Dishonored somewhat broke the mould upon release back in 2012, flying in the face of AAA games that increasingly value visual spectacle over gameplay. With its lack of set pieces and Hollywood-esque theatrics, Arkane’s stealth action series scaled things back and focused on crafting a game that was simple in concept yet clever in design and massively capitalised on what is a game’s unique and defining quality – the freedom for the player to experiment and craft their own experience.
Those that have played through the original will be familiar with masked assassin Corvo Attano and his daughter Emily Kaldwin. Taking place 15 years after the original, we’re introduced to a grown-up Emily. Now Empress, she is disillusioned and discontent with palace life – while endless royal ceremonies may be a drag, she could show a little more enthusiasm given all poor Corvo went through in the original game to put her there! Things start to unravel when antagonist Delilah shows up claiming to be the late empress’ older sister and rightful heir to the throne. She proceeds to overthrow Emily in the game’s opening moments and from here players are given to go about settings things right as either Emily or Corvo. Whoever they don’t choose gets turned to stone by Delilah’s witchcraft and doesn’t feature in the game.
Delilah isn’t a nobody who’s suddenly swanned in and made her theatrically evil self at home, she’s actually a key character in both chapters of the original’s story DLC – The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. While it’s fine to have recurring characters, introducing such a major character through additional content leaves those that only played through the main game at something of a loss. The game follows the same path whichever character is chosen, with differences occurring in the narrative and the abilities at the player’s disposal.
For many, the original Dishonored was the definite stealth action experience thanks to those nifty powers that could be used to violently eradicate or cunningly bypass enemies. Playing as Emily offers a completely new set of powers this time around. Using Far Reach Emily can propel herself across long distances or grab enemies and items. Others, like Domino, allow Emily to link multiple enemies together and wipe them out simultaneously. Shadow sees her to transform into super stealthy demon form to whisk around levels unseen or sneak up and enact some arcane-infused justice. Abilities can be upgraded adding extra benefits and new ones are unlocked using Runes. These are found scattered throughout each level making exploration essential to building your power collection and increasing your odds of survival. You can also tackle the game completely stripped of your powers if you’re feeling brave, or particularly masochistic.
The addition of both characters is disconcerting; one the one hand it’s great to have the option of playing as either male or female, one the other hand it’s hard not to wonder if Arkane’s choice of also having Corvo as a playable character was a lack of faith that Emily could carry the title on her own. It makes more sense from a narrative perspective to have Emily restore her honour -much like Corvo did in the first – rather than have her Daddy swooping in to save her yet again. Also, Corvo’s repertoire of powers remains largely unchanged from the original, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – teleporting through environments using the Blink ability or unleashing Devouring Swarm to subject your enemies to some ravenous rats is as fun as ever – but an overhaul of his skill set would have better warranted his role as a playable character. Instead he feels like an unnecessary inclusion, added simply to ensure the game didn’t succumb to the decline in sales that sadly befalls many games featuring a solo female lead.
The level of freedom offered here goes beyond combat and gender as there are multiple ways to approach just about every situation and obstacle in the game. Dishonored 2 transports players from the darkened Victorian streets of Dunwall to the vibrant and robust southern city of Karnaca. Dubbed ‘The Jewel of the South’, this sunny setting showcases expansive areas which offer remarkable detail and depth. The intuitive level design allows for objectives to be reached in a number of ways. Need to get through a locked door? You can take the thorough approach, carefully checking guard’s desks and pockets, or a more adventurous route by scaling rooftops to find an open window. This freedom also cleverly lends itself to the game’s bosses. There’s always the opportunity to attack key figures from behind the shadows, exploring levels to find the means to negate their power. It’s clever, intuitive and entirely optional as you can always boldly attack them head on if that’s more your style.
A word of caution for those that enjoy a deadly approach however, like the first Dishonored 2 will punish players for pursuing the violent path with what it describes as a ‘cynical ending’. It’s not unreasonable to want a good ending for characters you’ve spent considerable time and effort aiding, but following the low chaos route – rendering enemies unconscious or avoiding them completely – means missing out on some of the game’s best powers. Powers and choice are what sets Dishonored apart from other stealth action series so it’s disappointing to see Arkane chastising players who opt for a lethal approach. The lethal or non-lethal element should serve exclusively as a gameplay mechanic, but instead it’s a banal attempt to introduce some sort of morality aspect that’s completely absent from the rest of the narrative.
Unfortunately granting players the choice of customising the game to their own playstyle inevitably comes with its own drawbacks. No more so is this evident than in the game’s difficulty balancing. Levels are littered with legions of guards with very little indication of their whereabouts until it’s too late, meaning playing stealthy can often turn into a monotonous game of trial and error. They also react to the presence of your character with inhuman reflexes and pursue relentlessly – the limited view afforded by the first person view doing little to help spot them or execute an efficient escape. But of course, the game needs lots of enemies with quick reactions because it’s also an action game. Fortunately, this is only a pressing issue for the early missions of the game, before you have helpful abilities – like being able to light enemies up like Christmas trees – to aid in stealth tactics. However, unlocking these powers does involve a rather time consuming hunt for Runes in each of the game’s levels, meaning those that don’t put the time into finding them will find their combat choices rather stunted throughout.
That said the game’s issues don’t wildly deter from its intelligence and often elaborate brilliance. Cleverly combining powers to escape or eradicate foes is thrilling and exploration is a joy thanks to the game’s exquisitely detailed levels rich with character and history. Few games in recent memory offer the lavish intricacy of master inventor Kirin Jindosh’s mansion, patrolled by the intriguing yet deadly Clockwork Soldiers, or the technical brilliance of the Timepiece – a gadget that allows you to instantly flip the entire level between the past and present at will. Dishonored 2 successfully builds on the foundations of the first, providing a stealth action experience that’s memorable, strategic and satisfying, with the kind of freedom that liberates the player more than any of those expansive, yet painfully dull, open words that seem almost obligatory in today’s AAA releases.
(all images courtesy of press.bethsoft.com)