Arkane Studios understands that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While Dishonored 2 can’t quite top the brilliance of its predecessor, it very nearly does.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platforms: PC, PS4 (Version Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: November 11th, 2016
About a third of the way into Dishonored 2, you’re tasked with infiltrating the home of an egotistical inventor, Kirin Jindosh, to put an end to his schemes and rescue an old friend who is imprisoned within. This home is known as the Clockwork Mansion, and it’s every bit as wondrous and extraordinary as it sounds.
Like a giant Rubik’s Cube being played by Jindosh himself, the very geometry of the Clockwork Mansion’s architecture can shift and transform to trap and misdirect the player, turning the environment itself into a mind-boggling boss fight. In fact, the entire mission represents a perfected fusion of everything Arkane Studios has always excelled at with the Dishonored series; intelligent and creative level design, sublime visual artistry, and open-ended, hugely replayable stealth gameplay.
While the rest of the game doesn’t always reach the heights of this memorable highlight, nor does it quite match the inventive originality of its predecessor, Dishonored 2 is a safe but superbly designed sequel to a near masterpiece.
What Dishonored had that its sequel lacks is a riveting and memorable central story. That’s because Dishonored 2 oddly follows the same narrative framework of the first game, albeit set 15 years later, with another seizure of power forcing the protagonist to go off the grid and restore order through subterfuge and assassination. Not only does this create an awkward feeling of deja vu, but the narrative never really takes any interesting twists or turns beyond the central motivation of restoring Emily to the throne, and the return of branching story paths loses its impact considering that this entire sequel is based on the low chaos ending of Dishonored, making it very likely that a third title in the series will assume the same.
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What’s more, important dramatic devices like characterization feel underused; the main villain Delilah, for example, is barely given any screen time until the later half of the campaign, and the game seems to presume that players know who she is from the Brigmore Witches expansion of the first game. As a result, the series trademark theme of vengeance is devoid of any emotional weight, as we’re given little reason to hate, fear or even empathize with Delilah for the majority of the campaign’s 10 to 12-hour run-time. While Dishonored boasted an extensive cast of interesting characters, the sequel narrows down its equivalent roster significantly, and even Emily and Corvo are so bitter, remorseful and stoic that it makes it hard to be involved in their plight as we play through their eyes.
Luckily, Dishonored 2 makes up for its lackluster story by expanding and refining upon everything else that made the first game so memorable. As a stealth game which allows for endless means of achieving your objectives through open-ended levels and a diverse set of options for engagement, Dishonored 2 already boasts more replay value than most single-player games ever do. But by including the option to play as either Emily or Corvo, Dishonored 2 doesn’t so much encourage a second playthrough as it does demand it.
While Corvo’s powers remain largely the same from his glory days in Dunwall, which are still a lot of fun to mess around with, Emily’s supernatural abilities offer a range of new opportunities for dispatching foes that extend far beyond anything I’ve experienced in a stealth game before. I thought the most memorable thing I could have done in video games this year would be fighting atop a giant airship before skydiving off as it came crashing down in Battlefield 1, but some of the feats I’ve pulled off as Emily in Dishonored 2 are on a whole other level.
Through mastering her more complex powers such as Domino and Doppelganger, players can exact wildly creative maneuvers within the space of a few seconds. To watch the results of your actions feels immensely fulfilling. These moves aren’t easy to pull off, however, and it’s a shame that Dishonored 2’s brief, optional tutorial doesn’t make an effort teach you any of your supernatural skills or more advanced exercises that might not be immediately obvious to new players.
Every aspect of Dishonored 2’s design encourages emergent and organic forms gameplay, with environments that allow for multi-dimensional means of traversal (seriously, you’re eventually given the ability to manipulate time) and the frequent introduction of new threats and abilities as the story progresses. Unfortunately, the game quickly goes from smart to clumsy when the situation breaks out into open combat, as the hacky swordplay still lacks the finesse or depth that was already wanting from the original game.
During these fights, it becomes easier to frantically button mash or simply run away from the enemy AI, who also demonstrate much more intelligence as patrolling watchmen than as skilled combatants. I had one particularly amusing scene where a guard was chasing after me, but ran too fast down some stairs, fell over, and died. His corpse then proceeded to trip everyone else up as they followed after him. These hiccups are rare, but they seem more likely to occur when pursuing a high-chaos run, making Dishonored 2 a much better stealth game than it is a first-person action experience.
…the brighter color palette and the new soundtrack make for enough of a break from what’s come before.
That said, with Dishonored 2, Arkane Studios has not compromised on a single iota of the artistic vision that wondrously permeated Dishonored back in 2012, and that extends to not just the visual beauty of the game – which is consistently drop dead gorgeous – but to the sense of time and place in the world itself. If Dunwall was inspired by Victorian London, then the new location of Karnaca takes its influences from Francoist Spain; a warmer, sunnier, region of the Isles, yet a city suffering from just as much political corruption and societal breakdown than its northern neighbors. While the aesthetic differences between Dunwall and Karnaca aren’t radically pronounced, the brighter color palette and the new soundtrack make for enough of a break from what’s come before.
Just as much attention to making Karnaca feel like an organic, lived in world has been applied as it once was to Dunwall, and some of the discoveries you’ll make as you explore every nook and cranny of the city can lead to some of Dishonored 2’s best storytelling moments. Show compassion to a homeless man, for example, and he might provide you with a tidbit of information that opens a whole new can of worms, culminating in the heist of a black market store whose owner you were once protecting from a gang leader just moments ago.
Books and notes scattered across the world expand the lore, NPC interactions and overheard conversations foreshadow what might be round the corner, and the returning mystical heart reveals the darkest secrets of almost every location or person you point it at. Dishonored 2 thus continues the series effectiveness in building a fictional world in which you can’t help but immerse yourself in, and that tension between wanting to explore every corner of Karnaca and the danger that comes with it represents Dishonored 2’s most engaging gameplay dynamic.
Lastly, while it’s important to acknowledge that Dishonored 2’s PC version has been reportedly suffering from major optimization issues at launch, the PlayStation 4 edition of the game that I played boasted relatively few technical problems, bar one cut-scene in which the frame-rate dropped quite noticeably. The game auto-saves itself frequently without a cost to performance, as far as I could tell, and loading screens are neither too regular nor overburdensome in length. From a purely technical perspective then, it’s an admirable effort for Arkane’s first full title on the current generation of hardware.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.