Game Review: Dishonored 2 (Xbox One)

Since the dawn of storytelling, regardless of medium, revenge has been a large, or entire part, of many narratives. Dishonored 2 is a story about just that, as you’ll seek to uncover the truth behind a conspiracy to see the current Empress removed from the throne, and replaced with a cold and bitter rival, with dreams of reshaping the country in her own twisted image. Dishonored 2 is a game about choice; do you play as a shadow, sneaking around unseen, or do you reap your pound of flesh as you lunge from body to body, leaving chaos in your wake. Arkane’s sequel to its almost cult status original is an improvement in nearly every way, to a game that was already brilliant to begin with.

It’s been 15 years that Emily Kaldwin has been Empress, taking up the role shortly after the assassination of her mother. Her father, Corvo; whom was also the protagonist of the first game, is by her side as the Royal Protector. You are paid a visit by Duke Luca, a man known for his cruelty. He brings with him a secret guest, and it is here that our story of betrayal and revenge is started. We are introduced to Delilah, a woman claiming to be your aunt, the rightful heir to the throne. Not only has she infiltrated your throne room, but that of your closest allies as well. As you are surrounded by threats on all sides, you’ll make the choice to play as either Corvo or that of Emily herself. This choice is permanent and will be how you’ll spend the next 15-20 hours as you uncover the dark secrets regarding this coup to the throne.

I did find that this opening scene where Delilah instantly convinces your court to just flip on you a bit rushed and unbelievable. It just happens with zero hesitation and is taken at face value. Once you pick your protagonist, at least in my case for picking Emily Kaldwin, I found that the story of taking back your throne was a bit weak. The story is also affected by how you play, which is another boon to Arkane. I was blood thirsty and violent in my dispatching of foes and the game let me know it. I wish the conspirators had a bit more back story to them instead of just painting them off as pure evil and that they must be put down. Sure, some of that back story is in the notes and scraps of lore you’ll stumble across, but there is little in-game that really makes these villains stand out.

My first playthrough was with that of Emily Kaldwin, as I’ll save Corvo for my next attempt. The one aspect of why Dishonored 2 works so well is that nearly every playthrough will be far different from one another. You can choose to be lethal or non-lethal as well as low or high chaos depending on how you dispatch your enemies. Mix that up with two separate protagonists that each have varying abilities, and you are left with a game that has multiple ways it can be beaten. I discovered during my high chaos and very lethal playthrough that dialogue and story moments would talk about how blood thirsty I was being, and I am sure that should I have been non-lethal in my encounters, that the same would be said for how I left all who opposed me, alive.

Each of the characters you are set against to take down to then eventually take back the throne, can be dealt with in a wide manner of ways. This freedom is not only something that you can miss out on should you not explore your environments fully, but it can change many of the encounters later on. There is a serial killer story that runs through the first quarter of the game; The Crown Killer is what they call them. At first, you are told that the public accuses Corvo of being this killer, but of course it’s just talk. You’ll eventually come across the real identity of the killer and you can either kill them or find another way to deal with them. Should you choose a non-violent method, then they can become an ally in your fight against Delilah.
The voice talent behind this game is pretty staggering, as not only are Erica Luttrell and Stephen Russell fantastic as Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Atano, respectively, but they are joined by the likes of Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robin Lord Taylor and Sam Rockwell.

Your quest for revenge will take you to a wide variety of locations, while all still playing it a bit safe within the overall look of the Dishonored series. The series does take a few leaps into changing its defined look with Karnaca, the sunny bayside city that is inspired by the likes of Spain, Italy and other European vista’s. Dunwell still plays the muted color industrial sector, but unlike the first game that used the Rat Plague as an excuse to limit NPC’s around you, Dishonored 2 wants nothing of that and packs each location with dozens of NPC’s that make the game come alive like never before.

Each location has a wealth of detail and can offer hours of exploration alone. Most playthroughs of the game range around 15-20 hours, but due to my need to explore each and every location, I pushed upwards to almost 30. You’ll find various collectibles like your Runes and Bone charms, that I will discuss later on, as well as a stunning amount of letters and notes, each containing back story to various characters, the city, or plots against you from Delilah and her conspirators.

The world around you is designed to tailor towards your play style, and while in some games that have that as their catch phrase, Dishonored 2 backs it up. I lost track of how many times I found another way to finish my objective and was surprised at how no matter which ability I had unlocked, there was a method to get there via what I had equipped. Abilities are unlocked on your own terms and in any order you want, so finding a balance to how you can achieve your goal without knowing what the player has unlocked is a mighty goal for developer Arkane. Given that Corvo and Emily differ on some of their abilities and how often I would stumble across a new solution has me brainstorming already on how my non-lethal playthrough might go.

There are two standout missions during the campaign that really need to be talked about, at least minimally so that you can a) be excited for them, and b) be surprised during them, so I’ll keep my comments brief, although much of the marketing for the game has already shown much of these two levels, so be cautious on any trailers you find, even the one down below may lurk some secrets within. The missions in question are during your visits to The Clockwork Mansion and Stilton’s Manor. The former is a mechanical house, where each room is affected differently by each lever in the room. Some rooms shift around causing your surroundings to change, sometimes minimally or sometimes drastic. The first lever you pull is mind-blowing and made me gasp at how ingenious the design team was here. Be warned though, you’ll miss out on an achievement should you pull the levers and get detected by the host. The latter, Stilton’s Manor has a time travel gimmick that almost feels lifted from Titanfall 2, as it plays out much the same way, except for the trinket you have during your adventure in the Manor. This level is brilliant in not only its execution, but in how it tells its narrative as well.

Many of the abilities you unlock during the game are via Runes that you’ll discover during your exploration. You can stumble across these or use an item in the game that is shaped like a heart, it will show you exactly where they are. Corvo and Emily share a few similar abilities like their teleport, even if it acts a bit differently. Emily has a fantastic ability called Domino that lets you link enemies together so that if you kill one of them, they all drop to the ground. This also works should you simply knock them out. Each character shares Dark Vision which lets you see through walls and lets you know where nearby enemies are, or where many of the games’ variable trinkets will be. While Corvo doesn’t have Emily’s fantastic Domino ability, he does gain the skill to stop time and can lead to some very clever kills. There is also the option to reject these powers and not partake in the supernatural charm of what Dishonored gives you, relying simply on old school stealth and luck.

Each ability had a few upgrade options, making it either more potent or giving it a bit of a tweak. Dark Vision at first can only show you enemies, but you can upgrade it to show items as well. Domino lets you link two enemies, then three and finally four. You cannot upgrade or unlock everything during one playthrough, so making sure to invest your Runes properly is another one of the choices you have during play. You can also use Runes to unlock passive skills like health or run speed.

Bone charms, another one of the unlocks shown via the heart you carry around, handle like perks. Run faster after an assassination or have a potion give more health are just tiny examples of the range of Bone Charms. You can find more advanced ones that have greater rewards but may also have a downside. You can also create your own Bone charms by dismantling it to learn its perk and then crafting new ones that offer two perks, or three or more, but depending on your skill, one perk may become cursed and work against you.

You can also upgrade any of the weapons and gadgets you’ll equip. Upgrade your crossbow to hold more ammo or fire off more extravagant bolts. The same goes for your pistol or grenade items. You’ll find blueprints during your explorative looting and they can help turn the tide of battle, should things get a bit heavy. Once you have purchased enough of the upgrades you’ll unlock master craft upgrades that you’ll need to choose between two, missing out on one as you pick the other.

Regardless of whether it is upgrading your weapons, reading through each scrap of lore or learning more about your objectives, the menu systems in Dishonored 2 are stunning. Each tab is immediately intuitive and lightning quick. It’s a breeze to find what you want and it is sorted and organized in the most thoughtful and easy to read way. There is also a super quick auto-save feature that got quite the workout as I would save, attempt something and then save immediately once it worked, or the quick auto-load feature should my attempt just flat out fail, as it usually did. Some games suffer from horrible or slow menu’s and thankfully, Dishonored 2 is far from one of those games.

Dishonored is not a game that is trying to compete with photo realistic visuals, but rather with those of a more painted nature. The visuals took a while to really catch my eye, but once we left Dunwell for Karnaca, the game started to really shine. In brighter areas, both outdoor and indoor, the game can look rather stunning. Large indoor area’s like the observatory are packed with incredible detail and scope. Watching the Clockwork Mansion transform for the first time, as I have mentioned before, is another visual wonder the game has in store for you. While the game isn’t as consistent with its visuals as I would have liked, with some areas looking rather poor, the game does have a very unique look for it that really makes it its own. Stepping into a room full of Blood fly nests is another visual treat as the room glows a bright and vibrant red.

Characters themselves look as inconsistent as the surrounding environments. Assassination targets and other main characters look remarkable, and well designed. NPC’s range from ok to good, while other characters like Delilah and the witches are some of the games best. It is also worth noting that there is a complete change in engine from the first Dishonored and this one, as Dishonored 2 runs on Arkane’s internal “Void” engine. While the game in many ways looks like the prior one, its improvements are many if a bit subtle. Animations for the characters are also impressive as there are so many ways to take down foes, lethal or non-lethal.

Dishonored 2 is a direct sequel in both the original game and the DLC that followed. There is much back story to take from that and early copies of Dishonored 2 will ship with a digital copy of that first game and that very DLC, making it a must have for early adopters.

Dishonored 2 is designed so perfectly to allow nearly any type of play style. There is no right or wrong way to play and you are never penalized for taking a certain approach to the game. Unlike some games that put limits to how certain mechanics work, or design sections of the game that don’t work as well as others with what your character is able to do, Dishonored 2 takes what you have at any given moment and lets you craft your play style around that. While there are sections to the story that I thoroughly enjoyed, it was my own personal story of who my Emily was becoming that intrigued me far more than wanting to take back my throne. Sure, Delilah was pure evil, but my Emily was becoming far worse and made me question what kind of Empress she would be when Delilah was inevitably stopped. Hero? Villain? That’s for you to decide.

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