Dishonored 2 Review: A near-perfect second album
Dishonored 2 is that rare beast: a sequel that improves upon every aspect that made the original a hit while keeping returning fans happy.
Truly successful sequels are as rare as sunshine in Dunwall. I don’t mean successful in a monetary sense, but successful in servicing existing fans while bringing enough to the table to separate the progeny from its predecessor.
Harvey Smith and the team at Arkane created something unique with the original Dishonored: a game with a wonderfully handcrafted industrial world bustling with life and lore, a game that delivered on its “play your way” premise.
Dishonored 2 honours that legacy by expanding the universe beyond the shores of Dunwall and adding even more toys and tactics for low-chaos, high-chaos and ghost players (who try and complete the game with zero enemy interaction) to utilise.
Hell or high water
While the first Dishonored was renowned for giving you the option to play either a cunning assassin of the night or a bombastic wrecking ball, I was always miffed at the sheer number of destructive tools Corvo had compared to the small handful of low-chaos powers and weapons. Aside from the five sleeping bolts for the crossbow, I felt like I had an entire arsenal I would never have the opportunity to use if I were to stick to the low-chaos route. That worry is over. Now, every lethal weapon is accompanied by nearly as many non-lethal options.
In addition to the standard, sleeping and incendiary bolts, Dishonored 2’s crossbow can fire harmless howling and stinging bolts. The former blind enemies for a brief moment, allowing for a Houdini-esque escape, and the latter induce agonising pain in the enemy, causing them to flee from their position. Both are super-helpful additions if you’re playing it low-key, but these things don’t grow on trees. There are far fewer howling and stinging bolts than sleeping bolts, and you’ll be stretched to find them at any of the game’s black market stores, so if you’re going to fire one off, make it count.
The crossbow, while silent and deadly, is just one part of your arsenal. Grenades, stickies, springrazor traps, the pistol and sword all make a violent return in Dishonored 2.
However, this time around the sword is actually pretty useful for stealth players as you can knock an opponent unconscious immediately after parrying. Upon alert, Dishonored forced you to run for the hills or bend time and wrap around your enemy, but in Dishonored 2 a perfectly timed parry can help put a confrontation to rest without upping your body count.
Similarly, Emily’s powers can open up many low-damage paths, and equally many ways for you to become a death-dealing ghost-demon. Like life, Dishonored 2 is full of tough choices like these. While Corvo’s Void abilities are the same as before, Emily Kaldwin gets her own range of supernatural powers (which, if you choose, you can reject from the beginning). Some, like Far Reach, are analogous to a similar power of Corvo’s. Others, like Shadow Walk and Domino, are totally fresh abilities that can completely change your approach. Shadow Walk transforms Emily into a crawling smoke monster who is hard to see, can kill or incapacitate enemies, and - after a later upgrade - crawl through rat tunnels.
Using Shadow Walk is a good way to strike fear into the denizens of Karnaca, but I found I used it far less often than I initially thought I would. While it’s easier to hide so low to the ground, you’re not totally invisible and can still take damage. Pre-upgrade, you also cancel the ability as soon as you take out an enemy, which led to a few untimely captures on my part. Eventually, I figured if I had to get behind the enemy anyway, there are other ways of doing it without draining so much mana.
What I really enjoyed and depended upon until the last moments of Dishonored 2 was Emily’s brilliant Domino ability. You can link up to four enemies at a time with Domino, tethering their fates. Knock one enemy unconscious and the rest will fall. It’s a quick way to clear out a room and an even better way to save on sleeping bolts.
Contemporary games are full of choice, inconsequential or not. Unnecessary choices are foisted upon us left, right and centre. Almost every choice in Dishonored 2 carries some consequence, big or small. There are huge signposted choices that shout DOING THIS MAKES YOU A BAD PERSON, but it's the smaller choices, like weighing up the worth of engaging or evading, that really force you to consider your method.
Karnaca is Hard Yakka
These little choices extend beyond combat and stealth. Choosing to search a seemingly innocuous room can pay off big time with in-game valuables like bone charms, relics or gold ingots, as well as additional morsels of narrative in audio logs and handwritten letters.
Dishonored 2’s region-hopping journey pushes you south to Karnaca when the big bad Delilah Kaldwin usurps the Dunwall throne, and the sequel is much better for it. Not only are the sun-strewn streets of Karnaca a refreshing change from the drab cobblestone alleyways of Dunwall, they’re also packed full of carefully arranged details that, as a whole, offer an even deeper and more complex narrative than the game’s main story arc.
This is one of the liberties Dishonored 2’s contained levels offer. Where Bethesda’s Skyrim and Fallout 4 feature sprawling open worlds, the majority of items and collectables spread throughout are randomly generated, causing the majority of the rooms to appear near-identical. But in Karnaca, whether it’s a quarantined bloodfly-infested room (Dishonored 2’s plague of choice), or the coal-peppered domiciles of the Dust district, each little detail adds to the region’s mythos. There are also neutral zones bursting with life, which let you get a much closer look at each sector’s working class whalers. We also loved Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s Prague for the same reasons.
Some areas clearly outshine others. There’s a comparably plain stroll through an enemy compound later in the game that pales in comparison to some of the game’s more stunning level designs, like the Clockwork Mansion, that has been sampled in trailer and gameplay clips leading up to its release.
Serkonos: The Good, the bad and the Crown Killer
Each level is littered with finer details, but it’s the quirky characters that inhabit Dunwall and Karnaca that take Serkonos from a shallow fantasy world to a deep and storied universe with a beating heart.
Thanks in part to some magnificent voice work from Erica Luttrell (Emily) and Steven Russell (Corvo), we get to relate to our protagonists in a way the original couldn’t with the mute Corvo. And what characters they are. Neither is portrayed as good or bad; that’s up to the player to decide. One of Emily’s first lines of dialogue perfectly captures this moral tightrope when she discusses a growing paranoia about the people she surrounds herself with. She remarks that she doesn’t know whether to trust them or have every last one of them executed. It’s a solid starting point for a character that could swing either way depending on your choices.
Of course, the empress is right to be wary, as before you know you’re out on your arse in the streets of Dunwall, falsely accused of a recent spate of bloody murders by the enigmatic Crown Killer (an interesting sub-plot that’s resolved a little too quickly). From there you find an unexpected ally in Meghan Foster and her ship, The Dreadful Whale (which acts an in-between mission hub).
Meghan is one of Dishonored 2’s most welcome additions. A mysterious sailor with ties to an old friend, Meghan’s motivations are a mystery to begin with, but conclude in a very satisfying way that will no doubt please fans of the series’ mythos. The Dreadful Whale is a neat hub world with little clues and secrets scattered around, but it’s a little empty in comparison to the Hound Pits Pub from the original Dishonored. The Hound Pits were full of interesting characters to observe and engage with, and Pierro’s trading post was a reliable way to restock in-between missions. The Dreadful Whale has some resources on hand, but they’re finite. If you want to restock, you’ll have to hunt down a black market store in each level.
Meghan’s voice work by Rosario Dawson (Daredevil, Luke Cage) is some of the most impressive the game has to offer. I may be biased, as I’m a big fan of Dawson, but I don’t think the character of Foster would have been the same without her. Rosario Dawson is just one of the celebrities on deck here, but she’s without a doubt the most outstanding. Vincent D'Onofrio’s Lucas Abele is a little cartoonish as the villainous aristocrat, and Sam Rockwell’s Mortimer Ramsey is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.
Dishonored 2 is a sequel with heart, literally and figuratively. The sheer amount of passion put into the sound, art, characters and finer details of narrative and lore make it a near-perfect sequel that deserves to be played over and over again. Hardcore fans of the original game will find a continuation of everything they loved, and newcomers will find a game that stands alone as one the greatest gaming experiences of 2016.