Review: Dishonored 2

That Arkane Studios bundle continues to pay off. Dishonored 2 is both sequel and soft reboot to Dishonored, and it offered a bigger, better, improved experience in just about every way.

The biggest improvement for me is in characterization. Instead of another silent protagonist, you plays as a fully voiced returning Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to the Imperial Throne, or his Empress/protege/not-so-secret daughter, Emily Kaldwin. You’re partnered early with the mysterious, one-armed, one-eyed smuggler Meagan Foster, who takes the place of Dishonored‘s boat pilot Samuel, now deceased after the 15-year narrative gap between the games. Considerable time is spent in establishing your cast of allies and enemies. Even the best have their flaws; even the worst have their virtues, however small.

The plot is largely a repeat of the original game (and, as it turns out, its two narrative DLC extensions). The protagonist’s loved one is captured by the leader of a violent coup, and to save them and restore the rightful ruler, the protagonist must first perform several missions involving surveillance and the elimination of high-profile targets responsible for the current state of affairs. Later missions lean more into the occult with a focus on investigating and defeating a rejuvenated witch coven headed by Delilah Copperspoon, who is the principal agent behind the coup, claiming to be the half-sister of the deceased Empress Jessamine; Delilah seeks to bend the whole world to her will, motivated largely by a deep sense of betrayal from her youth (a story arc and an antagonist straight out of The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). Dealing with a decomposing empire and navigating the gap between the most destitute and desperate on one side and the sheltered but paranoid elite on the other tonally matches most of the original game. And once more, you can chart a course between High Chaos (death and destabilization) and Low Chaos (mercy and nonlethal solutions). Something new is that you actually get to pick between Corvo or Emily as the protagonist to play through the game.

Maybe I would have enjoyed Corvo more this time around, now that he’s done with his implicit vow of silence, but I picked Emily. I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the echoes of the original story would have felt merely redundant and derivative. By playing as Emily, the game felt more like a story about legacy. Emily must deal with the legacy of her father, an infamous figure who has taught her in the arts of defense, stealth, and assassination, and of her mother, whose death has created a void in her development. The young ruler we are reintroduced to at the start of the game seems like the perfect action-fantasy heroine, someone born of privilege and entitled to rule but deeply bored with the role and with the requirements of courtroom protocol, instead preferring to sneak out and explore the city. Rather than an admirable trait, the game gradually shows us that this is actually evidence of a ruler who failed to rule. While she was well-intentioned, she inadvertently allowed great suffering and inequity in her empire because she failed to pay enough attention. In my (predictably) Low-Chaos run, Emily’s choices led her to gradually understand the importance of real leadership–and that she had to earn the right to rule; she was not just entitled to it.

As is now the standard for Dishonored games, the setting was incredible. While the beginning and ending missions are spent in Dunwall, most of the game takes place in Karnaca, the capital city of Serkonos, a city known as “The Jewel of the South at the Edge of the World.” Both Corvo and the assassin of former Empress Jessamine hail from Serkonos. It’s significant to the world, exporting its culture, foods and spices, and most significantly its silver to the rest of the Empire. Where the rest of the world has become overly dependent upon whale oil, which is at this point in the game’s history declining in availability, Serkonos benefits from the use of wind energy, with wind turbines large and small powering a variety of devices throughout the capital city. Karnaca nonetheless finds itself in decline. Where the former duke was well-beloved and worked to improve equality, his son is decadent and self-indulgent. He has stripped away the burgeoning rights of workers in the silver mines, and he taxes heavily to fund his personal projects. His interest in the occult led to the resurrection of Delilah, and he is the main political supporter of the coup and placement of Delilah on the Imperial throne. Karnaca is a place full of bitter, desperate people as a result. Serkonos and Karnaca are apparently inspired by southern Europe and the Caribbean, producing a very realistic yet unique culture. The corrupt and brutal Grand Guard roam the streets, extorting shopkeepers and assaulting strangers. Fishmongers and butchers and whalers work along sloping cobbled alleys with bloodied water seeping down to the docks. A former sanitarium juts from the rocks off the coast. The upper classes live in colossal estates along the periphery. Black market shops operate in abandoned buildings. The horrid buzzing of bloodflies (an oversized combination of mosquitoes and tsetse flies and those flies that cause myiasis) fills filthy apartments overrun with the flies’ mud-dauber type nests and blood amber-infused hives. And as per usual, journals and notes and book excerpts and newspaper articles and graffiti are found everywhere, providing further insight into the state of the city and the world. The city feels alive, seedy and hot and exotic and miserable.

While artwork has always been another tool that Dishonored has used to further detail the world, I was really impressed by many of the paintings I came across. Paintings in the game seemed to encompass parallels to Neoclassical and Romantic art in our world, except for the energetic, colorful, at times slightly abstracted works by the magically gifted Delilah. Many of the more traditional paintings found detailed little myths and legends that added to the tone of the game though never appearing anywhere else. And there were, of course, drawings by children–or the childlike, including one rather bad self-portrait by the conceited Duke of Serkonos.

The game offers some gameplay and design improvements over the original. There is more movement allowed when peering around corners. There are far more nonlethal take-down options, and a Low-Chaos play style that is focused on aggressive incapacitation of opponents is quite viable. Instead of having to get any upgrades or equipment purchased at a central hub between missions, black markets provide options in each level. And Dishonored came out in 2012, while Dishonored 2 released in 2016, so it goes without saying that the sequel looks much better and feels more realistic to navigate. It’s really fun to play, much like Dishonored–perhaps even more so than the original. I played on Hard mode because it was described as tailored for those familiar with Dishonored. This was accurate. The game never felt unfair or insurmountable, and I’m glad I picked the slightly higher difficulty setting.

I mentioned much earlier that Dishonored 2 was a soft reboot. I make that argument because while it builds out from a Low Chaos-ending to the original game and its DLC extensions, it does not really require any understanding of what came before. And by echoing the plot of those earlier stories, it basically tells a more intimate version of those same stories, only this time with more voice-acting, more explicit plot developments, clearer themes, and more diversity in representation. Normally, the choice to do the “good” or “right” thing is very easy to make in video games, but here, many of the antagonists are so awful that it is understandable to want to kill them. By choosing another option, by finding another way, many of these people still meet cruel fates, but it still requires an active performance of mercy, if not forgiveness, and greater effort to produce the nonlethal solution. Learning more about the politics and personalities of Serkonos and the Empire made decisions matter more. And the opaque occult realm of the Outsider is explored in greater detail, making it ever more complex and bizarre. Even simple concepts implied in the original are made explicit in the sequel; just as one example, the supernatural heart used to provide helpful hints and to detect occult items in the original makes another appearance, but while some of the musings of the soul within the heart and the voice used were the only things to clearly suggest that it contained the soul of Jessamine in the original, it is explicit in the sequel and her residual spirit is a major plot point. (The original also made Corvo seem a tad uncaring to rely heavily on this device without ever attempting to converse with it, while playing as Emily in the sequel provided an opportunity for closure with her mother. It would be interesting to see how a voiced Corvo reacted to the heart in this game, though maybe not interesting enough for me to do a Corvo run through the game.) The original threw out a lot of ideas that were not really explored, and the sequel picked up those ideas and ran with them.

I should note that I finished playing Dishonored 2 over a week ago. Since then, I returned to Dishonored to play the DLC, to try to learn more about the past of Meagan’s alter ego, and to try to understand Delilah more. I got some answers, but the adventures of the assassin Daud within the expansion are not vital to the story of Dishonored 2. Certainly the sequel builds on the framework set down by the DLC, much like it builds on what the original game provided, but familiarity with the DLC story is not required. Most interestingly, it is clear that Dishonored 2 actually took and improved upon a lot of features from the DLC, new ideas in gameplay that weren’t present yet in the original. I’ve also started Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, which so far feels like a tighter, slightly simplified version of Dishonored 2 that is heavily dependent upon an understanding of the earlier game’s story to be fully appreciated. In fact, Death of the Outsider leans more heavily on plot points from the first game’s DLC as well, and as a result, it feels like a game made particularly for the fan of the franchise’s lore. Certainly the gameplay could be picked up by anyone, but the attention to lore might make this somewhat inscrutable to someone new to the Dishonored setting. All that to say, Dishonored 2 is easily the game I’d recommend for anyone who wanted to give a Dishonored title a try. Thus far, I’d deem it the high point of the series, while working well as a standalone title.

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