Release Date: November 11, 2016Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PCDeveloper: Arkane StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksGenre: Action-adventure
At the gate to the Clockwork Mansion, I turned around. It had been a successful run so far. I had startled a guard in an opulent apartment, but then bypassed his martial companions entirely, ghosting in and out of the elegant courtyard. I, Emily Kaldwin, the disgraced empress of a nearly graceless city, wanted to see if there was another way in. Nearby I found an entirely different possible traversal, a more hidden path. This unexpected gift of choice sums up the way Dishonored 2 encourages exploration and alternate routes. The game takes everything that worked about its predecessor and refines it into a chaotic, sometimes frustratingly difficult, well-crafted experience.
Along with the well-earned feeling of pride after spiriting silently through a level, there’s also the satisfaction of a kill well done, one more quick, bloody end in a city full of them. Like Dunwall in Dishonored, Karnaca in Dishonored 2 is a city on the way down. Every place you visit clearly has a history, and like Emily, I found myself wanting to visit them in more peaceful and prosperous times. Instead, I was an assassin in the seaside wreckage of once-great Karnaca, given magic powers and vengeance to wreak with them.
On the shore of Karnaca, the game gives the player time to listen to NPC conversations and practice new powers, testing out traversal or characters’ reactions. It’s here that the first bone charm is also located, a magical piece found between the teeth of a dead and bleeding whale: a poignant example of both the game’s aesthetic and the sketched-in way its magic works. (In a way, the whale is also a last export from Dunwall, a last bloody gift from Emily’s city and the Void.)
I spent most of my time playing as Emily, whose Shadow Walk gives her more versatile stealth than the first game’s protagonist, her father and bodyguard Corvo Attano. One tradeoff is her pulsing Dark Vision, which can help her see through walls but isn’t nearly as reliable as Corvo’s Void Sight was in Dishonored. Emily’s Far Reach is more difficult to aim than Corvo’s Blink, but allows Emily to arc over or around obstacles. Shadow Walk also gives the player more nonlethal stealth options. Drop assassinations can be performed non-lethally now, an exceedingly useful, if difficult to master, feature that I wish the first game had also implemented. Guards are now more likely to see you and less quick to forget suspicious sights – although they still don’t tend to look up.
Both Emily and Corvo are voiced now, and her asides help point out things that are relevant to the plot as well as painting a picture of a wanderlusting assassin with both indestructible determination and humanizing flaws. In particular, don’t skip the tutorial if you want to see how Corvo and Emily interact with one another.
The main story is only slightly more complex than the “rescue the princess” of the first game, but the characterization within it is more nuanced, with more backstories revealed and less clear-cut allegiances and rivalries between factions like the Overseers and gang members. The atmosphere of the game is still soaked in whale oil and brine, with the addition of the irritating blood flies and their zombielike thralls. NPCs are more talkative now, many with their own small vignettes. I think of Dishonored as a horror game nearly as much as an action game, and the feeling persists here, especially in the Clockwork Mansion.
This level, which was demonstrated in early gameplay footage, was perhaps the most memorable. The Mansion is a shifting, claustrophobic nest of traps and tortures, a sharp contrast to the broken openness of other ruined Karnaca landmarks. A player focusing on story will find plenty here with the mad Jindosh and his Clockwork Soldiers, while a more tactile player will enjoy watching the house reform around them and figuring out the best way to puzzle through the cogs and maintenance tunnels of the house-machine.
Other levels include interesting new mechanics too, including an especially intricate time travel puzzle. Bone charms and runes are a bit more complex now, with a lot of branching and chaining possibilities. Combining bone charms essentially allows you to store more perks at once, an increased complexity I appreciated but didn’t actually use very much.
While it seemed to me that Emily was a better fit for a “canonical” sequel, because of the power of the story of the empress reclaiming her own throne, playing as Corvo brings a different feel to both the story and the gameplay. He can again possess rats or people or summon rats to himself, and the Bend Time power is an especially useful one that turns enemies’ eyes away just like Emily’s Shadow Walk.
Both characters follow essentially the same story, which was solid but not perfect. The animation is crisp and the landscapes nearly photorealistic, but some of the stylization of the characters looks off because of it, as if cartoony, oil-painted people are walking around in a realistic background. While this is part of the game’s aesthetic, it also sometimes simply looks stiff. Some character beats happened too quickly, especially an early reveal which I had expected to have a larger role in the plot.
I didn’t have any trouble with initially downloading the game, but it did labor a little. Menu screens took several seconds to load, shadows sometimes behaved strangely, and for a while my objective marker in one of the missions disappeared completely, confounded or broken by my repeated attempts to spin a nonlethal ending out of several disastrous murders. On the same mission, some strange glitch left Emily trapped half-way inside a rock underwater, constantly near-drowning.
In short, I very much enjoyed the variety and smoothness of the powers and found the level design to be superior to the first game in almost every way: more options, more creative choices, more characterization. It’s still possible to miss the many side stories and side characters if you either choose just to progress the main mission or simply miss them. If you find them, though, you’ll find the environmental storytelling that characterizes the series. Like Dunwall, Karnaca is an engaging city, which is a dark joy to traverse.
Some of the most memorable moments weren’t scripted: accidental deaths, the horror of seeing a Clockwork Soldier’s searchlight in a dimly-lit doorway, Near the beginning of the game I set an unconscious guard down in a bed one room from an Outsider shrine, and thought suddenly of the weird loneliness of his situation: waking up soon, his job failed, next to an alter to a deity he might not believe in.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.