Dishonored 2 is a depressing slog of bodies and misery. It is confusing and jumbled, full of half formed ideas and ready to break at the slightest touch. But, in spite of itself, it works.
Dishonored established a strong if unrefined take on first person stealth in 2012. Players were able to topple foes in creative fashions or navigate through meticulously designed levels to avoid foes entirely, aided by the use of various supernatural powers. It lacked character but had strong core gameplay. Dishonored 2 sticks to this formula, adding a liberal dose of experimentation that helps counterbalance a continued lack of charm.
Players take the role of either Corvo Attano, the first game's protagonist, or Emily Kaldwin, the empress of Dunwall and Corvo's daughter. After a witch orchestrates a coup that removes Emily from the throne, the player must venture forth on a bloody quest for vengeance throughout the impoverished city of Karnaca, where your character flees after the coup. From there, the player is tasked with a series of assassinations of powerful figures in order to return Emily to the throne.
Corvo Attano, royal arse kicker and grumpy dad.
The story could be downright Shakespearean given the set-up, but it's hard to care about Dishonored 2's narrative. Stephen Russell growls away as Corvo, and Erica Luttrell falters along as Emily, droning out exposition like a robot. Everywhere you go, Dishonored 2 is packed to the brim with boring and unenthusiastic characters.
What it lacks in a compelling narrative, though, it finds in gameplay. A roster of exciting arcane abilities elevate play into a chance for genuine expression. Corvo mostly retains his powers from first game. He can teleport across short distances, briefly manipulate time and summon horde of rats to devour his enemies. Emily can manipulate others with shadowy doppelgangers, drag them closer with dark tendrils and intertwine enemies' fates so that a single slit throat ripples outwards to kill multiple foes at once.
Complementing this is intelligent level design that encourages the player to find their own solutions to obstacles. Karnaca is a fitting playground, full of hidden pathways and devious shortcuts that invite experimentation. Dishonored 2 follows in the footsteps of immersive sims like Deus Ex and Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines by offering a robust world where players can test their abilities to their heart's content.
Scenarios in Dishonored 2 play out like miniature puzzles. You enter a building through the window, spying four guards at a table and one behind the bar. With the right movement and teleports, you might bypass the guards, or you can go for something more complex. Link the fates of the four guards and light one on fire with a crossbow bolt. Pull the spare guard towards you from the shadows and cut off his head. By the time you're done with him, the other guards have all died and you're free continue.
Dishonored 2's levels also offer various hooks and unique affectations. The campaign is short at around eight hours per character, but each level features an added new twists. The rules and challenges change with each mission: A clockwork fortress transforms and shifts with the pull of a lever. A rundown mansion springs back to life as you leap through time. A devious politician protects himself with a body double. Unfortunately, Dishonored 2 abandons these ideas quickly, presenting them only for a brief time before moving on.
Power is at the core of Dishonored 2. Aristocrats feast and fuck while the poor kill each other over scraps of food. Religious zealots battle witches and compete for supremacy over the hearts and minds of the people. Crime lords grift and steal, flexing their muscle to take whatever they please. The player stands above it all with the power of life and death in their hands, able to tap into the borrowed power of the gods. What will you do?
Emily's abilities are particularly fun to use.
The game is far more about the power of the individual than any system or mode of government. It assumes that as long as a good person is in power, things will sort themselves out. It's a bit juvenile as far as political commentary goes, but questions of personal power and responsibility are aptly explored during play itself. What you do and how you do it feels genuinely important.
The player has to choose between life and death. Each assassination has a lethal and non-lethal option, but which one is best is a murky affair. Justice is never kind: Sometimes death might be preferable, and sometimes mercy is a crueller option. While Dishonored 2, like its predecessor, rewards non-lethal play, all paths feel valid. I opted to show kindness to those exploited by those in power while viciously disposing of those who carried out abuse. In one mission, I ruthlessly disposed of a dangerous witch after slaughtering her whole coven. In another, I healed a brainwashed killer. The result was a playthrough where society threatened to collapse until I reigned in my bloodlust.
Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.
On a technical level, Dishonored 2 doesn't run well. Frames drop as the game struggles to render Karnaca in full glory. It froze during key moments. These disruptions are frustrating. It is essential to keep multiple saves or else risk losing major swaths of progress.
Dishonored 2 has a lot working against it. Technical woes hamper the gameplay. Uninspired acting and predictable writing rob the narrative of urgency. Innovative ideas are discarded far too quickly. But the underlying gameplay is both satisfying and thematically powerful. Players who persevere will find a robust and challenging experience.
The edges are rough but the core is solid. Dishonored 2 may not redefine the formula set by the its predecessor, but it is still one hell of a game. The game stumbles but always manages to recover. Like a bumbling assassin that somehow get the kill, Dishonored 2 manages to succeed in the face of almost unassailable odds.