by Jake Frisch (Twitter: @jakefrisch12)
[note: this review contains major spoilers from the original Dishonored. If you have not yet played the original, I highly suggest you visit that game before proceeding with Dishonored 2.]
Dishonored 2 is without question one of the great games released in 2016. Arkane Studio’s highly anticipated sequel to 2012’s “Dishonored” hits on all cylinders, bringing players more of what they loved about the original, while also adding new mechanics to keep things fresh. With its emphasis on player choices and a lucrative “play how you want to play” style, Dishonored 2 also stands out in today’s gaming culture, providing a great value for the buyer instead of being another triple-A title that sits on a shelf after one or two playthroughs. Dishonored 2 is the ultimate single player experience.
Years Ago, Another Time
Dishonored 2 takes place 15 years after the events of the first game, where Lord Protector Corvo Attano was framed for the murder of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and set forth through the rat plague ridden city of Dunwall on his quest for justice/revenge. After Corvo cleared his name at the end of the first game, his young daughter, Emily Kaldwin, was restored to her rightful place on Dunwall’s throne as Empress of all the Isles. With the rat plague that decimated the city under control, things seemed like they would work out for the citizens, the Lord Protector and the new Empress. But as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. At the beginning of Dishonored 2, an old threat emerges for Emily and her father. The otherworldly witch Delilah (who you may recognize from Dishonored 1’s excellent DLCs “The Knife of Dunwall” and “The Brigmore Witches”) and her familiars have usurped the throne, accused Emily and her father of murder and treason, and now rule Dunwall and its territories with an oppression not seen before. Once again, our heroes are tossed into a bloody and supernatural conflict.
Dishonored 2 allows you to play as Lord Protector Corvo Attano or Empress Emily Kaldwin. This decision is made soon after the prologue and it’s important to know that whatever character you choose will be the one you stick with for that particular playthrough. Unlike Dishonored 1, Corvo is now a fully voiced character alongside Emily. While their dialogue isn’t anything special and often leads to generic internal monologues, given the nature of the game it’s a bold move (in the spirit of Bioshock Infinite) to establish a character through dialogue instead of having a silent avatar for the player to control.
While Dishonored 2 begins in the city of Dunwall, most of the gameplay takes place in the coastal city of Karnaca. While Dunwall is a dim and dark city lined with cobblestone streets and fueled by whale oil, Karnaca is strikingly different. The capital city of Serkonos is brightly lit by the sun, powered by many wind turbines and overall has more distinct environments than those presented in the first game. However, despite the sunny atmosphere, Karnaca is no safe haven for the player. A new plague of blood flies is in full effect. These deadly nests are scattered throughout the city and provide a unique challenge for the player. A swarm of blood flies can easily overwhelm the player if they don’t tread carefully.
In addition to the insect problem, the streets are being fought over by the devious Howler gang and the devoutly religious cult-like Overseers. You can choose to side with one of these factions or decide to take a neutral stance. The districts are also teeming with guards and Delilah’s witch coven on the lookout for Corvo/Emily. With Karnaca’s brightly lit alleyways, buildings and waterways, it’s important to use every resource available in the environment to avoid detection. The mechanical soldiers of the Clockwork Mansion provide a frightening new challenge to the player. These mechanical monstrosities are resistant to most conventional attacks and pursue the player relentlessly. With their bladed arms, electric discharge attack, surprising speed and ability to keep fighting even when they lose limbs you must pick and choose your battles carefully.
In addition to the variety of enemies, the world comes to life through the multiple citizens roaming the streets. These NPC’s are neutral to the player, although some may turn violent or flee in terror (thereby notifying any nearby guards) if they see the player take a life or non-lethally assault someone. I found myself spending a lot of time just listening to their chatter, gaining more insight to the world and events around me.
Karnaca and Dunwall are also filled with journal entires and books that can be collected and read to learn more about the history of the Empire as well as the events leading up to the game. While these notes can be easily overlooked, they only add to the depth of the in game universe as well as sometimes providing helpful clues for missions. Dishonored 2 is one of those rare games where the setting is just as much a character as the main cast. You may or may not feel compelled to explore and learn more about your surroundings, but Dishonored 2 doesn’t punish you for choosing to skip these options.
Where Dishonored 2 really shines is in its gameplay. I cannot stress enough how near-perfect Arkane’s “play like you want to play” style is. The game can be completed without taking a single life or even being detected; it can also be played so that the streets are lined with the dismembered bodies of your enemies. You can play the game anywhere between these two extremes so there can be a lot of satisfaction for all types of gamers. Want to stealthily take out enemies with just your sword? Go for it. Prefer to go non-lethal but still want to make some noise? Drop some stun mines into a group of enemies.
Played in a first person perspective, the game does an incredible job of blending stealth with guns blazing FPS action. Every level in Dishonored 2 can be approached differently. A non-lethal and stealthy approach is more time consuming, but requires careful consideration before making moves. Weapons like the crossbow can be used for stealthy assassinations from a distance or can be loaded with sleep darts that render an enemy unconscious. A lethal assault style of gameplay will test your skills as you mix up using your sword, pistol, crossbow, grenades, stun mines, razor wires and powers to mow through the many enemies you will face.
Throughout the various levels the player can also find Bone Charms. These mystical items can be equipped to add buffs to the player. These buffs vary in use; from increasing the amount of health you get from healing elixers, to increasing your movement when crouched, to being able to swing your sword faster. Choosing which Bone Charms to equip is an important component of the game and the play style you choose.
Combat and stealth gameplay is fluid with many combos available to the player. As Emily you can use the power “Shadow Walk” to sneak up on an unsuspecting enemy to either tear them limb from limb or knock them out in a choke hold. But if Emily’s “Domino” power is used to link the fates of multiple characters together (i.e whatever you do to one character then affects the others in the same way), then your Shadow Walk dispatch of an enemy can take out a small group.
The decisions you make as far as how you approach as situation will effect the game’s level of Chaos. Chaos is a mechanic brought back from Dishonored 1 that effects the actions of characters and the environment. For example, in low chaos there may be less hostile NPCs patrolling important areas that in high chaos would be filled with wary enemies. Not only will chaos affect the gameplay, but it will also affect the way you and NPCs interact with each other and therefore impact the story.
Songs of Serkonos
Dishonored 2 has incredible art design. With its unique steampunk (Whalepunk as the developers call it) take on a Victorian Era at the dawn of industry, the environments are vividly rendered. The game also does a great job of treading the line of believability. The people, machines and buildings look great and are styled like an old painting, something that Arkane studios has worked on for years. These elements are familiar enough without crossing into the uncanny valley, something many other fantastical games miss on.
Sound design is incredibly important in a stealth/action game and Dishonored 2 does a great job of balancing the sound mix. You can locate an enemy’s position just by listening carefully to the sound of their footsteps or dialogue. Paying attention to various sound cues can often mean the difference between being spotted or even life and death. The in game music is gorgeous too, although not memorable it serves its purpose of making the world feel real.
For those looking for the ultimate challenge, the game can be played without any of your powers. You are given the choice early in the game to either accept the Outsider’s gift or flat out refuse them. If refused the game’s difficulty spikes drastically as you must tackle challenges in an entirely new way.
A Bloody(?) Good Time