2012’s Dishonored from French developer Arkane Studios was a fantastic game (despite its very obvious debt to games like Thief, Bioshock and even Assassin’s Creed), but the stealth exploration/shooter/murder/revenge sim always felt kind of limited in a few glaring under-the-hood ways. Take, for example, the way protagonist Corvo—framed for the murder of the empress of the fictional city of Dunwall—could either kill his enemies or knock them out. This certainly led to varying play styles, and Arkane even allowed for a mix of the two with creative powers such as the ability to teleport, freeze time or possess living creatures, but it also meant that, in most cases, conflict was conflict and stealth was stealth. Players were forced to make split-second decisions, sometimes to the chagrin of achievement/trophy hunters looking to play a certain way (like how I tried my ass off to play the entire game without killing anyone and failed because of a shitty save-game situation). Certainly there were options for patient strategists, but it still felt like Dishonored fell just short of greatness.
Arkane knows this, and they’ve managed to hold onto the same magic from the first game while tweaking and reimagining just enough for Dishonored 2 to draw in series fans without alienating them, as well as newcomers looking for a story-based experience in a sea of multiplayer shooters that seem like varying copies of one another. And it’s excellent. Once again, usurpers are out to claim the throne of Dunwall, now inhabited by Emily Kaldwin, who is Corvo’s daughter and who also played a pivotal role in the original entry. The villains' leader is the mysterious Delilah Copperspoon, who players may recall from the excellent Knife of Dunwall dlc from the first game. For some reason, Delilah is now claiming to be a Kaldwin, though we can’t be sure why. It’s a multi-tiered plot crammed with intrigue, numerous villains and, once again, semi-spooky supernatural powers. Yup, it’s cool as hell. As for the plot, it isn’t exactly new territory for the series and even feels like a bit of a copout narrative-wise in its similarity to the first game (how many times can one damn throne be stolen?), but the title says it all and somebody gots to get dishonored, right?
Anyway, players can choose to either play as Emily, in all her stealthy, strategic glory, or as Corvo, who is now a lumbering murder machine with little to no patience and a lust for blood like woah. OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but Arkane has been nice enough to build a world and characters suited to differing play styles. Are you calculating and methodical? Emily is probably for you, and comes stocked with sneaky powers and myriad movement options. Do you wanna just cut some fools in half? Team Corvo all the way. Still, there’s wiggle room with both characters and further-branching plot points add to variety as well as gaming hours. One such mission finds the hero in a city district divided between the Overseers (religious zealots who run the game’s fictional church) and the Howlers (a vicious gang who maybe also has access to arcane powers). Each faction would really like it if you took out the other’s leaders, and while the ultimate outcome of your decision simply advances the fairly linear storyline, it opens up a world of difference in terms of how you get there. Even seemingly insignificant NPCs will react in different ways based on your actions, which seems small, but it’s those small things that pile up and add to the overall immersion.
As for the heroes, either can take advantage of those cool Dishonored options and gadgets we’ve grown to love. Weapons like the sword and pistol make a comeback, and new bolts for the silent crossbow add depth. Take, for example, the howler bolt that will blind and confuse your quarry, or the sting bolt that causes the baddies to freak the eff out, run the eff away and forget you were even there in the first place. This all plays out in the seaside city or Karnaca which, unlike Dunwall, seems to be bursting with activity. It’s a gorgeous backdrop, from the harbors and towering apartment buildings to the clever mission areas like a constantly-changing clockwork mansion and a Victorian era-esque scientific conservatory. Enemy types have also expanded from a few fairly similar types of humans to guards, witches and so-called robotic soldiers that are much harder to take down than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. All of this expands the lore as do the many books, letters and notes scattered throughout the game's locales. Dishonored 2 is deep enough on its own, but reading anything one comes across is a fantastic way to add further immersion.
Even distant mountains and forests are rife with detail and, if nothing else, Arkane has crafted a world so oddly familiar yet so unique as to be unlike anything else on the market. If we tap into the concept of place as character, the tone and feel of Karnaca is every bit as important as Emily and Corvo, and the denizens of Karnaca set loose in its streets and alleys add a lifelike quality to everything; magic lives and breathes here, and the environments will go down in gaming history as some of the most imaginative in the industry. The concepts of magic realism and dreamlike atmosphere come together in such an exciting way, in fact, that it's not altogether strange to take a moment to really drink in the level of detail so lovingly built and rendered. Unforgettable doesn't even begin to do justice to Arkane's level design, especially with added verticality and the return of multiple paths. Generally speaking, if one can't accomplish a goal in one way, there is another angle to consider. Mission design is equally exciting with levels that ramp up the challenge organically and/or that add mechanics both exciting and innovative. One particular mission, which tasks the player with phasing between the past and present through the use of a magically-imbued timepiece, is quite memorable and fun in its mind-bending puzzle presentation. Not only are these facets impressive in design, they make subsequent gaming sessions feel fresh, especially in the face of having two fairly different characters. When stacked up against the slew of games releasing in time for the holiday season, the ability to play your way is a selling point in and of itself. In other words, you've got to experiment to discover what works for you, and you'll have a hell of a fun time narrowing down your choices.
The Bottom Line
The options are almost countless, the strategies are limitless and the allure of the game world is hard to resist—Dishonored 2 is everything one could possibly want from a sequel. The storyline's similarity to the original game is almost hard to swallow at first, but it simply cannot detract from everything that works right. From branching plot points and two main characters with which to explore the locales, Arkane has a truly special property on their hands. We can barely wait for the inevitable dlc content down the road. If you enjoyed the first Dishonored, the sequel is begging for your attention. If not, you’ve got your work cut out for you (play it right now) and you’ll have a hell of a good time getting it done.