On first appearances, Dishonored is a stealth franchise. However, in my first playthrough of Dishonored 2, I realised it’s more a puzzle-box centred around binary choices. Between choosing to play as an experienced assassin or his daughter, non-lethal or lethal, magical powers or no magical powers, up or down, stealth or chaos, assassination or humiliation, Dishonored 2 is obsessed with splitting the world in half and asking players to choose. This isn’t simplicity so much as refinement, carefully threading a beautiful tapestry even though the developers only used two colours. Two choices might sound too minimal, but it’s multiple of twos rather than a couple of instances. Twos upon twos, until you reach staggering numbers presenting entirely new possibilities.
Out of two we get many – and that’s the beauty at the heart of Dishonored 2. (That it has “2” in the title feels a little on the nose, viewed through my binary lens.)
Another Brick in the Dunwall
Dishonored 2 is a first-person stealth game, set in a fictional steampunk world, routed in Victorian Gothic as well as southern European aesthetics. You are treated to both gloomy fog Jack the Ripper could be hiding in, as well as bright, beautiful flowers that could sweep the fields of France. The backstory is quite simple: new Empress Emily has assumed the throne in the city of Dunwall, after the events of the first game (it’s not essential to know what happened: attempted coup thwarted by Emily’s father, Corvo). Slowly, due to her apparent boredom and lack of leadership, outer lands have increasingly come under the power of others. These other leaders themselves somehow come to be led by a witch named Delilah.
Delilah decides to take Emily’s throne, claiming to be the rightful heir and her estranged aunt. When the game begins, you witness a violent, robot-assisted coup in Emily’s throne room – then the game begins.
You are put in the shoes of magically-empowered leads Corvo or Emily. Corvo of course is the lead from the first game, voiced for the first time (appropriately by the same man who played Garrett in Thief games). Emily, his daughter and the Empress, is as highly skilled as her father. Both eventually are granted magical powers by Magic Plot Man – or, as the game calls him, The Outsider.
You then are helped by a ship captain (voiced by Daredevil’s Rosario Dawson) and others, as you travel to these outer kingdoms in the captain’s creaking ship – to take out a duke (voiced by Daredevil’s Vincent D’Onofrio) and other supporters of Delilah. The ship provides a hub space, letting you catch your breath, examine trophies and note your progress in terms of crossing faces off kill-lists.
Because, indeed, this is a game where progress is measured in the lives you take. The lives responsible for destroying your own.
Many places you will go
Your travels take you to a coastal town, spooky asylum, a mansion that change like a Rubik’s Cube and a host of other incredible spaces.
Each is intricately designed, with breadth and depth that stays with me even now. I can still hear a sandblasted city’s haunting alarm horns, where they live in constant fear of sandstorms. I can still see the water rushing up the sides of a dilapidated asylum, where I tried to discover the identity of a serial killer. Aside from having character, the levels are designed with choice in mind – you can go low or high, there are opportunities to play with all the game’s systems to overcome targets as you slowly creep through the dizzyingly large levels. (Or, you can forgo stealth and create high levels of chaos and destruction.)
What makes the game remarkable starts from the first choice you make: playing as Emily or Corvo. Both have their own powers, commentary on the world and style of combat. This makes for incredible replay value, since it presents new angles with which to examine the dark toybox Arkane Studios produced. Add to this that the levels provide a host of varying opportunities to complete tasks and there is content heaped upon content.
And this isn’t window-dressing content, where you do the same tasks again and again. Tasks require different strategies, quick-thinking and, unfortunately, lots and lots of reloading – if you want to remain stealthy and keep your violence level down. Indeed, the endings change depending on how violent and loud you were.
Dishonored 2’s level design might be the best I’ve experienced (aside from Playdead’s Inside), balancing complexity with ingenuity, orientation with variety. That is, I never felt lost, despite how large the levels are and how little on-screen guidance was provided. There are no little red lines to follow: eyes and ears are key. There are passages to sneak through and roof tops to climb on and pipes to teleport to. Even travelling is a matter of choice and requires careful consideration, as you are always a target of multiple factions.
As Emily or Corvo, you can lean around corners, sneak, choke, hide bodies and use your incredible powers. The most popular power involves teleportation of a kind.
Emily’s is like this sticky extension, whereas Corvo’s simply “blinks” him into existence wherever he wants. Upgrading these powers requires you to search these intricate levels for “runes” (detectable using a magic, talking heart – an early game item). Upgrading is essential and helps reduce the difficulty of you versus entire armies. New powers let Emily, for example, slip through floor grates and rip a man apart in the form of a shadow creature. Or she can create a doppelganger that can lure enemies away or serve as a flesh mattress to land on from a great height. Emily’s best power is “Domino”, which lets her link a number of enemies – then, what you do to one, happens to all the others. Casting this helps you take out hard to reach enemies, since you can cast “Domino” on someone far away, but take out another close by. Mixing and matching keeps levels fresh and gives you a great sense of accomplishment.
Nothing is Easy
Though going all out in terms of murder and mayhem is possible, the game seems designed with stealth in mind. Indeed, it’s far more fun to traverse levels with minimal detection, but it’s incredibly hard.
Dishonored 2 is unforgiving – providing little detail about the world or objects. I often only discovered something was lethal or bad or wrong after it killed me. Indeed, playing with powers is often the only way to learn how they work – but this drains your magic bar, which doesn’t restore all the way after use. I found this too punishing, since it prevents you wanting to experiment with the powers. I don’t think your character needed infinite magic power – but the limitations were far too strict for my taste.
Additionally, detecting enemies really requires your eyes rather than powers. Powers do help, but have limitations. Again, I like what they were going for but felt it too strict. For example, Emily’s detection power worked according to a heartbeat, pulsating out. I liked this, since it meant the power wasn’t just this broad-scale dome of insight. You had to piece it together with beats from the pulse. But the radius was too short. It was only useful to see through walls and not much more than that. This made the game significantly harder, as I would stagger into a guard I had not seen, forced to reload my game. It’s also important to note even the choice of having powers is one provided by the game, since you can refuse Magic Plot Man’s gift.
And for a game that does reward stealth, it often felt punishing – especially when you have to watch the reload screen for the hundredth time. And no, it’s not fast on PS4 unfortunately. There are also numerous bugs which could undermine your plans: guards getting stuck in walls or walking through them, your character falling through the floor and so on.
Perhaps the worst aspect is the final boss battle, which suddenly thrusts you into a confusing heap of nonsense requirements – none of which are clearly presented. Good luck suddenly learning to swing a sword and fight an army, for some reason. I only wish the final boss had been as rewarding as the previous boss battles in the game.
As indicated, you can play (almost) the entire game non-lethally – even bosses, who are the targets of your assassination attempts, can find themselves placed in worse positions than death. For example, instead of killing someone, you could find out about a device that erases a memory and put them in that. (I’d rather not spoil precisely what these alternatives are, because they are worth discovering. Some are genuinely good and helpful, while others appear to be fates worse than death.) These highly rewarding alternatives are sometimes harder and are never presented easily – they require you to explore and listen and read, throughout a level.
Depending on how you take out major targets, the world will comment. People mention what happened to particular targets, resulting in dialogue or other details lost forever. Of course, you’re not so much punished as shown a different door. But there’s little doubt the non-lethal alternatives got more attention from the designers than straight up murder.
Beauty and character everywhere
The game offers a unique art-style, that gives a cartoony edge to faces, body types, houses and doors. However, there’s a large injection of realism, too, with stunning lighting, water and textures. Animation is often too stiff, though. As mentioned, the diversity of levels is staggering and each is a work of art.
Additionally, props must be given to the game for giving women prominent place: as guard captains, lead characters and main villain. The game often features women talking about themselves or other women in conversation with women – there seems to be clear elements of multiple types of sexual orientations, too. Indeed, NPCs seem to have a lot of character, which I overheard. For example, I watched a guard captain hug a civilian, encouraging her that they would get out the city together. I heard guards telling themselves things were going to be OK, while reciting the alphabet incorrectly.
Unfortunately, these round characters in the background only make the flatness of the leads stand out. Aside from Captain Meagan Foster, a visually-impaired woman of colour with a missing arm who reveals her past as you play, few other characters seemed to have an interesting background. Delilah, the main villain, was thankfully fascinating – though I still struggle to understand how exactly she came to power. (It seems to be lore I knew nothing about, even though I played the first game. It was DLC I missed.)
Emily and Corvo are both monotone bores, offering little in terms of conviction or interest. If you had to ask me to tell you something about Emily or Corvo that doesn’t involve their positions related to the court, I could not. Emily in particular has no personality I can detail: she’s a pair of arms and incredible ability. She has love for her mother and Corvo and someone we never see, but I only know that because she says so.
The plot itself isn’t particularly coherent and I couldn’t muster up much to find out more. Perhaps in a second playthrough I will figure it out, but the overarching story hardly caught my attention and was often confusing. It was the moment-to-moment play, the stories I overheard or read, that got to me.
Dishonored 2 is a magnificent game, that not only fills the big shoes left by the first game, but breaks them. It’s sometimes too hard, too obscure and has a plot I found wanting, but its difficulty is rewarding. Even if you love stealth games, I would not recommend this easily due to its difficulty and poor explaining of how the world works.
Nonetheless, it’s a valuable package with about 12-15 hours with just one of two characters. With lots of secrets to uncover, stunning level design rich in detail and secrets, you won’t find yourself finishing this any time soon and it will stay with you long after.
2016 has spoiled us with quality games living up to expectation and Dishonored 2 is right up there.