Adam Jensen has a lot of work to do in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Side quests and smaller stories are where the game really shines. “The Harvester” questline has all the things required for a great experience, and we take a closer look at it in this video.
This story has been republished ahead of Mankind Divided leaving Xbox Game Pass in the next fortnight. If you haven’t played Mankind Divided, you really should.
On a whole, I have very mixed feelings about Mankind Divided. The main story feels rushed and while the narrative wants to make bold statements on real world issues, it mostly fails to make coherent statements. The Harvester is different. It’s a very personal quest that also manages to tell us a lot about Deus Ex’s world. It incorporates most major gameplay mechanics: Exploration, in depth dialog and even a boss fight. I think it’s the best quest in the entire game and couldn’t wait to break it down further.
For those of you who can’t watch the video, here’s a transcript:
Today we’re going to be looking at a quest in deep detail. I hope to do this for more game but today, we are looking at the Harvester quest line in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. There’s a lot to go over so let’s dive in. This quest has Adam Jensen stumble upon a crime scene in Prague. A mechanically augmented woman has been murdered in a back alley. Before we talk narrative and design content, I merely want to note the environmental work here. We take it for granted but this is a bold scene to stumble onto. It captures out interest far better than a random quest giver. It pulls us in, invites us to explore and stresses that something important is happening.
The thing I like about the Harvester is that it is one of the few times that Mankind Divided offers a lot of commentary. This is a brutal and violent crime but through conversation, we learn the police are likely to dismiss it because the victim is augmented. Daria is a nearby witness who encourages us to find more information because of how much she distrusts the cops. The nearby Detective Montag makes it clear that he’s under pressure from the higher up to close the case quickly. They have even encouraged him to arrest the victim’s augmented husband.
A particular strength in this early portion of the quest is how much the game actually places us in Adam’s shoes. Jensen’s an ex-cop and our first step in the quest is to investigate the crime scene. We’re not looking at LA Noire levels of detail here but there’s plenty to find in order to give us a clear picture of what happened during the murder. We learn the victim was partially drugged and then strangled. We learn there are finger prints on the corpse. The only time things falter is when we are asked to find a piece of evidence embedded in a wall. Mankind Divided’s clear look contrasts well with Human Revolution’s yellow filtered world, but it does fail to properly highlight important objects from time to time.
An important thing to note about these early investigative moments is that we can always press for more information. We never just select an option once. We can follow up. Jensen’s good at his job. He’s thorough and this is expressed mechanically as we exhaust dialog options. One major problem that we will face throughout the question, however, is that Jensen’s so competent that he does the work for us. We might figure out a contradiction or see evidence that exonerates a character but we never have to really put two and two together. As long as we find all the right items, Adam does the work.
The Harvester is also strong because it is a quest concerned with abstract ideas. Deus Ex is a series that’s always talked about broad concepts with a bit more ambition than ability but the Harvester is well written in the sense that it bothers to discuss things at all. Most of Mankind Divided stays surprisingly apolitical. Jensen and Montag can argue about what it means to serve the law; do you serve the people or the ideal? It’s great stuff. Better, deep investigation is rewarded with many options. If you talk to everyone, you have three leads. The victim’s husband, an anti-aug politician, or the murder’s similarities to a previous case.
I’ll tangent briefly to note that this quest makes you travel around the city quite a bit. Mankind Divided does a poor job using augmented citizens as an allegory for racial or ethnic minorities. It doesn’t know what metaphor it wants to make and borrows phrases or imagery without much thought. But the travelling does highlight one of the only really effective times the game handles this. It happens when you are randomly stopped by cops and submitted to an identification check. The player loses all control of Jensen and can’t skip the cutscenes. This quest deals with anti-aug bias quite a bit The risk of random stops as we move from objective to objective helps keep that in the player’s mind
For our branch here, we’ll start with the politician, Radko Perry. He was supposedly being blackmailed by the victim, a journalist with a big scandal to report. Talking with him isn’t terribly interesting. There’s less a sense of direction in the writing than with Montag but we do have a theme that emerges: doing what the people want. Perry’s not truly anti-augmentation; he takes that position to please constituents. You can find evidence to prove this. An online chat with an escort shows he spends time with augmented women, as does a picture you can find in a safe. The conversation is the more useful evidence; it establishes an alibi for Perry. But it’s important to note that you can get only the photo and have enough cause to eliminate him as a suspect. Both are inside his office and require some creativity to get but Deus Ex offers you the tools and the level design options to get what you need.
The game drops the ball a bit with the husband but that’s because it wants to be more direct. This is good and bad. All it takes to exonerate him is one bit of evidence but Adam does most of the work. You spend a lot of time talking to the husband but many steps are automatically taken. For instance, Jensen notices that the man’s jacket has a patch for a mercenary company on it. A more comprehensive game would have us notice that and then give us the option to ask about it ourselves.
The last objective is to find information about a previous case. Here, the level design particularly falters. There’s essentially one path into the police station you need to break into and there’s not much to discover while you’re there. We never really get to compare the cases or do anything involved. The process of finding the evidence is great. Examining and presenting is a problem. You can pin blame on Perry or the husband but clearing them both is as easy as pressing the third option. Adam notes that the husband can’t have left fingerprints because he has augmented hands and the politician was out late with call girls. It’s great insofar as showing us how smart Jensen is but pretty poor for letting us identify with Jensen or even as Jensen by doing the work ourselves.
The quest seems to end at that point but picks up later on when Daria, the witness Jensen talked to, claims the killer is after her. Rushing to the apartment shows that Detective Montag is already there. It’s some simple misdirection that most players will see through but the quest is being careful to place doubts in our head. Is Montag the killer? Probably not. But he rest of the quest is largely about having suspicions and either taking precautions or not. Let’s assume that we don’t.
In that case, we rush into Daria’s trashed apartment. There’s some sleuthing to be done but we’ll probably find the blood on the ground and follow it down into the sewers where Daria is being held captive by the killer bit there’s a problem. There’s no killer to be found and regardless of if we stall or rush to help Daria, she will reveal herself as the murderer. This launches us into a boss fight.
Boss fights were a major issue in Deus Ex: Human Revolution but Mankind Divided gives the players a lot of options for expression. There are environmental hazards that can be bypassed through exploration heavy augments. Hackers can reprogram turrets to aid them. There’s also multiple levels to arena. You can sneak below or up above. It’s even possible to turn certain hazards against Daria. Like locking her in a room with gas canisters after you throw a grenade. But there are non-lethal options as well.
In this scenario, we leave Daria behind and are confronted by Montag. He wants to arrest Jensen, mistaking him for the killer. Knocking out Daria does make this conversation encounter easier which matters because you can’t simply use your social enhancement augmentation to easily win this conversation if you have it. That’s actually important for telling us about Montag. It lets us know he’s more experienced than he seems. It also forces the player to interact with no advantages. Just two men, talking. It’s not to hard to get him to stand down but the stakes are raised by limiting our options.
This moment will contrast heavily with the result that come if we don’t rush our investigation. Extra care radically changes the direction the quest takes. Astute players will find needles in Daria’s apartment and might even notice that her telescope points out the window and right to Jensen’s apartment. Hacking Daria’s computer or using the password reveals she was in contact with a doctor named Cipra.
Talking to Cipra reveals that Daria was subject to an experiment where cybernetic implants were used to stabilise people with emotional or developmental disorders. The game fumbles a bit with the language and clumsily handles mental health here to an extent. But the game is starting to add ambiguity. Daria got memories from a serial killer and is now acting out his murders. Maybe. Cipra insists that she is still making a choice and Daria also stresses this later on as well. Remember suspicion and doubt are important here. Is Daria in control or not? We never can know for sure. We just have to make a decision. We have to make a judgement.
That judgement process is one of the things that makes this quest stand out to me. It would be very easy to melt this down and absolve Daria of her actions but the writing doesn’t do that. Instead, it stresses the danger of risky experimentation without necessarily making Daria blameless. That’s a strong decision that makes the confrontation with her a bit more satisfying. It adds mystery and ambiguity that heightens the tension.
If you have enough information, including an emergency override phrase that you can get from Cipra, it is possible to enter into an extended dialog sequence with Daria. Other options will invariably lead to violence. In this conversation, very real anxieties regarding post-humanism and transhumanism come up.
This is what Mankind Divided should have been doing with augmentation from the start. Less cheap metaphors and more hard science. Be it because the extra personality in her head or a genuine belief, Daria fears the augmented because she fears the loss of abstract concepts like the soul or even the idea of what it means to be human. It’s superstitious but it’s relatable and understandable. I wish Mankind Divided had the presence of mind to think in these terms more often.
If you talk Daria down, the quest ends peacefully without a boss fight. The route is complicated and requires the right augmentations but it is possible to avoid fighting entirely. This is important and calls back to the original games. In those, you could avoid fighting Gunther Hermann or Anna Navarre by learning their kill phrases. This isn’t as dramatic but it is a manifestation of a slightly more old school design sentiment.
Overall, this quest line has a lot going for it. It’s sprawling, with many branches. It offers the player many different ways to deal with problems. It characterises the main character and gives motive to the others. It has a true moral dilemma as well. And while the quest suffers issues with streamlining and hand holding, the Harvester is a real strong point in a very messy title. It has the type of confidence I wish the rest of the game had. And for that? I think it was worth taking a close look.