The stealth genre has long been plagued by the enveloping darkness of abject failure, an impending sense of fear that everything you have worked so hard to accomplish is but hair’s breadth away from collapsing into absolute catastrophe. Upon being discovered, you cannot help but feel the clawing misery of defeat as sirens blare all around you, cruelly announcing to the world your utter incompetence. Dishonored 2 does little to combat such a fundamental issue, yet thanks to its empowering gameplay and brilliant environmental storytelling, it at least makes those moments of failure as exhilarating and enjoyable as the utterly enthralling art of stealth itself.
Set fifteen years after the events of the original game, Dishonored 2 introduces us to a Dunwall far removed from the decaying and decrepit cesspit depicted characterised in original Dishonored. Under the stewardship of Empress Emily Kaldwin and her beloved farther, the Lord Protector Corvo Attano, Dunwall has flourished into something magnificent. Yet like magpies drawn to a shiny trinket, such success inevitably welcomes trouble. Within mere moments of the game’s opening, everything begins to crumble around you as your once loyal subjects betray you in a desperate grasp for power.
It is here that you’ll make one of the most important decisions in the entire game – choosing between either Emily or Corvo. For those new to the series, such a choice seems arbitrary at best. Despite attempting to develop both characters early on, Dishonored 2 does little to make you truly care about these characters. Returning fans, like myself, have some semblance of an emotional connection to these two characters, yet for new players there’s next to nothing. Dishonored 2, story wise, has been developed with existing fans in mind, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it limits the emotional investment for new players.
The narrative is a classic revenge story, resplendent with all usual plot devices of the genre. It’s functional as means to incite the action, yet beyond that it feels undeveloped and hollow. Again, the motivations behind you seeking revenge are more poignant for returning fans, but for new players there is very little to get them invested in the story. Aside from the opening betrayal and a few high-octane confrontations, the overall narrative is very flat and monotone in its delivery. The protagonists of Emily and Corvo are interesting enough – the fact that their voice-acted adds a welcomed layer of character development – but even their character arcs feel clumsily executed. Emily’s personal epiphany, for example, is haphazardly implemented during the twilight moments of the game, coming almost out of nowhere with little-to-know elegancy to the whole situation.
Upon fleeing your home, you journey to the exotic city of Karnaca, a shimmering Mediterranean metropolis bathed in the warm rays of the resplendent summer sun. Aesthetically, the locale is about as different to Dunwall as you can get, yet aside from the sun-bleached architecture and exotic plant life, Karnaca does little to truly differentiate itself from Dunwall. Levels and environments feel all too familiar to those encountered in the original Dishonored, resulting in a game that, aesthetically at least, lacks a distinct identity of its own.
That’s not to say, though, that the world itself isn’t a thing of beauty. Dishonored 2 is a dazzling display of artistic majesty, with every little detail resonating with an extraordinary sense of creativity and splendour. From the dilapidated streets of the Dust District to the majestic vulgarity of the governor’s mansion, every location is a gorgeous manifestation of artistic excellence. Even the tiny details such as the glimmering sheen of a grandiose manor floor or the golden shimmer of an intricate clockwork mechanism are beautifully crafted to near-perfection. It’s just unfortunate that everything looks so similar to the previous location, a crisis that prevents Dishonored 2 from stepping out of the shadow of its predecessor.
That said, the level designs are equally as brilliant, surpassing even the best the original Dishonored had to offer. The complexity on offer within very simple one of them is just spectacular to behold, gifting the player with a bountiful of possible pathways by which to complete each stage, alongside plenty of concealed areas and hidden secrets to discover. The clockwork mansion is unquestionably my favourite, with its interchangeable rooms and hidden spaces making for a tense yet enjoyable experience that is unlike anything else I’ve witnessed in a stealth game before.
Unfortunately, height is still a major issue in many on the levels. You can bypass large, challenging sections of the levels simply by teleporting up high. It breaks the game in a major way, and can often lead to you blitzing through the game like a blood-mad mosquito, even on the hardest difficulty. Some of the earlier levels do attempt to constrain you more (the clockwork mansion is a notable example of this), but as the game progresses it seems to throw such precautions to the wind. There is a no powers mode that solves this problem, yet only the most hardcore of players would ever even attempt such an intimidating challenge.
However, you’ll definitely want to choose the powers mode as the gameplay of Dishonored 2 is absolutely brilliant to behold. What makes the game utterly spectacular is sheer amount of choice available at your fingertips. Both protagonists have a vast roster of moves and powers at their disposal, and you are free to mix and match at your own free will to tailor your experience as much as you want. Corvo’s skillset returns from the previous game, albeit with an expanded upgrade tree, and is just as enjoyable as it was in Dishonored 1, but it is Emily’s ability-set that is the most intriguing. Her domino ability is perhaps the best in the series to date, and the number of possible combinations and applications it has alongside the rest of the roster is truly mindboggling.
Of course, I found myself adopting a stealth-centric build and, as with all stealth games, the art of staying secluded in the shadows feels more rewarding than being discovered and hacking your way through the game. However, thanks to the plethora of options offered in Dishonored 2, such an approach can feel just as exhilarating as the sneaky stealth option. Couple in the ability to further customise your playstyle via collectable bonecharms (mini buffs and abilities) and you have a game that comes close to offering near-limitless possibilities.
As a complete entity, Dishonored 2 doesn’t quite eclipse the brilliance of its predecessor, even taking the odd step back in certain places. Nevertheless, thanks to its expansive gameplay systems and culture of player-choice, it more than makes up for its shortcoming by gifting players with one of the most rewarding and flawlessly executed gameplay experiences of this generation, and truly deserving of a gaming medal of honour.