Notes: I played on PS4, version patch 1.01, with my total playtime at time of writing: 15-17 hours. My pre-release exposure was a couple of trailers and Bethesda’s E3 2016 & 2015 stage presentations.
Dishonored was one of 2012’s most promising new franchises for me. Its worldbuilding, mechanics, unique art style, melee focus, and the fact it pulled of first-person stealth without Farcry style tagging made it stand out from its contemporaries. Dishonored 2 retains its predecessor’s spirit of gifting and confronting the player with interesting mechanics while encouraging vastly different styles of play, but also retains Dishonored 1’s lack of polish.
Not Quite a Whale of a Tale
One of the more underappreciated elements of Dishonored 1 was its understated world building. Characters were mostly talking objective givers and would allude to the obvious corruption and rundown state of Dunwall. The lore was left to the numerous books and notes around the levels in conjunction with the heart, and you got the basic gist of the state of things just from observing the world: rat plague, whale based economy, powerful religious order. In Dishonored 2, perhaps as a result of having Corvo and Emily fully voiced, so much pointless, redundant, and overly expository dialogue is muttered out of your shallow main characters I began to sympathize with the villain, who has had a much tougher life than either of your protagonists. Perhaps the greatest offender is the Heart from DH1, which used to give vague yet telling comments and now simply repeats things you already knew and “emotional” asides. It can tell you about your targets if you have them in your sights, but you already know most of what it’s going to tell you. I can accept reading a note and having your character re-iterate what info you learned from it, but hearing Emily remark “I can feel this trip chaining me, how will this affect me?” outloud was so hamfisted that I had to look up if the writing team was the same between DH1 and 2, which it is aside from one new person and Harvey Smith not being listed. But Smith was the creative director for DH1 and 2, so unless he was extremely hands-off in the writing department I can’t think of a reason the writing has taken such a downward turn. It doesn’t help that Corvo and Emily have the worst voice acting in the entire cast. The Duke of Serkonos, the Outsider, Delilah, and most of the other major players are voiced extraordinarily well, despite being familiar archetypes. The story itself fails to capitalize on its strengths. It’s a basic revenge plot, Delilah, the antagonist from DH1’s DLC, takes the throne from Emily and as either Corvo or Emily you retreat to Karnaca on the south edge of the Empire and start dismantling Delilah’s supporters in preparation to take back the throne. One of the most interesting plots, talked about early on, is the Crown Killer. A serial killer that kills those who openly oppose Emily’s rule could’ve led to an interesting conflict of morals. I was hoping that the game would start out with an interesting conflict of morals, a situation where killing the Crown Killer could be the “good” option and saving their life and ensuring their cooperation would be the “evil” option. But no, it’s just some lady corrupted by Delilah with a dual personality that you either kill or cure. And the rest of the assassination missions play out in a similar way, with your actions being either the worst, most corrupting thing for Karnaca or you’re a saint, who can do no wrong. That’s not to say Karnaca on the whole is an uninteresting or bland place, the new style is beautiful and there are interesting subplots beneath the surface, but a lot of the themes and threads underneath feel rehashed from DH1. Once again, there is a corrupt ruling class, an infestation of vermin, an economy based on one major resource (silver), the same religious order, and you kill (or knock out) a usurper in the final mission. And to cap it all off the final line in the story strongly feels like a lead in to DLC. Revenge seems to be the storytelling theme Dishonored as a franchise is building around, but while the new locales and maps are spectacular we’ve seen the oppression of the poor and we’ve seen people scared of vermin. It’s a shame that Dishonored 2’s new world can’t measure up to its new gameplay mechanics.
What a Twisted Web We Weave and What Fun It Is
Karnaca may not be the fresh new setting I wanted, but as a playground to test out crazy supernatural powers it’s divine. The game plays out linearly, with nine chapters, each split into two environments: the streets and your targets’ destination, always a large, multi-level structure. Karnaca is home to some of the best and most intriguing levels of 2016. Notably the Clockwork Mansion level and Chapter 07: A Crack in the Slab feature some of the best and mindbending level designs of 2016. I’ve seen their particular tricks before, but the twists DH2 puts on them keeps them from feeling like re-hashes and elevates them to become some of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve had this year. The superb level design makes the lack of a chapter select or New Game+ head-scratching to say the least. I understand a NG+ might break levels with powers you’re not meant to have at early stages, but no chapter select, meaning I have to play the whole game again just to enjoy the Duke’s Mansion again is baffling. Where the Heart fails in narrative it more than makes up for in gameplay. In DH1 while you had it equipped it would display the location of runes (your skill upgrade materials) and bone charms (equipables that give you a slight buff) on your HUD; in DH2 you can lock the location of one bone charm or rune to your HUD so that even if you unequip the heart that location will still be displayed which is a godsend in these enjoyably labyrinthine maps. The maps and powers in DH2 are just as fun and interesting as DH1, and overall I’d say they surpass the original in more than a few places. Dishonored 2 adds a new playable character, Emily Kaldwin, and a totally new power set comes with her. In basic gameplay she handles the same as Corvo from DH1 but her Outsider gifted powers lead to very different approaches, both in stealth and open combat. Instead of a teleport, she has a weird blend of a grapple and tether. If you use this “Far Reach” to latch onto an object at the right angle, and the game decides, you will launch past your telegraphed destination with some momentum. While this is fun, the game simply isn’t fluid enough to make this feel like a viable tactical option. More than once I found myself trying to stealthily land on an awning above a guard only to unexpectedly launch past and off it onto the ground and alert him. Emily’s other powers have a stealthy emphasis to them, which helps give you an edge over the guards and their increased awareness.
Corvo has his powers from DH1, minus Windblast, but there are multiple tweaks and changes made to them new for returning players. The guards in DH2 are far quicker to notice you and become alert, making stealth far more difficult when combined with the severe nerfs given to Dark Vision and the alert icons being very easy to miss. And that’s not counting the new clockwork soldiers; mechanical men with vision in front and back of their heads and durable to boot. They can be defeated in a stand up fight, but as a stealth player I discovered each one takes two drop assassinations to fully defeat. Dishonored 2 is definitely one of those games where perfecting the run will yield the most enjoyment. I found myself becoming frustrated with constantly getting spotted from angle and persons I didn’t notice, but the new quick save/load function made it easier to take risks. And that’s Dishonored 2’s other strong point: letting you play how you want. Perhaps one of the most important, and yet easy to miss, gameplay features is the bone charm crafting. I give props to games that let you discover mechanics on your own without holding your hand, but as someone who is exceedingly tired of forced survival crafting mechanics in games, seeing the word “crafting” made me ignore that entire tree up to 3/4ths of the way through my initial run. Basically, you can find raw whalebone in the world and by using that resource, destroying bone charms, and advancing the bone charm crafting skill tree you gain the ability to make more potent bone charms and eventually runes. Once I discovered the ability to craft runes it made the intense dearth of non-crafted runes in the world make sense. All of these elements, the powers, maps, and experimentation, are where Dishonored 2 shines. The sheer volume and variety of tools and the exponential ways they can interact and play off of one another makes experimenting truly enjoyable and rewards innovation. But if you don’t want to use those tools DH2 includes a “No Powers” option early on in case you want to test your mettle without other-worldly assistance. Your playstyle is balanced on four elements shown at the end of each chapter: lethal, non-lethal, stealth, and loud, and coming up with new ways to achieve those outcomes is extremely satisfying. Despite these myriad ways to play the ending is still determined by how many dead bodies you leave in your wake, but ultimately Dishonored 2’s gameplay kept me interested in how I was completing objectives, more than why I was doing them.
But Dishonored 2 has a huge caveat: its performance. I played on the PS4 and I’ve only heard of the PC problems so I can’t directly address those, but the PS4 version of DH2 runs worse than the original did back in 2012. The game struggles to maintain a 30fps framerate and it even crashed once. I had to restart my console to get the game run right after the crash. Textures frequently z-fight and there’s a ridiculous amount of pop-in. On top of this there’s noticeable input lag, nothing that makes the game feel totally broken, but enough that I took me half my playthrough to get used to it. With all this combined you can easily see the seams in this game, and they’re held together with duct tape. I’m sure stability will be addressed in patches to come, but as a launch it is disheartening to see such a fun game with rich ideas brought down.
Dishonored 2 truly feels like a sequel to Dishonored 1, and not always in a positive way. The satisfying gameplay that can mesh to almost any playstyle remains with expanded ways to stealth, kill, and maim. But the lore lacks the subtle intrigue that made Dunwall feel more interesting than it probably was while the new art is just as beautiful and twisted. The depth of DH2’s mechanics, both old and new, is rewarding and enjoyable, but be aware that it won’t be apparent or completely accessible on your first run, this game’s mechanics and levels are best experienced in multiple runs, like a classic DMC, Metal Gear Solid V, or Dark Souls.
4 out of 5 stars.
Truly great levels and powers allow for experimentation and freeform play through a lackluster plot, but the performance and jank is a strong barrier to overcome.