Dishonored 2 Review — Skillful Execution
When it released in late 2012, Dishonored was one of those rare titles that for many (including myself) managed to surpass expectations. As a new IP from Arkane Studios (previously of sleeper cult hits like Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic), Dishonored — for lack of a better term — snuck up on gamers with a unique, steampunk-infused Victorian world, a compelling cast of characters, and gameplay that successfully merged old-school stealth action with modern gameplay elements.
Like Thief, Deus Ex, and other stealth classics before it, Dishonored was a title that, in many ways, managed to take inspiration from a wide variety of games and use it to its full advantage: a case of the student surpassing the master, so to speak. Flashing forward to four years later, players of the original game now have its sequel to look forward to, Dishonored 2. Thankfully, Arkane Studios has proven that it hasn’t lost its edge in that time; Dishonored 2 takes what worked best in the original title and refines it to a much sharper, more finessed edge.
Taking place 15 years after the events of the first game, Dishonored 2 quickly establishes a new world order with some very familiar faces. A much-older Emily Baldwin has ascended to the throne as the Empress of the Isles, while her father (and the first game’s protagonist), Corvo Attano, serves as equal parts her devoted protector and key mentor. While Emily’s reign has led to more prosperous and orderly times in the Isles, the game’s opening moments quickly throw that off-course as an act of betrayal sets Dishonored 2‘s events in motion, and leads Emily or Corvo on a path to (rightfully) reclaiming the stolen throne.
The big emphasis here in Dishonored 2 is that “or,” as this time around players are given the option of playing as either Emily or Corvo through the run of the game, with no opportunity to go back once the big decision of who you will play as is made. So, while you’ll only truly get the full experience of Dishonored 2 by playing through the game twice as both Emily and Corvo in separate runs (and potentially more if you choose to go with either the “Powers” or “No Powers” modes), that’s not a bad thing at all. Instead, Dishonored 2 allows players to discover on their own the most important experience that the game offers, which is presenting a wonderful sandbox of stealth action and innovation for players to toy with.
From top to bottom, Dishonored 2 continues the tradition of the original game in allowing players to play with a pretty wide range of options and abilities. That all starts from the top with choosing between playing as either Emily or Corvo, who each offer their own ability sets that run parallel to each other in most ways, but diverge in many others.
Corvo’s iconic “Blink” ability is matched by Emily’s “Far Reach” that can propel her to unseen areas or towards enemies, while both can use “Dark Vision” to discover enemies through walls. However, Arkane has gone further than making Emily (in particular) feel like a reskinned Corvo, as both characters offer their own unique ability sets that can be shaped by a player’s particular style.
Aside from being an incredibly strong and fleshed-out character since the first game, Emily has plenty of tricks up her sleeves that should delight fans that decide to play in either a stealthy, no-kills route (the “Low Chaos” path) or that go with a more bloodthirsty approach and kill everything in sight (the “High Chaos” path). While she comes equipped with many of the same items and weapons that Corvo can use, Emily also gets some unique abilities of her own that open up many different ways to be stealthy or create bloodbaths for every enemy that you meet. Her “Domino” ability – which links together the fates of marked targets – can allow players to make mincemeat of large groups of enemies with minimal effort, while her “Shadow Walk” ability morphs her into a silent shadow beast that can pass by enemies undetected.
Combined with the Chaos system from the first game, Dishonored 2 opens up more options than ever in a gameplay system that already encourages players to be experimental and take new approaches. While the story and characters give a drive and motivation to progress through the story thanks to strong characters like Emily and Corvo (who, thankfully, is no longer a silent protagonist), the true beauty of Dishonored 2 shines it how it constantly present players with new challenges to meet the numerous options and abilities it presents to players. Make no mistake, that flexibility in how players approach the game’s many challenges are needed, as Dishonored 2 presents a higher level of difficulty compared to the first game, especially for players seeking a no-kills, stealthy playthrough.
One of the biggest highlights of Dishonored 2 is the attention and care that has been paid to its level design and environments. Arkane has notably shifted the location from the dreary (but iconic) world of Dunwall in the original game, and instead has taken players to the more vibrant world of Karnaca, but lost none of what has made the series so distinctive. Karnaca is certainly more colorful and picturesque than what Dunwall offered, but still retains a rich Victorian-themed setting that gets across the twisted, dark world that Dishonored has made its own.
More importantly, the levels of Dishonored 2 have expanded in numerous ways to make them feel not just bigger in terms of size, but also in terms of density and allowing players to discover hidden secrets. Equipping The Heart, which beats and throbs in rhythm the player’s location near hidden items, reveals numerous secrets and adds extra motivation for players to not only seek out objectives, but also to scour environments for treasures they may not have even known existed. A new side quest system, known in-game as “Special Actions,” allow players to delve even further into the background of Karnaca and the story of Dishonored‘s environments at large.
While Dishonored 2 provides players with a new area that retains the richness of its best qualities — its art direction and style — the true highlight of the game comes through its unique and inventive environments that offer completely new challenges by themselves. The early levels of the game ease players (both new and old) into the world of Dishonored that we’ve come to know, but later on they progress and gain complexity. Where the original game provided levels with their own flair and theme, such as the masquerade party, Dishonored 2 takes it a step further by implementing very different and unique challenges for each level that radically shape how players need to progress – the perfect example being the fourth mission, the Clockwork Mansion.
Through the course of “Clockwork Mansion” mission, players can grab levers and hit switches that radically change and alter the level’s layout, leading to mindbending visuals that feel straight out of Inception or Harry Potter. The level’s twisty, turvy layout adds new levels of complexity (both literally and metaphorically), and make Dishonored 2 a deeper, richer experience for fans of the original. While the Clockwork Mansion was perhaps my favorite, other levels in the game also introduce various (and radically different) challenges to enjoy, such as one level that brings dust storms that periodically obscure Emily or Corvo’s vision. However, the dust storms can also obscure the enemy’s vision, allowing for players to use even the most inconvenient obstacles to your advantage — as long as you have a little bit of creativity.
When it comes to gameplay, Dishonored 2 manages to check all the boxes when it comes to refining the mechanics from the original while adding enough fresh twists to make the experience feel like a true evolution of the series. However, the game is not lacking either in terms of visual and audio fidelity, as the strong art direction from the original title returns in Dishonored 2. The unique, painterly visuals and its realistic (but exaggerated) character designs still firmly place Dishonored 2 in its steampunk, Victorian-esque setting, but the world of Karnaca adds a nice touch of color and pop to the rich, detailed environments.
While coming just after the release of the PS4 Pro and the enhanced graphical options that it provides, having played through the title on an original PS4 model it’s easy to recommend that even those that aren’t using top-of-the-line systems like the PS4 Pro (or PC) can still get a lush, rich experience from Dishonored 2 on consoles. The PS4 version of the title I played on wasn’t without its issues, the only “major” issues I encountered being slight framerate drops on occasion and, more frequently, texture pop-in. However, these issues are slight and shouldn’t ward away players playing on original systems, thanks to Dishonored 2‘s strong art direction and detailed environments.
Of course, the score accompanying Dishonored 2‘s unique world is unique in its own right, as the soundtrack and music perfectly complement the sense of intrigue and stealth that the world invites. Like the first title, Dishonored 2 also happens to feature a surprisingly robust voice cast of recognizable faces including Vincent D’Onofrio (Marvel’s Daredevil), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Luke Cage), Sam Rockwell (Moon), Pedro Pascal (Narcos, Game of Thrones), and Robin Lord Taylor (Gotham).
However, the highlights of the voice cast are Stephen Russell as Corvo Attano — who brings warmth and strength to a previously voiceless character — and Erica Luttrell as Emily, who instantly proves her strength and resolve through an excellent performance. The rest of the voice cast provide fine performances as well, though given only a bit of screen time at any time, the casting of such high-profile actors in smaller performances often feels like a misuse of their talents that could have been better spent.
Back in 2012, Dishonored was a title that surprised many its striking world and engaging gameplay rooted in old-school stealth, and with its sequel, Arkane Studios thoughtfully (and smartly) builds on what made the original one of the highlights of the last generation of games. Dishonored 2 will still satisfy those looking for a challenging (but rewarding) stealth experience, but more importantly does so with an incredibly varied toolset of abilities, skills, and options more than ever before. If Dishonored was the student that displayed great promise, Dishonored 2 shows the series well on its way to becoming the master.