Dishonored was a revelation when it came out in 2012. A first-person action/stealth title in the tradition of Thief, many compared it to BioShock (also in the lineage of Looking Glass Studio’s PC games), similarly setting a high bar for combining tight gameplay design and exquisite world-building. Taken it as a given that Arkane would follow up with a sequel, Dishonored 2 arrives with years of high expectations. Although it doesn’t raise the stakes in any surprising ways, Dishonored 2 handily matches its predecessor, providing more of the excellent gameplay that we loved so much in 2012.
Here we go again
In broad strokes, the plot of Dishonored 2 is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor. Selfish and terrible aristocrats have launched a coup against the imperial throne of Dunwall (a steampunk London analog), now occupied by the young Emily Kaldwin, whose mother, Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, was assassinated at the beginning of the first game. You can choose to play as Emily herself, reclaiming her throne, or step back into the shoes of Dishonored protagonist Corvo Attano, Emily’s father and the Royal Protector.
From a narrative standpoint, the game makes far more sense as Emily’s story of loss and redemption. That the player automatically starts from her perspective in the game’s opening moments suggests that the developers feel this way as well. Corvo’s perspective makes for a much more literal retread of the first game as he overthrows the conspirators, restores his honor and rescues his daughter.
The main story is fine, but forgettable–a rote tale of evil rising up and good beating it back.
Whomever you choose, your counterpart is essentially frozen in carbonite from that point onward. The two characters have different powers, but the story will play out the same way, more or less, regardless. As Corvo or Emily, you’ll flee to the vaguely Mediterranean city of Karnaca to investigate and dismantle the organization that deposed your family’s empire. The game’s plot is fine, but ultimately forgettable. Whether you choose to play as Emily or Corvo, it’s a rote tale of evil rising up and good beating it back.
The flat storytelling becomes even more apparent when you take into the account the fact that the game features an all-star voice acting cast. Hollywood notables like Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Sam Rockwell populate the cast, but you wouldn’t necessarily know based on their wooden performances. While the script may not be doing them any favors, much of the dialogue feels like it’s being delivered in a vacuum.
As more notable actors have started to appear in video games (as opposed to dedicated voice actors like Jennifer Hale), the skill gap between games and film/television for working with actors is becoming more and more apparent — Ken Levine’s background in theater was arguably key in getting such solid performances out of Booker and Elizabeth. None of this is especially egregious, but it does seem like a poor return on investment for how much that cast must have cost.
Still, with extensive side quests in every level, notes to read, conversations to overhear, and environmental storytelling through the placement of objects, Karnaca feels richly painted. While sneaking around a mansion in search of the master key, we pickpocketed a butler, only to find a note from his jilted lover who left their lord’s service recently to join a local gang that we’d just been dealing with outside. The somewhat rote main story fades into the background, which is fine when the moment-to-moment experience of the game provides such a wonderful sense of place.
While the story squarely whelms, Dishonored 2 excels where it counts; gameplay. The first game’s potent blend of supernaturally enhanced stealth and action returns, and remains the series’ greatest strength. Corvo’s powers from the first game (Blink, Possession, Devouring Swarm, etc) are all reprised for players that want to face new challenges with a familiar toolkit. Apart from a single skill and some passive upgrades, Emily has an entirely separate set of skills, effectively doubling the number of potential approaches to the game. Instead of Blink, Emily’s Far Reach pulls her about the same distance as Blink with shadowy tentacles, which allows the level design to support both characters more easily, but their similarities end there. Where Corvo’s abilities tend to be more about isolating and dealing with individuals, Emily’s powers reflect her role as empress by allowing her to manipulate multiple guards at once, such as by Mesmerizing them with a hypnotic totem, or by literally linking their fates together with Domino.
As in the first game, The crux of the Dishonored II experience is in finding unique and interesting ways to use your powers. The real fun comes from experimenting with your powers and tools, finding playful and creative ways to overcome what the game throws at you. For instance, three guards can be linked up with Domino, and then tied to your Doppelganger–when they chase it down and stab it to death, they inadvertently murder themselves. Both characters provide interesting options for both stealthy and murderous approaches without an obviously best way to do anything. It’s entirely possible to play through the game without being seen, killing anyone, or even without using any supernatural abilities. That emphasis on flexibility is central to what was so good about the first game, and has only been expanded here.
Good stealth gameplay relies on both level design and enemy AI, and Dishonored 2 excels at both. In order to encourage variable approaches, its levels are designed in an open and redundant way that leads them to feel more like places instead of strictly levels designed around your objectives. Guards will not only freak out at the sight of bodies, but respond to subtler cues of your interference, like open doors and guards missing from their posts. They search well outside of their predetermined routes once their interest is piqued, leading you to rarely feel safe. In all, it stands out as a much more organic and compelling stealth experience than even other recent top-tier stealth games, such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, where you could stash bodies and hide just outside of established patrol routes with little fear.
Dishonored 2 excels where it counts; gameplay.
The levels are all multi-faceted and open, being somewhat larger than the areas of the first game. They generally include an initial, public zone in one of Karnaca’s districts, laced with collectible runes and bonecharms, a black market shop, and a few sidequests to encourage for players to explore. It provides many of the benefits of open world design, but in a focused level structure. While not quite as expansive as the clockwork playgrounds of the recent Hitman reboot, Dishonored 2’s levels feel like they are a part of a larger world.
And yet, the game does its level-best to explicitly break the game into discrete chunks. Each level ends with a mission report that offers stats, a checklist of collectibles, and achievements, which push players to replay levels many times, not only to explore, but to encourage the speed- and challenge-based runs that became a huge part of how many players enjoyed the first game long after its release.
That system, however, runs counter to game’s linear structure. It doesn’t make a difference for that first playthrough, but the game begs for some kind of new game plus or arcade mode to be unlocked after completing the campaign, which would allow players to retry particular levels with different power distributions or challenging new conditions. Publisher Bethesda announced that the developer will add a new game plus feature to Dishonored 2 post-release, but the feature was not active during our review.Our Take
Restrictive structure and forgettable plot aside, Dishonored 2 is as solid a by-the-book sequel as you could ask for. It takes the excellent foundation of the first game and offers more: Bigger levels, new abilities, and more gameplay. It will necessarily not make as big a splash as its more innovative predecessor, but that shouldn’t in any way diminish how much fun you will have playing it.
Is there a better alternative?
The original Dishonored, which has been remastered for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is still excellent, so new players may want to start there, but it’s by no means a requirement for understanding Dishonored 2.
How long will it last?
Our first playthrough took about 20 hours to complete, but we expect to go through a few more times before we’re done. Plus, the expected DLC this should keep many players occupied for several years.
Should you buy it?
Yes. This is a well-crafted sequel to an excellent game that anyone interested in narrative-driven first-person games should check out.
This review was written based on the PC version of the game, with a code provided by the publisher.