Dishonored 2 Review (PlayStation 4)
An extremely well-made stealth-action game, the first Dishonored set Arkane Studios apart from the crowd. Bolstered with some tremendous art design, Dishonored blazed a path of puzzling challenge and thoughtful world-building that few other games could match. Now some years later, Arkane has returned to the steampunk world of Dunwall to present another tale of political intrigue. Though Dishonored 2 doesn't quite bring as engaging a story or characters to the forefront as its predecessor, the level and puzzle design builds on the original's foundation in spectacular ways.
Years after the events of the first Dishonored, Empress Emily Kaldwin sits on the throne of an island nation that's been stagnant, if not on a slightly downward trend, since she took power. There is unrest among the populace, and it's amplified by a recent string of murders all tied to potential political rivals of the young empress. Before players have a chance to asses much of the current state of Dunwall and the rest of the isles, a violent coup is staged by an overly ambitious Duke from the south and a woman who claims she is the rightful heir to the throne, the witch Delilah.
It's here that you're offered the first of many choices that will impact your playthrough of Dishonored 2. Do you take the role of the young Empress, forced from her throne by a powerful witch, or do you slide back into the familiar mask of the Royal Protector --- and Emily's father --- Corvo Attano? Both bring about slightly different story beats, though the narrative remains almost identical at the core. The real difference comes in the powers and abilities you'll have at your disposal in either taking back your country, or saving your daughter from the merciless grasp of a foe that's already escaped death's clutches once before.
That the two stories don't diverge much isn't surprising, but the lack of a strong narrative driving players forward is a bit disappointing. Coupled with some barely there characterization and rather bland performances from the actors all around, it can seem at times that Dishonored 2 isn't actually all that concerned with why you're doing any of the things you're doing. Motivations are as barebones as they could possibly be, and conflict resolutions don't bring about much change in either of the leads. The villains you'll encounter do bring about more charisma, but their appearances are fleeting and only make you wish the same could be said for any of the heroes.
It's fortunate then that the world is as entrancing as ever. Though the gameplay was a big reason Dishonored became such a hit, just as much credit had to be given to the aesthetics. Viktor Antonov's concepts were revelatory, bringing Victorian-era stylings to life in ways we hadn't seen before. This time Sebastien Mitton takes the lead (though Antonov still consulted) taking that same inspiration to new heights in the coastal cliffs of Karnaca. The first game was filled with the same kind of affection, but with the improved power of current consoles, Karnaca is even more realized than it's brother to the north ever was.
Where Dishonored spent a great deal of time on the streets of Dunwall, Karnaca's big locales are elaborate mansions and conservatories. These buildings may be enclosed spaces, but they're surprisingly vast and elaborate. More importantly, they're filled with nuance and detail that make them more alive. Through every dilapidated basement or condemned corridor, each corner of Karnaca tells part of its story. These settings are just as much characters as Emily and Corvo themselves. Exploring every nook isn't just something you'll do to find more of Dishonored's runes and bone charms --- artifacts used to boost your character's powers --- it's something you'll do to learn more about this part of the world and the people who live in it.
These locales are more than just places to wander through on the way to your next objective, as they're also puzzles in and of themselves for you to solve. You could just barge into any place, brandishing a pistol and your sword, slicing and dicing anyone in your way. There's no fun in any of that though. Where Dishonored 2 is at its best is when you're able to take your time observing every aspect of the world, finding that new black market shop, that obscured pathway, or that secret entrance. There are plenty of all of those things, and the satisfaction of finding that perfect path, or that alcove full of secrets is something that just can't be beat.
There are of course areas that take those elements to incredible new heights, such as the Aventa District's Clockwork Mansion and the Dust District's Stilton Mansion. Much has been made of the Clockwork Mansion level since the Dishonored 2 announcement trailer, and while it doesn't quite live up to those original ambitions, it's still a remarkable work of art. The intricacies of such a thoughtful design cannot be overstated, even if a cinematic from a few years ago was just a tad bit more impressive than the end result.
The less said about the Stilton Mansion the better, though it's worth pointing out how it exceeds every expectation we had for this game all by itself. Arkane's work here is likely to go down as one of the most memorable levels of all time. It must be experienced to truly grasp just how fantastic it is, and is arguably worth the price of admission alone to explore.
Weaponry hasn't changed much at all since the first game, which makes a bit of sense given the adherence to the technological advances of the world itself. If you mastered combat in the first Dishonored, you'll find it easy to slip back into old habits as Corvo. Emily plays identically with melee and ranged weapons, but the two bring completely different power sets to the party. Corvo Attano has his repertoire from the first game, and his powers are more than serviceable for completing the game. The real excitement however is in Emily's abilities, which bring a number of new strategies into play.
Where Corvo has a number of powers built around staying out of sight, Emily's are more focused on confusing enemies. Powers like Mesmerize and Doppelganger allow you to fool guards and onlookers so you can slip past with ease, and Domino gives Emily the chance to take out a number of enemies by only outright attacking one. On their own, they all work well enough, but when you start combining them into skillful chains of chaos, Dishonored 2 really opens up just how creative players can be if they put their minds to it. Few games inspire as much experimentation with what you can do to push a character's powers to the limits like Dishonored 2 does, and finally pulling off any of the ideas your brain comes up with successfully is a tremendous feeling.
Dishonored 2 doesn't veer from the path established by the first game too severely, but given how strong the world and gameplay were it doesn't really have to either. The new locales and villains make for some strong additions to the series, as do the new powers unleashed by Emily Kaldwin. Even with a passable story and ineffective acting, the foundation and gameplay are strong enough to make Dishonored 2 one of the year's best.
This review was completed using a retail copy of Dishonored 2 provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.