 4 hours impaling rabbits”.
Your player character, Adam Jensen, is also not a typical RPG protagonist. He is definitely not the blank slate that so many modern games want to serve up to you. He’s a man with a history and a set of morals, and it’s up to you to interpret that as you choose. As an ex-cop, you’re going to spend a lot of the game investigating problems for people and working through a procedure. You question people, press them, or debate with them, but all of your responses are filtered through a Jensen lens. I think this is going to throw some people off, but I think Jensen’s character is a great permutation on Denton from the first Deus Ex, and the game does an excellent job of making you feel like you’re acting the way Jensen would act even if someone else playing the game might play him differently.
This extends to the leveling mechanics as well, but I think this is where the game’s RPG twists start to become a knot rather than a braid. Simply put, Mankind Divided is not about combat. It’s about being a cyber detective. You can shoot people, but it doesn’t ever really feel like you’re supposed to. Thematically, mechanically, none of it gels. This is a game about sneaking your way past people or talking your way through them, not headshotting them one by one.
So, you don’t level up in the traditional sense. Every time you gain a level, you get a point that you can put towards a body augment. But the vast majority of these augments are not focused on helping you shoot people better. This isn’t a problem, really, and in fact I think it makes leveling up a lot more rewarding by pushing you towards different methods of moving around.
But the end of the game seems built around a traditional leveling experience instead of the more interesting system at play here. Suddenly you’re in a giant environment filled with heavily armed thugs, and you’re almost forced to adopt a gameplay style that was easily sidestepped during the rest of the game.
I think this problem boils back down to the progression tweaks the developers made. Making the player feel powerful by making them kill stuff better over time is a tried and true formula. Making the player feel powerful when they spend most of the game choosing dialogue options and sneaking through vents is a lot more difficult. It feels like the developers wanted to have the end of the game be challenging, but there wasn’t any sensible way to do that when the player’s progression isn’t based around combat. And so you get a weird shift in tone during a final level that feels like it came from a completely different game. A worse game, I’d say.