Red Dead Redemption 2“Red Dead Redemption 2” main character Arthur Morgan.Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive

The biggest game of 2018 — a long-anticipated sequel from Rockstar Games, the folks behind “Grand Theft Auto” — is a surprisingly downbeat, maudlin affair. 

On its surface, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is a cowboy game about six-shooters, robberies, and living outside the law. It’s a Western-styled shooting game with a big open world. The game’s advertising tagline says it all: “Outlaws for life.”

After spending around 30 hours exploring Rockstar’s fictionalized 1899 America, I found a gorgeous, deep, surprisingly slow-paced experience that focuses on one man’s journey of self-realization.

“Outlaws for life” sounds like a battle cry, but — in “Red Dead Redemption 2” — it’s actually a desperate attempt to hold together a lifestyle that’s rapidly becoming untenable.

Red Dead Redemption 2“For life” may not be so long.Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive

Like “Grand Theft Auto 5” before it, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is an incredible achievement. Also like “GTA,” this game is a clear step forward for the entire medium.

Where “Red Dead Redemption 2” distinguishes itself from Rockstar’s past works is in tone: “Red Dead Redemption 2” is somber, and subtle, and slow — for better and worse. It’s a game that feels Important™, with all the grandeur and monotony that connotation evokes.

Here’s what I mean: