Dishonored 2 Review
Level design can often be the bane of any game’s approachability. Complexity in craft and focus on preserving player interactivity with their surroundings are essential to providing an accessible experience and as much freedom as possible — without affecting the necessary limitations fundamental to a basic construct. Certain games achieve an enlightening linear venture for the player to follow through, working past formulaic obstacles with limited methods of doing so. But developers are becoming more and more compelled to allow players a decision to be made in mode of progression; and a popular framework is based around taking either a violent or stealthy approach, accommodated by the game world.
Dishonored was built off of a template laid by groundbreaking PC titles from the past: extracting the brooding atmosphere from Thief, and laying it as background to the Deus Ex-inspired approach to level design. Allowing players numerous modes of progression — either through murderous or more pacifist methods — both provided a thoughtful gaming experience while also maintaining focus on the formulaic narrative intricacies the developers were so apt to tell. What conjured was a flawed but ambitious undertaking, cemented in the concept that limitations forced upon players will force them to carefully contemplate the most effective means suitable to their abilities to overcome the obstacles and enemies standing in their way. The game, with its repetitive level layout, familiar plot thread, and lack of developing gameplay standards, remains a meticulously-crafted blueprint for what could eventually flesh out into a more dynamic and polished product overall.
Dishonored 2 begins in direct parallel fashion to its predecessor — at once a discouragingly familiar design in both narrative and technical (to some extent) regards. The protagonist emerges, introduced to the player through their very eyes, at the height of their powers and recognition within society of Dunwall; only for a sudden instance of mysterious betrayal to rupture their credibility. Character animations awkwardly act and react (even within the contexts of the introductory cutscene), and their dialogue functions primarily as deliberate explanation. Seems familiar territory for any fans of the series’s previous iteration. After choosing to play between Corvo and a matured Emily, who has been training with her father for the past fifteen years, the similarities continue to spring up, primarily tasking the player with escaping the city into the arms of a possibly-untrustworthy aide.
Talk about a weak start. The primary foundation of this sequel feels uninspired and discouraging, if not at least enjoyable from a familiar standpoint for fans of its predecessor. The player would be forgiven to expect another simplistic crawl through a tale of vengeance, providing a functional basis for the stealth-inspired combat and intricately-woven set designs. Yet the greatest fear that comes to me as I make my premiere escape as Emily is the idea that the developers have simply slapped the same game as its predecessor onto a current-gen, graphically-updated clone, befit to please fans but offer little to nothing unique besides a few new power-ups and locales.
Fortunately, Dishonored 2 eventually proves itself a worthy successor; the game excels at establishing a philosophy of maintaining player interest by offering often unique and engaging methods of progression, however gimmicky they may occasionally come across as. As one ventures forward, surprises abound as the game continuously fleshes out, offering intriguing new mechanics with each level, reassuringly abolishing any semblance of direct duplication.
I will say it now: Dishonored 2 is among the greatest sequels ever produced. It gloriously expands upon the virtues of its predecessor and involves numerous original mechanics of its own. Its approach to game design is rarely dull, brilliantly facilitating a focused linearity despite the abundance of progressional methods applied to its levels. A plethora of abilities are awarded to the player throughout as well, increasing the level of difficulty with its various impediments devised within combat scenarios, environmental puzzle-solving (occasionally literal), and effective translation of clues. But frustration never abounds, thanks to the developers’ cautious application of the complex quandaries which so stand in the player’s way. What begins familiar enough gradually dissipates into a massive undertaking, successfully marrying the intricate worldbuilding and balanced gameplay options of its predecessor with a more elaborate narrative (to some extent) and an emphasis on evolution. If Dishonored stands as the blueprint for the most successful successor to early titles offering preferential-based advancement, then its sequel is that ideal model come to fruition.
A big question the game consistently asks the player is how will they go about navigating the decidedly-crafty terrain. Deciding the most applicable method remains the series’s strongest appeal, and Arkane Studios once again offer a litany of pathways to follow and puzzles to solve in pursuit of continuing forward. Each safe or door unlocked, guard post bypassed, hidden artifact recovered; they provide as much satisfaction as dealing with the target character — itself a question of assassination or merciful elimination — and concluding the mission. There’s constantly an obstacle to query and circumvent, and thus there are constantly goals to achieve by successfully navigating through them.
Dishonored 2 is a game of patience and reward. Rushing into any situation will succeed only in conjuring further issues to be dealt with, whether through enemies becoming aware of your presence, or positioning yourself back against the wall with little direction or incentive to continue. Cautiously moving through the streets of the new setting of Karnaca will open up several possibilities to aid your development — be it the code to a door which allows safe passage around a Wall of Light found in a diary excerpt; an advisory notice addressing the whereabouts of a safe and its code; perhaps a letter describing a weak point in a target’s aura of comfort, to be fashioned against them by the player’s direct interference.
But once again, as with its predecessor, Dishonored 2 understands the importance of limiting player interaction and influence. Health is significantly finite, and only a few proper attacks from enemies will dwindle the bar down to nothing. An abundance — perhaps an overabundance — of health items can be recovered throughout, but the game never advocates direct confrontation with enemies if it can be ignored (which is nearly always the case). Whereas Dishonored featured a rather hackneyed attempt at including a “morale” system of play, promising the player different overall outcomes (which essentially boiled down to either a “good” ending or a “bad” one, depending on the body count); the sequel fortunately realises the orthodoxy of this particular scheme, instead deliberately communicating to the player the consequences of killing, and promoting a more pacifist, considerate approach to accentuate the complexly-woven design elements that are so profusely implemented throughout. There remains little reward for the bloodless procedure besides a pat on the back from your fellow NPC allies and level-complete menu screen; however, the narrative’s philosophy openly advises it, in efforts to promote its involved focus on level design, which is certainly a step forward from the first game’s misdirection and its contradictory ambivalence towards player choice.
Every level feels so genuine; so organic yet intricate. A new gimmick, power, or circumstance emerges within every scenario, disallowing the game from ever becoming tiresome or uninspired. A fascinating take on time travel is introduced over halfway through the campaign, giving the player the power to journey back and forth, with a push of a button, between periods of a rustic mansion which once housed immaculate treasures and guards galore (though it is disappointing how little the mechanic is incorporated overall). One particularly fascinating sequence involves the mansion of a mad inventor, constructed as a selectively-transformative setpiece, allowing the player to mutate the environments and access secret areas all while cautiously avoiding — or dangerously combatting — an assortment of deeply-intimidating new enemies, the Clockwork Soldiers. It’s traditional puzzle design as adapted into the very fabrics of terrain; an enigma turned into a playhouse of exploration. Rarely are games as ambitious and equally as effective in their aspirations.
Despite the pretense, Dishonored 2 is not without its setbacks. Another experimental innovation included in the Dust District portion of the game features occasional random dust storms which temporarily blind enemies, allowing a means of sneaking past guard posts through the thick of it all. But the storms are so brief and irregular, and they so inefficiently blind the player as well that their existence seems too trite a gimmick, only added on to give some sort of distinguishing trait to the location.
Characters can also lack intrigue necessary to stimulate player’s engagement with them. I grew tired of cutscenes detailing generic plot threads; and my eyes would habitually roll during dialogue cues forcing any sort of personality through forced observations (“I feel as though this entire experience is going to affect who I am after all this is through” — actual paraphrased dialogue spoken by Emily). The narrative does involve a particular assortment of interesting subplots, but any intriguing characters are downplayed by stereotypes and conventional motivations.
Other issues involve a sense of endless repetition as provided by the Hub World template — though the differing interactions aboard the hub ship certainly keep the intermissions more interesting than in the predecessor. Guards elicit the same banality as in previous stealth-oriented games (ie. they patrol regularly, will entirely give up searching for the player after evasion, etc.). Glitches and bugs interrupt the free-flowing exploration, a technical misstep similar to numerous other Bethesda titles. Even opening letters and books can become a nuisance since the menu screen constantly sways back and forth while reading.
But where the game excels is in its constant creativity. After the horribly banal and predictable introduction, the game gradually grows into a much more thought-invested composition, at least in regards to worldbuilding and gameplay. Few developers infuse such a pronounced attention to detail as Arkane have in this earnest sequel, or so apt a demonstration of learning from past mistakes in efforts to alleviate them. Perhaps the strongest addition to functionality comes from the Start menu’s “Quick-Save” and “Quick-Load” features, allowing the most careful players to examine every means of advancement thoroughly and judiciously. Intriguing Bonecharm designs are also introduced, presenting a more inventive means of levelling up the character.
I personally haven’t experienced the game as Corvo (yet) but look forward to discern how his functional design contrasts with that of Emily’s. It becomes gradually evident as the player progresses just how determined the developers are in righting the wrongs of their first entry, and for the most part they greatly succeed in delivering a product not only far more intuitive and pristine than its predecessor but even the significant titles which have so obviously influenced its composition. Dishonored is lengthy, but appropriately so given its evolutionary construct. Unlike other titles such as Alien: Isolation or Far Cry 3, the pacing is spectacularly consistent, with every level feeling fresh, unique, and memorable all its own.
There is so much to love about this sequel, from the gorgeous vistas overlooking the island city, to the precise and fluid combat controls — heavily updated from the original — not to mention the deep historic roots to be uncovered through lore books and excerpts. It certainly has the feel of a Bethesda-published experience; but whereas the Fallout games can feel as though their complex layouts are undermined by a lack of clear linearity, Dishonored 2’s clear passage of continuance throughout its multitude of large-area locations keep its constructive motivations comprehensible, all while maintaining a philosophy of player involvement. It is the series’s crowning achievement yet, a game driven to assess the freedoms provided by limitations through a series of progressively challenging setpieces; a sort of in-depth examination of level design, and perhaps the most focused work in the developer’s history.