I fell hard for Dunwall.
Huddled in the shadows of dank street corners, watching as rats scuttle across cobbles and the city’s sick, dying and dead lie unceremoniously dumped along the gutters, 2012’s Dishonored unfolded before me like a gloriously grim fairytale. I’ve always been a sucker for the darker tales – my well-documented love of Silent Hill surely isn’t coincidental – but as the beat of those mechanical Tallboy footfalls bruised Dunwall’s bleak, grey sky, Dishonored imprinted itself upon me. Indelibly. And I think I fell in love.
What you learn through Dishonored’s story arc is one thing, but it’s the other bits – the story that unfolds silently in the cracks and the cobbles of that dying city – that said so much, too. Corvo’s plight was woven through a dark, Dickensian lore, and by the time I lay down my controller at its end, it had catapulted itself into my top five games of all-time.
It’s hard, therefore, to identify what could’ve been tightened or teased out in a sequel, or even what subsequent tale developer Arkane Studios could’ve told. After all, the Empress was still dead – Dunwall was still dead. Her young daughter, Emily, had been saved, yes, and protagonist Corvo Attano had been exonerated, but at what cost? Gameplay was tourniquet-tight and breathlessly enjoyable, offering a smorgasbord of opportunity for any flavour of gamer, regardless of individual play style. What the hell else can a sequel offer?
A lot, it seems. And here’s why.
Every mission is magnificently woven, offering choice upon choice, and secret upon secret.
Dishonored 2 builds carefully, lovingly, delicately, upon the greatness of its predecessor. Arkane has retained the things that makes Dishonored an exquisitely crafted experience; each character, each environment, is achingly realised, but each with its own cartoon, exaggerated grotesqueness. Every mission is magnificently woven, offering choice upon choice, and secret upon secret. If the original game didn’t float your boat then you’re unlikely to be convinced this time, either, but if you too were seduced by Dunwall’s dankness, there’s much fun to be had here, even if, initially, Karnaca’s sun-bleached stones look as different to Dunwall’s darkness as is possible.
The story is not forgiving of newbies, though – many of the beats may be lost if you’re new the series, or not played Dishonored’s DLC
Fifteen years after the events of Dunwall sees you reprise your role as the nonosyllabic Corvo Attano, but this time you can also assume the role of the somewhat disinterested empress, Emily Kaldwin. Each bring their own individual skills – powers differ a little, and Emily’s stealthier and a little faster than her ageing father – but the story you’ll follow is the same regardless of whom you choose to inhabit. A new challenger to the throne appears – one steeped in dark magic and dripping with vengeance – and so commences your effort to… well, ‘take back what’s yours’, to coin the boxart strapline.
Naturally, Corvo will instantly feel familiar to those who played the first game (despite the fact we get to hear him talk this time). While Corvo Blinks, Emily Far Reaches, a new ability that flings out a tentacle that not only helps her traverse quickly and silently, but also attacks, too. While Corvo bends time, Emily can Domino her assaults, snapping the necks of three men as she snaps one. Emily’s Shadow Walk imitates Corvo’s animal possession, sort of, but instead of infiltrating grates by possessing a rat, Emily is able to dissipate into a thin, nebulous smoke to squeeze through narrow gaps or escape detection.
Just like the first game, my initial missions were clumsy and cumbersome as I adjusted to the power sets, and learned, again, to play vertically as well as horizontally, and embracing exploration off the beaten path. And just like the first game, my confidence grew with each passing chapter. This is a game designed to grow with the player. Experimenting with powers, scouring for open windows and doorways, looking for the next weakness to exploit… this is where Dishonored 2 shines. So while it’s possible to gallop through each mission easily inside an hour, don’t – there’s so much more just begging to be seen. My first playthrough clocked in excess of 20 hours so keen was I to explore, and I don’t think a single second of that was wasted. No, really.
For example, it’s the entire chapter moulded around an absence of magical powers, A Crack in the Slab, that is particularly glorious. You’ll learn to manipulate a timepiece to move seamlessly between the present day and three years past, enabling you to dodge enemies or slide past hitherto blocked doorways. Holding the timepiece open as you move through each timeline offers a glimpse into the past in real-time, which is as bewitching as it is befuddling. It makes for fresh, unfettered exploration… and reminds you that mana really isn’t everything.
You would’ve thought that the one thing that Dishonored lacked – a meaningful way to replay old missions with new skillsets and in new ways – would’ve been addressed here, but it isn’t – or at least, not initially, anyway. That said, Arkane have since patched in New Game+ to address this, so it should be possible to mop up outstanding achievements/trophies by subsequently replaying missions. Also, pacifists should be delighted to hear that it’s highly possible to complete the game without a single fatality… a feat considerably more difficult in the predecessor, too.
The story is not forgiving of newbies, though – many of the beats may be lost if you’re new the series, or had not gotten around to picking up Dishonored’s DLC – and lethal playthroughs offer brutal, bloody finishing moves that will see you regularly dismembering foes with callous calm and efficiency. Those who choose to deal justice with brutality will see their choices reflected in the closing cinematics, but to be honest, it’s these differences that simply beg for replays to ensure you’ve seen every possible iteration… and what’s wrong with that?
Is it perfect? Regrettably, no. In my review of the original I noted that clumsy controls and lazy AI do, on occasion, make combat sections frustrating, particularly if – belatedly – you’ve realised you’ve entered a new area in precisely the worst location, and this hasn’t changed. But make liberal use of the quick save and you should mitigate this, as well as save ammo and mana; spellcasting remains a fickle mistress, and you still may find yourself wasting achingly precious bolts and mana with the accidental flick of a trigger. Emily sounds like a shire horse as she feasts on food scattered throughout the missions (seriously, it’s gross – it’s exactly the same sound effect used for Corvo’s chomping in the original) and come to mention it, she sounds like one when she’s running, too. Our Empress ain’t too dainty, it seems.
But as I near the end of my time in Dishonored 2, I realise how small and petty those gripes really are. Retracing my steps along Dunwall’s dockside in Dishonored 2, there’s palpable dismay at seeing the city I once loved – even one as broken and bleak as this one – dead and decaying. But it’s this sense of ownership – coupled with an ardent, fervent familiarity – that’s soaked into my very core. So no, Dishonored 2 isn’t perfect… but it’s pretty fecking close.
Don’t miss it.
This game was reviewed using a PS4 retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
DISCLAIMER: The author has acquaintances who are working and/or have worked for Bethesda’s UK team. We assert that this has had no bearing on this review.
Platform: PC / PlayStation 4 (reviewed) / Xbox
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release date: Out Now
- Fluid, free gameplay
- Pick-your-own assault/stealth style
- Stunning art style
- Lacks the original’s invention and innovation
- Wasted mana/ammo mishaps still commonplace
- I’m terrified of the clockwork soldiers
Turns out Bethesda was right; I really did want to fight and take back what was mine.