The most interesting thing about Dishonored 2 is that it both feels like a necessary game, as a consideration and evolution on what were merely amorphous notions in 2012, and one that could have just as easily been pushed down on a pile of ideas in an Arkane Studios meeting room. When the game hits a groove that, while somewhat familiar for returning fans, makes you feel like you’re in more control of the world than the game itself, it’s one of the best sensations you’ll have all year behind a controller.
And that is incredibly often, but there are also some critical parts that seem almost perfunctory in their execution. In many cases within this game and relative to others, they’re not deal breakers. (There is, in fact, not one that I would qualify.) But in a game where the scale of tremendous accomplishment goes so high, the contrast is stark. It takes peaks, after all, to make a valley.
Starting with the story, there’s a lot more of it, which shouldn’t be confused with worldbuilding, which is something the first Dishonored and the folks behind Arkane are obviously talented at. It’s far more story-driven, putting you in the shoes of either Empress Emily Kaldwin or her bodyguard/father Corvo Attano. You’ll remember them from the first game, albeit with 15 years of interlude weighing on them and a new location in the Mediterranean-inspired Karnaca.
Emily is unceremoniously usurped by a woman claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne, which is clearly not ideal but is just as well since Corvo has been training Emily in the art of assassin. This introduces the biggest change in Dishonored 2: you can play as either Corvo or Emily. It’s a genuinely substantial decision as you’ll be committing to this single character and his or her set of powers for the entire 16 or so hours of the game.
Most impressively, it seems as if the levels have been designed around this entirely two-toned approach to gameplay. Really, either one can fulfill both of the broadly dichotomous styles of high chaos (kill everything) or low chaos (kill nothing), but their differing skills change an incredible amount of what is available to you at any given time. For example, Emily can’t bend time like Corvo and Corvo can’t conjure a clone of himself like Emily can.
The remarkable part isn’t that they designed two rather distinct characters (even with their own mostly unique journeys through an otherwise accommodating story) but that while those abilities are so different, there are no options that are ever removed from your purview. Instead, just the way you go about exercising those options are different, and all of those avenues are as nuanced and complex and rewarding as the others.
The subtly varying methodologies are especially neat, like how Corvo’s Blink is more like a teleport but Emily’s Far Reach, which can also get you from place to place, looks and feels entirely different because of its underlying pull mechanic. This combines tremendously well with each character’s wholly owned set of skills where the similarities make the differences stand out all the better, each one giving you ideas of how to play the other. Using Emily’s Domino ability (chain the fate of multiple enemies together), for instance, tends to inspire what can be done with Corvo’s Possession ability, each one playing in the realm of ideas of attaching/detaching foes to and from the whole.
Most importantly is that all these tools are still immensely systemic; you can combine seemingly disparate bits and pieces of cause and effect into a single and oh so delicious sequence of events. The improved enemy AI, while more exhausting as a player, also leads to more interesting encounters and more possibilities to toy with them. Attracting them to a clone with a noise and watching them all domino to her faux fate is undeniably and supremely fucking cool.
But what are toys without a sandbox? In this case, Karnaca is vastly more varied than Dunwall ever was. It’s a world seemingly build upon the idea of novelty turned fundamental, almost in the same way Braid took an odd twist to its core mechanic and made it the base layer of any given world. The coolest is the Clockwork Mansion where, in true Hogwarts style, the entire structure alters on a whim (or, more accurately, with pushes and pulls of levers). It creates this fantastic consideration of not only plotting your movements against your enemies’ but also the twisting and shifting escape routes and hidey-holes.
And that’s just one example. There’s another one later in the game that would be a shame to ruin, so let’s just leave it at that. But know that while this sounds like a theme park-style approach to levels, it all works because Karnaca is far more lively than Dunwall, a world that was more enemy-filled diorama than living, vibrant settings. Inhabitants go about their lives, they comment on things you did (or didn’t do) just one level ago, and they interact with the same systems you do.
With so much world, however, the game tends to rip through its offerings at an unfortunately rapid clip. It would have been nice to steep in this new and beautiful and myriad world, but it just keeps going, even as it tempts you at every turn with another ancillary building to explore or another side quest to complete or more lore to find and consume. There is just so much stuff that you’d love to luxuriate in but it just never gives you the chance. This ultimately leads to characters that seem simply propelled through a mostly satisfying narrative arc even though everything around them was given seemingly infinitely more thought. (Their flat voice acting certainly doesn’t help.)
It is at the very least, though, a stupendously gorgeous place. All you have to do is look around and be amazed at the full, cohesive, breathing landscape and populace and aesthetic. It has the same cartoonish sheen as the first game from the animations to the general proportions, which is greatly appreciated in an industry overrun by pixel art and gray apocalypses. Every piece of the game from any single chair to the paintings adoring the wall feel singular to that place and time. It’s god damn impressive, just as is the soundtrack and general sound design.
A good amount of the visual fidelity can surely be attributed to the new Void Engine (and, obviously, the jump in hardware generation), which also carries with it a host other changes and improvements. Most notable is the much more aggressive AI. They brazenly and appreciably break from the standard “this is my route” style of patrol, remembering states and looking into disturbances with situational awareness and context. They also seem to be able to see much more clearly, which is debatable as an improvement, but it is severe enough to warrant mention. Some may feel it’s unfair and other may feel it’s more realistic. (I’m still undecided as well.)
It is certain, however, that Dishonored 2 is an incredible game. There are many knocks you can throw at it, but they seem so inconsequential in an end result like this that allows you the feeling of total and complete subversion and control of a system not your own. How often do you get the feeling of entirely original inspiration working both within and against a completely discrete system? Besides, it’s hard to call “there’s too much world” a bad thing.
+ Heightened and refined spectrum of possibilities for stealth and murder
+ The choice of playing as either Emily or Corvo is meaningful and worthwhile
+ Level designs are ingeniously varied and welcoming while being challenging
+ Gorgeous world and graphics with appropriately accompanying soundtrack
– Continues with hollow characters in a propelling but stock story
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Dishonored 2
Release: November 11, 2016
Genre: First-person stealth
Developer: Arkane Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC