Note: Dishonored 2 was co-reviewed by both Joe DeClara and Hunter Wolfe.
The original Dishonored was a sleeper hit when it launched back in 2013. Like its protagonist, it came out of the shadows and captivated players with its open-ended level design and London-inspired steampunk setting. With Dishonored 2, developer Arkane Studios has not only expanded on the original’s strengths but introduced new elements that make playing a supernatural assassin feel damn good all over again. It’s hampered by some technical issues on console, but when the game hits its stride, many of these complaints fade quickly into the Void.
Welcome to Karnaca
Dishonored 2 picks up fifteen years after the events of the first game with a slightly more grayed Corvo Attano and a fully grown and coronated Empress Emily Kaldwin. Following a rushed and slightly absurd introduction, Emily is dethroned, Corvo is stripped of his powers, and you escape the city of Dunwall to arrive in the coastal city of Karnaca. Much like the previous game’s setting, Karnaca is a scatological, corrupt city facing a disseminating pestilence which threatens to devour its populace. Instead of a rat plague swarming the slums of Dunwall, an epidemic of “bloodflies” has taken its seasonal, yet particularly aggressive, toll on Dishonored 2’s new setting. This imminently doomed city is one of the game’s many returning themes.
In spite of this grim recession, Dishonored 2 is a beautiful game. The oil pastel art style of Arkane Studios’ first game has been applied with a finer set of brushes. Buildings cut the air with their Victorian sculpting; God rays shine through the windows of dusty, abandoned apartments; and the streets of Karnaca’s ports gleam with the blood of slaughtered whales and hunted adversaries. Some spaces look decidedly underwhelming after exploring the rich streets of Dishonored 2’s opening missions, but the aesthetic design is never lacking. Every space looks lovingly handcrafted; it’s as though most any perspective of any given level could pass as a work of art.
An abundance of non-playable characters gives life to these environments. Fishermen, shop clerks, barkeeps, beggars, maids, thugs and all manner of common folk inhabit each level of Dishonored 2’s semi-open world. While Dunwall’s lifeless boulevards befitted the game’s plot, the bustle of Karnaca is a welcome addition to a franchise already bursting with life. Unfortunately, the characters are less infatuating; while NPCs display more lifelike behaviors, chattering amongst themselves and strolling about with a less robotic stride, character models still look antiquated and ugly.
The world is further filled with residencies to pillage for their lore and environmental storytelling just as much as their cash and assorted riches. Collectible letters and historical writings do more than simply add to Serkonos’ lore; every time I dug a little deeper into a note I found, I was rewarded with a whole series of past events, often ending in an exciting discovery or a hidden pile of riches and trinkets.
Dishonored 2 abandons the whitewashed facades of Dunwall with Karnaca’s Mediterranean-style port city, endowed with gorgeous, painterly vistas and bustling backstreets. Karnaca immediately differentiates itself in a good way through its non-lethal areas — places you can walk freely and interact with NPCs who flesh out the game’s world — although the game doesn’t always succeed in delineating these places for the player. There were a handful of times I attracted guards in an area I assumed was non-lethal, which felt like a betrayal every time it happened. Additionally, NPCs in these areas were clearly not given the same attention as Dishonored 2’s supporting cast — overheard conversations are novel, but speaking to NPCs rarely rewards you with more than some slapdash, “I don’t want to talk to you” dialogue.
Dreary, Deary, Dreary
Though offering a robust world, dense with character and beautifully interwoven bits of lore, Dishonored 2’s central plot and cast of characters is weak in comparison. Dialogue is stiff and lifeless, and if you go the low-chaos route (less murder), your reward is a generally predictable and generic story filled with lifeless, undynamic characters. Besides those bits of interactive character building during gameplay, Corvo and Emily show very little emotion and remain pretty flat throughout the more righteous story permutations.
It doesn’t help that the game depends on many of the same tropes and elements as its predecessor. Each level features a different assassination target — each one a character introduced with minimal effort (if at all) prior to the mission’s start. Though plenty of focus is given to each target during their hosted mission, it was never enough time to establish any recognizable narrative consequence. Emily and Corvo’s flat nature, a band of forgettable antagonists, and even the few returning characters from the last game — all fail to find emotional purchase.
Contrary to Dishonored 2’s environmental storytelling and rich lore, the plot sadly lacks the same level of complexity as the world it takes place in, save for one little twist that’s wrapped up after the first few levels. From the get-go, your mission is to eliminate a string of conspirators, but while the road to eliminating each one is ensconced in discovery, don’t expect any surprises when you reach the level’s end.
What’s more, the game’s few interesting side characters are resigned to terse cutscenes at the start of each level, a nonsensical decision considering the opportunities that come with having now-fully voiced protagonists. An even bigger head-scratcher is that when you choose to play as either Corvo or Emily at the game’s start — for reasons we won’t spoil here — the other character sits out the game completely. It’s upsetting that the game’s most interesting relationship — the one between a father and his daughter — is completely ignored in the story.
I loved what Emily added to the Dishonored experience, and replaying the game as Corvo was a nostalgic thrill. But at the deepest of levels, playing as Emily Kaldwin came at the price of emotional payoff. Like its sequel, Dishonored suffered from a painfully predictable narrative, which was easily made up for with its gracious obedience to player agency. But even though the game was most rewarding when the player extricated themselves of any moral responsibility, killing anything that moved, one central plot-driven element trumped all the violent splendor: Emily.
Throughout the entire first game, your actions are reflected in the world, its inhabitants, and — worst of all — an innocent little girl set to rule one day. With each mission and each assassination, you would either watch Emily draw her rainbows and attend her lessons in jovial accordance, or you would witness your evils pass on to her as she grew to be as dark and sinister as those who had opposed her. If played as Emily, Dishonored 2 loses this essential feeling of responsibility. If played as Corvo, it all feels run of the mill. I enjoyed coming back to Dishonored’s effective format, but it does no favors for the franchise’s already unimpressive narrative.
Tools of the Trade
Fortunately, Dishonored 2’s dry story is in no way reflective of its gameplay. Following up an already great game, Dishonored 2 thrives as an iterative sequel. While Corvo returns with his assortment of rat swarms and time-bending tricks, Emily brings a slew of exciting, new mechanics, and they all seem to fit the series’ style perfectly. I especially enjoyed my first character build, which focused on abilities like Domino, Shadowalk (turn into a swift, stealthy shadow creature), and Doppleganger (summon a decoy copy of yourself). As in the first game, each ability can be upgraded with collectible runes found strewn about every level, though upgrades are more varied and diverse this time around. For instance: I could have upgraded my Shadowalk to allow for more kills while transformed, but since I was on a low-chaos run, I chose a Shadowalk perk which granted me access to small confined passages like air vents.
Dishonored 2’s playable characters possess unique abilities to such a degree that demands you play the game twice. Corvo will feel instantly familiar with his Bend Time ability, which allows you to slow or completely halt time to either stealth your way past baddies or prepare a systematic takedown. But the real show-stealer is Emily, whose brand new assemblage of abilities feel far-removed from Corvo’s. Domino lets you link enemies together so that when one is taken down, the others are as well, and Mesmerize summons a Void entity that entrances enemies long enough to sneak past them. Dishonored 2 is great without Emily, but her menagerie of abilities inject the game with enough novelty to warrant calling it a worthy sequel.
Frontrunning Emily’s supernatural arsenal is Far Reach; the empress’s equivalent to Corvo’s Blink. Instead of magically teleporting a measured distance instantaneously (like Blink), Far Reach attaches to surfaces to swiftly pull Emily across gaps, up ledges — if used with the right momentum, it can even launch her past grabbed surfaces. It’s a bit more finicky than Blink, (which I had gotten inseparably comfortable with over hours of playing the first game) but offers a healthy tradeoff with an exceptionally fun upgrade which allows you to pull your enemies toward you. Part of the fun in Dishonored often comes with outrageous, often comical, experimentation. Throwing enemies across rooftops with Far Reach took up a good portion of my “experimentation” time.
Stealth games have long been plagued with inexcusably stupid AI. Dishonored 2, thankfully, eliminates this genre-ubiquitous trait. Gone are the days when one could lackadaisically kill off a dozen guards to leave one glancing around quizzically before casually writing it off as a particularly mischievous gust of wind. Enemies are vigilant and quick to react at the first sign of a disturbance. If (and when) it comes to hand-to-hand combat, a single guard is no match for any amount of skilled player, but be prepared for swarms of guards, Overseers, or witches upon raising the alarm. Even in these extreme situations, Dishonored’s melee combat is so smooth and intuitive that it won’t take long for most players to master and effectively defeat any number of enemies. All that is needed is a pistol, a sword, and a few hours of play, and all the challenge in merely surviving Dishonored dissipates. The game is meant to cater to all playstyles, but you really have to want the reward of mastering the game’s stealth systems.
Thankfully, Dishonored 2 introduces a wide range of new options for non-lethal play. Aside from new gadgets like stun mines and confusion darts, non-lethal takedowns can now be executed even after a fight breaks out. This was a nice addition, because I had gotten pretty tired of killing myself and reloading a save once a fight broke out in the original game (as this was the only way to continue a completely non-lethal playthrough). These tactics are still more challenging than killing enemies outright, as you still have to contend with them after most forms of incapacitation. The challenge is a welcome one; one which feels far more rewarding than simply limiting yourself to a fraction of the game’s glorious arsenal.
While Dishonored’s versatile gameplay acts as the staple of the series, Arkane Studios’ brilliant level design gives it room to breath. My love affair with the Dishonored franchise is rooted in the time I’ve spent absorbing its world and exploring the deepest pockets of each and every level. On the surface, Dishonored 2 rewards players for scouring every building and every street for Runes, Bone Charms, ammunition and sweet, delectable coin. But as the game panders to our ingrained need to find every note and collect every pistol upgrade, it opens up to us, showing us new and creative ways to master each space, giving us the most imperative tools needed to become a master assassin.
One mission in particular, however, gets all of this wrong.
Though a technical masterpiece to behold, with its mechanically transforming rooms and its beautifully designed enemies, the Clockwork Mansion — the fourth mission of this game (which was demoed multiple times since the game’s reveal) — is a frustrating and tedious chore. After two playthroughs of this mission, I was unable to find any sign of Dishonored’s signature style of level design; no alternate routes, no outlets for non-lethal play — the level is completely at odds with the rest of the game. From the moment I entered the mansion to the end of the mission, I felt so boxed in that I find it hard to believe that the sequence was designed by the same developers responsible for the rest of this magnificent game.
Giant mistakes of a level aside, Dishonored 2 hits a stroke of genius with another isolated experience: a mission entitled A Crack in the Slab, wherein you receive the Timepiece. Allowing you to travel back and forth between two separate time periods, the Timepiece offers some of the most intriguing and fun ideas in modern stealth video games. Being able to glimpse into the past through a looking glass gives Corvo/Emily the ability to ghostwalk around enemies, appear and disappear around them at will, and generally scare the living crap out of unknowing NPCs. My experience with this ingenious system was slightly hindered by frequent framerate drops on my PS4 version of the game. Dishonored 2 generally runs at a semi-consistent 30 fps, but A Crack in the Slab frequently dropped as low as 15 fps. It’s also a pity that the Timepiece system is limited to just one mission, but this hardly counts against the game for introducing such an empowering experience.
Dishonored 2 sometimes achieves being called a “painting in motion”, but at launch, it’s hard to call it a “tour de force”. On Xbox One, the game’s early levels are marred by frequent dips in framerate while navigating exterior environments, and while this issue resolved itself later on, texture pop-in was consistent throughout.
Dishonored 2 is like a pretty painting stuck in an ugly frame — painfully close to being complete. New abilities and upgrades, the addition of a second playable character, and creative level designs illustrate Dishonored in its peak condition, but the game is hampered by technical issues on console as well as a predictable plot. These criticisms are easily forgivable though, because Dishonored 2 is so engaging in its moment-to-moment gameplay. Very few games can boast so lofty a degree of player agency as Dishonored 2, and when you consider this, the ugly frame doesn’t seem as important after all.