Dishonored 2 is very good. It’s well-designed with solid gameplay mechanics, making it one of the best games of 2016. Developer Arkane Studios has refined the ‘choose your own adventure’ gameplay of the original, with smarter stealth and sleeker combat, wrapped up in a better overall story alongside some great new locations to explore.
Set 15 years after the events of Dishonored, the sequel picks up as Emily Kaldwin commemorates the anniversary of her late mother’s passing. It’s a bleak event, with Emily’s monotone voice-actor doling out throwaway lines of dialogue about the mother’s death, whether she’s a good empresses (spoiler: she’s not), and if she should just have everyone around her killed. As you can see, it’s not a good time for Emily at the beginning of Dishonored 2. Someone known as ‘The Crown Killer’ is murdering all of Emily’s (political) enemies, with a strong rumour that her father, Corvo Attano (protagonist of the first game), is responsible.
So when a nefarious woman name Delilah Copperspoon — claiming to be the long-lost sister of Emily’s late mother — crashes the party and usurps the throne with powerful supernatural abilities, I figured she was doing Emily a favour. Except she sees this as an opportunity to do a bit of personal growth, simultaneously plotting to kill Delilah’s allies in an effort to retake the throne upon learning how tough life is outside the palace. By the game’s end, Emily pledges to be a much more just ruler, one who actually gives two bob for the lives she’s responsible for, since the impression she implies during the course of the story is that she never really cared.
Of course, that is if you choose to play as Emily.
Dishonored 2 lets you pick between Emily and Corvo, because I suppose we couldn’t just have this franchise focus on a new hero now, could we? Both play exactly the same way, though I suspect Corvo moves just that little bit slower when crouching. They do, however, each have their own respective set of powers you can purchase and upgrade by hunting down the runes scattered throughout the game’s stunning new environments. Honestly, who you play as really comes down to personal choice. I chose to play as Emily during my first playthrough because I really thought this to be the development team’s original design intent. The game really seems to be about her, not Corvo, and through the journey of taking down each of her targets, Emily goes through a great deal of personal growth to become a better leader for her people. It’s a step up from the get-revenge story of the first, and told in a much more personal, albeit hammy and overdone sort of way.
Corvo’s tale, on the other hand, is one of an old man feeling sorry for himself, that he let so many conspirators get close enough to take his daughter’s throne. The journey down to Karnaca — the new location in Dishonored 2 and Corvo’s hometown — is a nice setting for Corvo’s tale, as he reconnects with where he came from and who he used to be, as well as how he can better align those two sides of himself. Like I said, it’s really up to you on who to play as, and I doubt unless you’re super into the lore of the franchise, who you pick first will be determined by which story you want to connect with first. Emily’s definitely feels the more ‘natural’ fit for the premise of the game, while Corvo is, I suspect, still hanging around for fan service and to give us a deeper look into the inner workings of his mind.
Instead, I feel whether you play as Corvo or Emily will be swayed by two things: do you want to play as a male or female; and, which powers do you want access to? Corvo has many of the same powers as in Dishonored, including Blink, Time Control and Devouring Swarm, however his access to these powers is reset to include just Blink at the outset of the game. Emily sees the introduction of new powers, such as the ability to transform into a shadow and remain more or less unnoticed by enemies, a power called Domino which connects several enemies together ensuring they all share the same fate (i.e. death, stunned, etc.) and Far Reach, which works similarly to Blink, but allows Emily to pull items and enemies to her from a distance.
Dishonored 2 also introduces a new ‘no powers’ mode, wherein you progress through the game with zero powers at all. Intended for stealth purists, I imagine a lot of frustration and reloading saves would be required to get through many of the game’s set pieces. Luckily, there’s a quicksave / quickload function built into the pause screen, so you don’t have to waste those precise seconds laboriously clicking through so many subscreens and prompts just to save and load.
I really enjoyed toying with Emily’s new powers. Far Reach is incredibly cool and useful, as is Shadow Walk: which has the added benefit of letting you attack unaware enemies. The new powers made Dishonored 2 feel like a true sequel, an experience that offered the same delicious taste in respect to stealth and combat, but with a new flavour added for good measure. Regardless of who you player as though, each power can now be upgraded via a new tree system. While shallow compared to a more complex RPG game, this system lets you pick and choose which upgrades to spend your hard-earned runes on. You don’t even need to unlock each branch to get to the best iteration of any given power, just ensure you unlock the prerequisite trait beforehand. That’s something Dishonored 2 does better than most games, giving players choice on which upgrade to choose. There’s nothing worse than having to spend points on upgrades you won’t want to use, especially if they conflict with the manner in which you’re playing.
Dishonored 2’s gameplay very closely resembles that of its predecessor. And why not, since it was the perfect blend of stealth / action, wrapped in a well designed package of true player choice. The sequel smartly looks to further refine the experience with subtle tweaks as to how stealth works, improving the movement and flow of combat, and, in a move which will be polarising, increasing the level of difficulty.
I’m a huge fan of stealth games, even if I may suck at them, and on that merit alone I absolutely adored the first Dishonored. That was good — albeit sometimes frustrating due to control issues — stealth. Dishonored 2 fixes the issues in respect to character control, while ensuring a much more realistic enemy AI by upping the difficulty of the game. This means cover won’t do as good a job of keeping you concealed from nearby enemies, who now enjoy a greater deal of spatial awareness than before. Playing through on medium setting was a truly frustrating affair for the first few chapters, as I attempted to go for a no-chaos, no-kill, remain unseen forever playthrough. I just couldn’t do it, and my progress through the game became a sluggish affair. This, I fear, may turn people away from the game, especially in this day and age where player’s hands are constantly being held. Then again, Dishonored was a brutal game in of itself, so those picking the sequel up may indeed know what lies in store for them.
If stalking in the shadows sounds tiring you can always opt for a much bloodier approach, and good news, Dishonored 2’s combat is more fluid and enjoyable than before. When engaged in combat Corvo / Emily will be armed with a blade in their right hand, and a selectable second weapon in their left. This can be one of their respective powers, or could be a firearm (pistol, crossbow, etc.). Changing your left-hand weapon during combat is recommended since the flow of battle can often change in an instant thanks to the inclusion of a new type of enemy: clockwork soldiers. These towering mechanical powerhouses are fast, agile and very dangerous – even on medium – and can only be dispatched by targeting weak points underneath their armour. Attacking from a distance is recommended, as is using firearms to blow their armour away so you can get in for massive damage.
Using powers during combat is far more fun with Emily than her father, mainly due to the addition of Far Reach (again, I love this power so much). You can equip it at any point and hurl enemies through the air, often catching others off-balance. It’s perfect for crowd control, and really makes you feel truly powerful. Corvo, on the other hand, can slow time for a short while, where you can quickly dispatch groups of enemies or remove yourself from danger. An upgrade even allows you to move faster while time is stopped, allowing you to do more in the short time you’re given. Again, so much of what Dishonored 2 allows players to do further reinforces how well balanced the game design is. It’s like a true open-world sandbox where you can interact with the world however you see fit.
The new setting of Karnaca is both beautifully inspired and a real treat to explore. Arkane have put in a lot of work in crafting environments that players are going to want to explore every inch of, complete with multiple paths to progress forward. Moving through my second playthrough as Corvo, I begun to really appreciate the detail in the level design, as I was constantly discovering previously unknown paths or hidden rooms with collectibles inside.
Collectibles include bone charms and runes, the former serve to augment you with abilities such as increased swimming speed or to collect mana from killed rats and bloodflies (a new danger specific to the new location), whereas the latter acts as points used to upgrade your powers. You can even craft your own bone charms thanks to a new ability, wherein you ‘sacrifice’ collected charms and rebuild them using the abilities gained from those you’ve destroyed. You can add multiple abilities to craft charms, though the more you add the higher chance of having them become corrupt. Corrupted bone charms provide negative effects, so best to avoid those unless you want to make an already hard game even more difficult.
I rarely use bone charms and don’t spend much time hunting them down. They’re like the salad you get when you order a pub meal: you’re just there for the chips and chicken parmigiana/steak/ribs. Runes on the other hand are very useful. Similar to Dishonored, you use the mechanical-looking heart object to hunt down either runes or charms, with the added option to ‘lock’ one in place on your HUD, removing the need to constantly switch items. Exploring your environment in search of these collectibles will serve you well, wherein you will most likely uncover unique, and often less dangerous, paths forward. If you’re aiming to run through the game without being seen, taking your time to exploring the multiple paths open to you is highly recommended.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Dishonored 2 is the best kind of sequel. It smartly builds on what its predecessor achieved without deviating from the core of what made it so beloved by fans and critics alike. The tweaks to gameplay are mostly welcomed, though I fear Arkane’s attempt to make the game harder will push potential newcomers away, having them miss out on one of the better games of the 2016 holiday release schedule. Having two characters is novel and encourages replayability, since both enjoy a relatively decent personal story through the same sequence of events, however I feel it would have been better had Emily been the new face of the franchise, separate from her father. After all, her new powers are an evolution of Corvo’s, and playing as her feels both fresh and familiar, whereas he is just too familiar. Still, that doesn’t tarnish what is clearly a well-designed and thoroughly enjoyable game.