I’ll be blunt – the first Dishonored game disappointed me. I was enthralled by the immersive, unique setting, style and the sheer depth that Arkane Studios went into with their lore. Every newspaper, note and book excerpt brought me further and further into this fantastic world, gearing me up for the revenge I was tasked with enacting.
Around three quarters of the way through I realized I was extremely bored. The stealth was rudimentary, and the vast majority of my arsenal of cool gadgets were loud and lethal. The game punished me through both story and gameplay for taking the lethal option, forcing me into a tedious game of hide-and-seek with a small amount of sleep darts and a chokehold as my only means of acting out, if I wanted the good ending and less annoying rat swarms.
Dishonored 2 has still been on my radar, because I love the damn lore so much. The addition of an entire new set of powers with a second playable character, along with other gameplay tweaks and the new setting (and thus new and exciting world-building opportunities) convinced me to dive in.
I’m happy to report that Dishonored 2’s world-building carries on the series tradition, with the southern wind-powered nation of Serkonos and specifically its capital Karnaca breathing new life and scale into the game’s universe. Where Dunwall in the first game was influenced primarily by Victorian England, Karnaca is clearly based in Mediterranean architecture and culture, and it is truly a sight to behold. Once again, character models take on slightly cartoonish style and proportions, with all of the soldiers swinging swords and aiming pistols with big, meaty hands and ugly, scowling mugs. Beggars speak kind words and share secrets from behind filthy visages and unkempt hair, and the ill and injured absolutely look the part. Everything about the art design, the look and feel of the world and its inhabitants, really puts you there.
One moment that really stands out to me was just before I embarked on a mission from the Dreadful Whale, the player’s hub ship. As I moved to board the skiff to deploy on the next mission, a whale surfaced about 50 yards out, blowing water out of its top and swimming along in the bay. It continued for 30 seconds or so before diving below the waves again. The game did not call attention to this and I was under no obligation to stay and watch. In fact, until now every piece of lore in the game had lamented that the whales had become scarce, endangered.
Everything that can be praised about the visuals can be said about the sound as well. Every ambient noise and musical note is expertly placed to remind you of where you are and what you’re doing. People mumble to themselves in between their gravel-crunching patrols, the hisses and whispers of the various supernatural powers and items act as subtle reminders that there are forces beyond your comprehension involved in the proceedings. Propaganda broadcasts from the Duke and his underlings pipe in abruptly and loudly, often echoing from multiple speakers if you are in the right place. The tracks that play over the credits are particularly cool, with one being a sort of ballad written specifically about Serkonos.
The story of Dishonored 2 picks up fifteen years after the first, and sees a grown-up Emily Kaldwin reluctantly ruling the Empire of the Isles, with her father, Royal Protector and Dishonored’s protagonist Corvo Attano. Corvo is now voiced by Thief’s Stephen Russell, an appropriate fit for the bodyguard-turned-assassin who is fifteen years older and wiser. In the opening minutes Dunwall Tower, Emily’s seat of power, is beset upon by Delilah and Duke Luca Abele of Serkonos. Delilah returns from the DLC expansions to Dishonored, where she was also an antagonist. Duke Abele, voiced by Vincent D’Onofrio, is her partner in the coup, an egotistical and tyrannical ruler who is ruining his once-beautiful, prosperous nation for his own gain.
It is at this point the player must choose between playing as Emily or Corvo. The character who is not chosen practically disappears from the game, in the first of many missteps in the game’s narrative. Players expecting to, say, play as Emily and receive guidance and support from NPC Corvo will be sorely disappointed.
This squandering of potential with characters and voice actors is nearly universal – Sam Rockwell’s character appears for all of about five minutes, while the Duke is only encountered twice in-person, the rest of D’Onofrio’s work relegated to broadcasts you may or may not listen to while you focus on completing your missions. Like the first game, your targets are your targets because the game says they are; while their villainy is undeniable and Emily/Corvo’s motivations for fighting them are clear, the player is never given a real opportunity to get to know them or hate them. After the coup and escape from Dunwall, the player spends the rest of the game eliminating people they do not know, with only a couple of supporting characters who mainly exist for mission briefings and exposition. Background information is relegated to eavesdropping on guards and reading lore content found in the world. For me this approach is fine because I read everything, but I do genuinely believe some more face-to-face encounters with the villains would have added much to the narrative. Dishonored 2 nails the moment-to-moment stories, the little moments, but fails on a grander scale.
The ending is no better, with the game cutting to the ending slideshow narration within seconds of completing the final objective. This slideshow covers the bare minimum of topics, and leaves several story threads and characters unmentioned. Most egregious is the omission of the fates of your targets should you, in true Dishonored fashion, condemn them to fates other than death. The player has to go out of their way to make these outcomes happen, and to not reward them with anything beyond points towards the good ending feels like a slap in the face. A few of the early targets’ fates are mentioned in conversations and letters/audiologs in later missions if you look carefully, but again, putting this stuff out of the way feels wrong. Emily had several plot threads and even a love interest mentioned in reading material that is never addressed or dealt with beyond a few letters and notes, and I found myself wanting to explore these threads more, but was unfortunately unable.
This brings us to gameplay. Like the first, Dishonored 2’s missions drop you in contained areas, in which you are free to explore for clues, materials, side objectives and take one of multiple approaches to killing (or otherwise neutralizing) your target(s). You are given access to stealth and combat abilities through close quarters melee combat, ranged combat with a multi-purpose crossbow and pistol, and all kinds of possibilities for any approach with the entirely optional supernatural abilities.
Each character has their own set of unique abilities, though they share Dark Vision, which shows enemies and their vision cones through walls and can be upgraded to show items and non-organic threats. Corvo’s abilities are mostly the same as before, with his Blink teleport power, Possession, Wind Blast and the like. Emily has a Blink counterpart called Far Reach, giving her a magic whip-like ability that can pull her to something or, with upgrades, pull items and even enemies to her. My personal favorite of her unique abilities is Domino, which links targeted enemies and causes them to share the same fate – if one dies or is knocked out, so are the others. This makes clearing rooms or getting out of hairy situations a little easier, and is especially useful for non-lethal runs. Other new non-lethal options are drop attack knockouts, sliding takedowns and the ability to choke out enemies who are stunned, such as after a successful parry. This and the addition of a quicksave/quickload system on the pause menu are welcome changes, but the load times on PS4 can be up to a minute, and you will see that loadscreen often thanks to the inconsistent stealth system.
While not what I would call “broken,” the rules for when someone can see you and hear you seem to vary greatly. I’ve had guards detect me in the darkness from well down the street or somehow become suspicious despite me being behind solid concealment and cover on a roof well out of their line of sight, but then I’ve broken glass or killed a man violently without disturbing a guy the next room over, or come sailing off of a perch to smash someone’s skull into the pavement while their friend 20 feet away whistles the day away. Additionally, the notifications for when someone is suspicious or about to see you are colored similar to the background, and the music queues that accompany being spotted do not rise above ambient noise levels consistently. This resulted in many instances where I did not know I had been spotted until I was taking damage or heard footsteps running up close. It all leads to frustrating trial and error or hesitation where I’m not sure if I want to chance what should be an easy maneuver, lest I waste more of my life staring at a loading screen.
Despite the inconsistencies, stealth is highly preferable for me over combat. For a number of reasons, I just do not find the combat, ranged or melee, to be enjoyable. Swordplay falls into two scenarios – if it’s one guy, wait for him to attack, parry and counterattack for a kill. If he has any backup, just disengage because even more are on the way and chaos is about to reign. The low FOV first-person view really does not lend itself well to tackling multiple enemies in melee combat who try to surround you with simultaneous attacks, and this coupled with the unwieldiness of many of the controls in a pinch makes combat situations frustrating more often than not. This would be excusable if there were a dodge or dash maneuver of some kind, but there is none. Some passive skill upgrades improve the melee fighting with new parry effects and a bloodlust-type chain attack skill, but I found myself too bored and frustrated by large combat encounters to do anything but quickload out of them.
The weird thing is, somehow, all of these mechanics often work really well together. For every annoying section of 20-minute saving and loading, I’d have three awesome executions of plans or improvised escapes that had me grinning and giggling. Sliding into a room, marking three guys with Domino before reaching the nearest one and executing a sliding knockout to a chorus of cut-off shouts as his friends crash to the floor alongside him is immensely satisfying, as is jumping onto and rewiring a Watchtower to massacre the hoard of enemies below before leaping away (seriously, you owe it to yourself to hack a Watchtower at least once). The level design also contributes to this, with two levels in particular introducing environments and mechanics that open up even more approaches and opportunities for mayhem and mischief.
Dishonored 2 is far from a perfect game. Mechanical inconsistencies, some clunky controls and a weak, unfulfilling narrative will frustrate some players. That said, it’s one of those gems that manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Fans of the first game are sure to love the improvements here, and anyone interested in an immersive setting that offers something a little different should definitely give it a look, even without having played the first. For those just looking for a stealth action game, I’d say check out Hitman or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided instead.
Despite mechanical inconsistencies, a few clunky controls and a disappointingly shoddy narrative, Dishonored 2 continues the series tradition of providing addictive, compelling gameplay in a fully realized, incredibly immersive setting.