Talking about Dishonored 2 outside of my role as a critic, all I want to do is gush. As a huge fan of the first game’s intricate levels and compelling world, this sequel is everything I thought I wanted another Dishonored game to be, and then some. Arkane Studios have built upon the intriguing universe and mechanics established in the original, and given players even more gameplay options, to the point where the amount of options presented to players can at times feel almost overwhelming. Unfortunately, despite the heaps of praise I’d like to give to all of the neat little things Dishonored 2 does, there are a handful of noticeable flaws that keep it from reaching the same bar of quality set by the original Dishonored. While not necessarily a turnoff for hardcore fans, these problems will likely be a point of contention for those who were lukewarm on the last game, and they feel even less acceptable than the last time around.
A large part of the problem is how similarly both Dishonored 2 and its predecessor play. The core of Dishonored 2 should be immediately familiar to fans- you go between a small hub area and predefined mission areas, then either sneak, stab, or employ some combination of the two as you make your way to an objective that can be completed one of two ways. Sure, you can take your time exploring various nooks and crannies to find upgrades for your powers and gold to upgrade your character’s equipment, but for anyone who’s already beaten Dishonored (most fans will have done so multiple times), the way Dishonored 2 plays will feel incredibly familiar. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that I’ve already spent 40 hours playing this same loop (with most of the same powers). Arkane have done their best to circumvent this issue with the addition of a second character with (some) new powers and a handful of levels with clever gimmicks, but a lot of the time Dishonored 2 feels more like a massive expansion to Dishonored than an entirely new game.
The plot is almost a beat-by-beat remake of the previous game as well. You start in Dunwall Palace, but- oh no! Bad guys take Emily (or Corvo, depending on which character you choose to play), and you’re forced to flee the palace and systematically eliminate conspirators until you can return to the palace, eliminate the bad guy, and save the aforementioned protagonist. Sound familiar? This disappointingly by-the-numbers story is worsened by just how brazenly it replicates the events of the previous game, never daring to throw in anything even slightly resembling a twist. Worst of all, the voice performances given by virtually every character in the game are underwhelming, ranging from problematic to downright awful. The decision to make Corvo speak drew skepticism when it was announced, and I’m sorry to say that it’s one of the worst performances I’ve heard in a long time. VO was a problem in the last game as well- inconsistent pronunciation of in-world character and location names, alongside tonally inappropriate line delivery drew some criticism, and unfortunately it’s only gotten worse. Wandering around the game’s world, I lost count of how many different pronunciations I heard of the same words from different actors- a petty grievance in the grand scheme of things, but couldn’t Arkane manage to nail down these details and give their cast some direction? The worldbuilding outside of dialogue is so excellent: the side characters, artistic detail, books, maps, and more are all fascinating and come together to form an intriguing whole, but it’s a shame Arkane doesn’t use this exquisite backdrop to tell a better story.
So why, in spite of these gripes, do I still like this game? Well, In a title mostly bereft of good writing and new mechanics, it falls upon the levels themselves to carry the game, and it is here that Dishonored 2 excels. The world of Dishonored 2 is well conceived, and unlike any place you’ve ever been in a game before. Karnaca is a uniquely gorgeous space: otherworldly architecture, technology, flora and fauna cover the landscape, and the technical fidelity of the visuals has been significantly improved over the original Dishonored. Arkane’s artists are gifted and they aren’t afraid to flaunt it- each of the game’s nine levels take place in entirely different settings, spreading your playtime across city streets and alleys, elaborate manors and palace, and everything in between. Minus all the murders, tyrants, and giant bloodthirsty insects, Karnaca seems like a lovely place to live.
"It’s a shame Arkane doesn’t use this exquisite backdrop to tell a better story"
All this prettiness does take a toll, though: the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game dip down to 20fps with unfortunate regularity, and despite a post-launch patch that aimed to fix some issues, the PC version is still an unstable, frame-dropping mess for many. In most cases it’s still more or less playable, but I did experience a few deaths as a direct result of sudden dropped frames during combat. The game’s visual strength lies primarily in art direction, not high-res textures and fancy particle effects, so these issues are rather puzzling.
Regardless of the effect they might have on your framerate, these locales are lovely from a gameplay perspective, and offer all kinds of exploration and stealth opportunities. There are dozens of possible routes to take you to your objectives, many of which contain unique opportunities and challenges that can be completed in exchange for gold and collectible runes/bone charms. Fully exploring each of these environments takes hours and, as in the first game, an ever-present chaos meter will alter elements of each map according to how violently you play, filling areas with deadly bloodflies (Karnaca’s plague rat equivalent) and spreading general misery across the land. There are also a handful of standout levels that employ unique gimmicks, most of which are genuinely delightful to discover and tinker with. I won’t spoil them here, but I will say that I really appreciated the way they forced me to change up my tactics and solve puzzles that I never expected to encounter in a stealth-action game.
Like the first Dishonored, Dishonored 2 is also an incredibly replayable game. Corvo and Emily each have unique powers (although disappointingly, nearly identical dialogue and storylines in most places), some of which are lethal and some of which aren’t, so multiple playthroughs are a must for players hoping to experiment with all of them. Combined with the aforementioned level design, chaos meter, and optional questlines associated with eliminating targets, there’s a rich world of gameplay available to those who choose to stick with the game after the credits roll. I do kind of wish that the new powers were a little more varied, though; Corvo plays almost identically to the way he did in the first game give or take a couple of unlockable mutators for existing powers, and Emily, though in possession of some new tricks all her own, still shares about half of her abilities with dear old Dad. Similar to Dishonored, powers and items also still skew heavily toward lethal and non-stealthy gameplay, and often come off as redundant (I mean, come on- do you really need frag grenades, man-eating rats, and a sword to kill people?). The collectable bone charms do a slightly better job of doling out new abilities (or at least adding new layers to existing ones), although most of them are also just rehashes of charms from the last game, right down to their names. The ability to craft your own bone charms is all new though, and combined with the 10 available slots, you can fine tune your character to more specifically fit your chosen playstyle, adding a new layer of depth to power/upgrade management.
Dishonored 2 is better than the first game in just about every way conceivable, but always by small leaps instead of massive bounds. For series fans, it’s a serviceable sequel that plays a little too familiarly for its own good at times, but retains the last game’s invigorating sense of place and style. If the idea of more Dishonored but with some new powers and levels sounds good to you (and you don’t mind the occasional dropped frame), then you can’t go wrong here. However, if you were hoping that Arkane would address the weaker elements of the last game, adding more non-lethal tools and writing a better script to go along with the fascinating universe they’re building, then you might find yourself disappointed that Dishonored 2 isn’t a bit more ambitious.