In 2012 the first Dishonored was a gust of fresh air that swept unexpectedly through the game industry. During a time of heavily iterated franchises and bombastic action games, Arkane Studios’ new stealth-action IP emphasized a methodical and slow approach, granting players flexibility and choice in how they completed each challenge. The gameplay allows for non-lethal stealth infiltration, or frantically quick action, or controlled elimination of your enemies depending on how you want to play. Dishonored 2 retains the same DNA as the original, providing a much expanded suite of options for players to sneak, stab, and teleport through levels using whatever methods they desire. However, though the game expands on this sense of freedom, it does not evolve or develop what was lacking in the first game.
Who are You?
Each playthrough of Dishonored 2 begins with a choice: will you play as Lord Protector Corvo Attano or Empress Emily Kaldwin? The choice is an important one as you will be playing as this character for the rest of the game and each character has a vastly different array of supernatural powers. Those who’ve played the first Dishonored will feel right at home with Corvo’s abilities. Blink, his signature short range teleport, Bend Time, Possession, and his other powers all make a return though each with new upgrades and modifications that alter their potential significantly such as the ability to “chain” possession targets.
While Corvo’s powers feel like a comforting blanket to wrap yourself in, it’s Emily who has the truly exciting new abilities. Her Far Reach power may seem a bit more restrictive when compared to Corvo’s Blink, but experimentation and upgrading unleash its power as both a movement and offensive tool. Mesmerize and Domino expand the potential for eliminating large groups of enemies, Doppelganger allows you to confuse and sneak past enemies, and Shadow Walk can grant you access to new areas as well as easy kills. All of Emily’s abilities become significantly more powerful when used in tandem and her ability to clear a room with ease might just put Corvo to shame.
Your motivation to utilize these powers is rather straightforward. Fifteen years after the events of the first game a new enemy shows up on your doorstep and stages a bloody coup, overthrowing you (either Emily or Corvo) and imprisoning the other character. The rest of the game follows your selected hero as you make your way through the string of accomplices that helped depose you before getting your shot at vengeance. Though the story is a bit more present in this game, and full voice acting for your character helps flesh out some exposition, it ultimately feels like a framework that grants you the space to create your own experience and flex your supernatural powers.
Dishonored 2 is all about you. It sets the stage, presenting playgrounds to explore with wonderfully empowering mystical and physical capabilities. While the game makes suggestions of paths to explore, the real joy comes from experimentation, from discovering your own way through each environment. Choices are constantly presented to you, whether it’s as small as choosing to rewire a deadly electric fence so it hurts your enemies instead of you or as large as deciding to incapacitate your targets instead of outright killing them.
The game does a wonderful job of allowing you to master its rules and approach situations how you see fit. Whether storming a decaying insane asylum in open assault or silently sneaking through the walls of a mansion, every form of play in Dishonored 2 is an empowering experience. The best moments, however, come from experimentation, when you ask yourself whether the crazy scenario you just imagined is actually possible. When these experiments are successful you feel a sense of mastery over the game world, a sense that you are directing the experience.
Both characters’ abilities are fertile ground for excitement and experimentation. In order to upgrade the abilities you must collect runes scattered throughout each level. Even this progression is fraught with choices. After scouring every nook and cranny to find as many as possible in my first playthrough I was still only able to unlock a fraction of Emily’s abilities. There simply aren’t enough runes to unlock everything. If you want to unlock every ability you won’t be able to attain some of the most powerful modifications which can completely change the way you approach levels and enemies. It’s fantastic to rush a group of guards as Corvo, send them scattering with an upgraded Windblast and then strike at the stragglers with quick teleports, but that joy might replace that of possessing a rat and sneaking through the vents of a building to discover your target unseen.
An Inviting World
The world in which you get to unleash these powers is a striking one. There are moments in Dishonored 2 that forced me to stop and appreciate the game’s painterly aesthetic. It is not a technical marvel. Occasional hitches in the framerate and the general stiffness of character models will remind you that the southern European inspired city of Karnaca is not real, but these are noticeable primarily because of the success the rest of the game’s engine has at making you believe in the environment. The world is wonderfully drawn. From the conflict between a street gang and a religious order to the steam-punkesque technology, Karnca feels like a real place even more so than Dunwall in the previous game.
The dilapidated, deserted, and bloodfly infested mansion of an aging aristocrat is mysterious and ominous, and a conservatory populated by dark witches feels appropriately brooding. Tense strings swell in the background as you sneak past fortified emplacements and percussion instruments beat fiercely when enemies discover and engage you in combat. At other moments, the silence of a deserted house is punctuated by the heavy approaching steps of a guard. Dishonored 2 is utterly dripping with atmosphere.
Sum of its Parts
It would be difficult to sing the praises of Dishonored 2’s gameplay and environment too much. The hands-off approach to design gives player’s both freedom and power to play however they like. It is a game that every gamer should play simply to feel that freedom to express yourself through gameplay. And yet, Dishonored 2 never becomes more than the sum of its parts.
While the addition of full voice acting for the protagonists goes a long way to making you feel like you’re playing as a person and not a floating camera, the game’s story never really feels present. Each level, though excellently designed, feels somewhat disconnected. Some exceptions are the third and seventh levels which you enter directly from the previous one without returning to your base of operations, but even these feel like separated experiences. Although the world is inviting and consistent, the game never feels cohesive. It feels compartmentalized, not connected. In the instances between levels it felt like I was progressing from one level to the next, not like I was actually adventuring through this world.
The hands off approach that makes the level design so excellent saps the story and progression of true motivations. One mission tasked me with rescuing an ally from the first game. This felt significant to me because I’m familiar with the world and know how vital this character is to it, but I couldn’t see a new player feeling motivated by the simplified exposition explaining why he was important.
Dishonored 2 also experiments with some interesting gameplay ideas for brief moments. Some levels present genuinely intriguing new elements like vision-obscuring dust storms or a mansion where the walls and floors shift at the turn of a lever. While these aspects offer moments of exhileration in their designated spaces, they are discarded too soon to make a true lasting impression.
And this is what characterizes both Dishonored 2 and its predecessor. It is a truly superb exercise in level design that focuses on delivering incredible bursts of joy at discovery and experimentation. However, the first Dishonored never coalesced into anything more than that exercise and it was my biggest hope that the sequel would change that. Ultimately Dishonored 2 expands on what was already great about the first game. It gives players more choices, more powers, and more freedom but it takes only tepid steps into providing a more cohesive experience. The game is an enhancement, an excellent, smart, and joyful one, but it is not the evolution I was hoping for. While absolutely enthralling to inhabit, the world of Karnaca ultimately starts to fade not long after putting down the empowering controller.