Video Games Review: Dishonored 2 (PS4, 2016)

I was in the minority when the original Dishonored came out back in 2012. When it seemed like the entire world was throwing roses at the game’s feet, I found it to be a competent if uninspired homage to the Thief series with a few superpowers thrown in. Dishonored 2 is certainly a better game than its predecessor in many ways, but it also comes with a set of entirely new problems.

Anytime someone tells me they hate stealth games, I feel like we won’t have much in common. I love stealth mechanics. I love skulking about, slowly making my way into areas I shouldn’t be in, avoiding detection as I make mental notes of all the potential exits, snatch what I’m looking for and book it without anyone ever knowing I was there. The endorphin rush when it all goes right is enough to make you want to pass out, and providing scenarios for you to achieve exactly that is something that Dishonored 2 is quite good at.

What it seems like it’s even better at is the sort of elaborate, Rube Goldberg Machine-esque chaos that makes for amusing YouTube content. It really wants you to experiment, to tug at its numerous strings. Kick a guy off a cliff. Throw down a mine and see if someone steps on it. March into the open like it’s the third act of a Michael Bay movie and shoot someone full in the chest just to see what happens next.

The first game wanted you to experiment too, but Dishonored 2 goes all-in on the philosophy. The list of non-lethal takedown methods has been greatly expanded upon with parries and choke-outs being folded into the swordplay. This means that those going for the non-lethal playthrough no longer have to kill someone if they get sprung! In more moments remiscent of Thief, there are new status-effect consumables like crossbow bolts that send people blind or mad, allowing you to sew chaos and slip by in the confusion. Weapon upgrades have been expanded too, allowing even the humble pistol to buck with the force of three shotguns taped together.

Many of these noisy shenanigans occur when playing as Corvo Attano, the hero of the original game. Corvo still comes with his original suite of moves like Blink and rodent possession. Developer Arkane Studios have, however, made much of Dishonored 2‘s new protagonist, Emily Kaldwin. A child in the first game, Emily is now a young adult and is the game’s stealth main. She gets a move called Domino which allows her to target a number of enemies, dispatch one of them and have that same fate be instantly delivered upon everyone she’s marked. She can Mesmerize her foes, and she can become a living shadow to move around quickly. She can also use Far Reach to emulate Corvo’s old teleport ability. All of these moves play into the game’s overarching desire for you to muck around and find a way forward that works for you. There’s no penalty for scum saving here — come up with a plan, give it a go and if it doesn’t work reload and try again.

Here’s why getting it right carries a satisfaction payload, though: the game will punish you for screwing up. Enemies are savage, they will pursue you forever and there’s little you can do in the face of their relentless barrage of attacks.

But even as a stealth player, I found the enemies to be quite alert and on their toes. Many stealth games have enemies wander in very specific patterns to allow the player to better put a plan together. Dishonored 2 doesn’t seem to care very much about that because enemies will change course at random, just to throw a spanner in the works. They’re also a cut above the usual stealth game hired goons in that they have a memory — there’s no snatching a guard and dragging him away while his partner has wandered off because that partner will remember where his mate was. Said partner will then either hurry over to investigate or simply sound the alarm right away. It took me a little while to understand that throwing out my preconceptions of how a stealth game is “supposed” to work was the key to getting any enjoyment from the game. Before I had this epiphany, though?, Boy, my first few hours were frustrating.

The thing is, while Dishonored 2 presented a bit of a challenge to begin with, I didn’t find that it became any more challenging as the campaign wore on. As a player, the expectation is that you’ll run up against scenarios that require a little more thought or experimentation as you progress, but they never arrive. When the game finally throws a few new enemies at you, they feel like they’re being underused and they only pop up in very specific parts of the map. By the time I reached the end of the campaign with either hero, I felt terribly overpowered because there wasn’t anything that came close to challenging me. The thing about the game’s reliance on experimentation is that that sort of thing is only really fun when your continued existence relies on getting this right. When you’re so powerful that the outcome of any experiment doesn’t matter then it becomes a rather dull trudge to the finish line. Dishonored 2 spends so much time pulling new things out of its bag of tricks for you to try that I felt really let down when there was no grand, use-it-all-or-perish puzzle for me to solve at the end.

Add to this the fact that the narrative doesn’t really grow or change much beyond what we saw in the original game. Dishonored began with a sudden, lethal bid for power that sets Corvo on his revenge hatemarch, before descending into outlandish occult blah-blah and Dishonored 2 does the same damned thing. When playing as Emily or Corvo, your objective remains the same: hunt down those that have wronged you. Your drive to do so hangs on that one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sequence at the top of the campaign. The plot itself is fine, revenge is decent as motivators go, but the game doesn’t take the time to give you the emotional impetus required to send you haring after the guilty parties. Instead, and rather unlike the experimental nature of the gameplay, the story holds your hand with an iron grip and wields exposition with all the delicacy of a blacksmith’s hammer. If you were to run a Dishonored 2 drinking game, in which a drink is taken every time your character states the blindingly obvious, you would need to be admitted to the ER within the hour. And then, in case you somehow managed to miss the point, they will then further explain their precise feelings and thoughts during the game’s comic book-style cutscenes. It’s a bizarre creative clash the game is never able to resolve — this commitment to player agency in gameplay coupled with telling them exactly how to think and feel about any given advance in the plot. It makes the whole game feel as though its on rails, regardless of how creatively you approach each level.

Thankfully, whenever the game isn’t poking you in the chest and telling what to think, the world it creates is an interesting one. There’s obvious care that’s gone into creating a sense of history and culture in the city of Dunwall, and every area bursts with little details from signs, to scraps of paper torn from books, to snippets of conversation. This is great world-building! I wish the narrative matched up! Many of the levels are quite open and are larger than in the original game, littered with collectibles like hidden runes that push the progression system forward. God, you’ll spend a lot of time hunting for runes. Some of them are super obvious, but others are placed in ways that are unbelievably difficult to collect. I hope whoever put them there is pleased with themselves.

Shout-outs must be given to the individual mission design, each of which works hard to separate themselves from all the others. There’s a time-manipulation mission in the later half of the game that has be seen to be believed. So good, so smart. I don’t want to say any more than that because doing so would ruin its many surprises.

The design of each of these missions reinforces your need to use your powers in creative ways. It lets you control the situation. This is never more apparent than when you stuff up and have that control taken away by a bunch of guards ready to absolutely gank you. While the challenge drops off later on, Dishonored 2 is a lot of fun when you trim all the fat and focus on creatively completing the mission. It will reward multiple playthroughs and, we’re told, a New Game+ mode is on the way for those who want to keep their builds going.

Dishonored 2 is far from perfect, but there’s certainly fun to be had here provided you’re willing to overlook the many rough edges.

Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: The degree to which you can experiment is immense; Corvo and Emily’s powers are still cool
Lowlights: Narrative is both pushy and underwritten; Challenge drops off the further in you get
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda
Release date: Out now
Systems: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with review code provided by Bethesda.