This review was delayed partly by issues with the PC copy of Dishonored 2, but also due to my own personal issues – I moved flat last week. When the game was released the PC version had serious performance issues, and I’m happy to say that subsequent patches have fixed many of the issues I experienced on day 1 – but not all of them. This review is written with those recent patches applied.
The sequel to Arkane Studios incredibly well received 2012 stealth title, Dishonored 2, continues the story of Corvo and Emily as they negotiate a new threat in the whale-punk inky city of Dunwall. Fifteen years have passed since Corvo rescued Emily and reinstated her as the Empress of Dunwall, and the years passed peacefully until a serial murderer began murdering Emily’s enemies – becoming known as the ‘Crown Killer’. Whilst attending a remembrance service for Jessamine Kaldwin the Duke of Serkonos, Luca Abele, arrives with a woman claiming to be Jessamine’s half-sister. In true evil step-sister style, she claims that she is the true heir of the throne. The Duke’s men attack, and then the game begins with a choice – will you play as young Emily, or the experienced Corvo?
It’s a ballsy beginning for a sequel – launching anyone unfamiliar with the series straight into the thick of it – but key history and plot direction is provided delicately through post-loading screen papercut cinematics. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to play Dishonored 2 with the aim of unlocking the next cutscene; the world is full of dropped emphemera, and every piece glistens with tantalising backstory. These discarded papers and idle books help to realise the political, social and architectural structures around each level, as well as pointing the player towards hidden goodies.
The maps are particularly helpful given the verticality and complexity of the levels, especially later in the game. Though beginning in Dunwall, the game quickly takes you outside of the city and to Karnaca – a summery south-european styled city on the coast. Like ancient city quarters in Italy, Greece and Croatia, the buildings are packed together in characteristically chaotic style; stone tenements squabble over the limited space, creating a deliciously varied environment for exploration. Hop over a building on the main street and you may find a beautiful rooftop garden, or a series of waste pipes leading down down down to ramshackle hovels by the docks. Every level has been meticulously thought out to provide the player with a sense of infinite freedom, whilst simultaneously limiting the environment to a plot-specific area swimming with detail and collectibles.
Karnaca is the strongest character in Dishonored 2, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. Sadly, none of the human characters shine particularly brightly, and the emotional intensity that launched you from one mission directly into another in Dishonored isn’t present in the sequel. Delilah, step sister of Jessamine, is archetypally evil, and the majority of the foes you come across are similarly morally black or white. Some have more backstory than others, but their history is presented through passages in books rather than through actions. This results in passive enemy characters who don’t actively participate in the world in which you play. They roam the corridors of the Royal Conservatory, or the Grand Palace, waiting for you to snatch them up.
However, the minor characters in the world – shopkeepers, guards, gang members and citizens – have a greater sense of place than in the original. They feel truly in the world, discussing the politics of Karnaca, their own social standing, their lack of sleep or changing prospects whilst drinking from glasses or chewing fruit. These aspects help to disguise their dangerously sharp ability to spot you when peeking over objects, or, in a very specific case, their inability to do anything when I had been spotted squatting in a nearby ledge. The guards simply stood and stared. Frozen on the spot.
Other glitches I’ve encountered were performance based. Running on a solid rig, Dishonored 2 defaulted to low graphic settings yet still stuttered and dropped to single frames in specific locations. Interestingly, I later increased all settings to ultra, and my PC and Dishonored 2happily kept pace with one another, tripping a little over vistas featuring large numbers of characters and objects. Pausing the game for a short period of time would often upset the frame rate too, and sent the game into a peculiar chugging; dropping frames here and there. A restart fixed the problem. I also encountered frequent crashes with the beta patch implemented, but overall performance was far, far better than day 1. I’m sure Arkane will get to the bottom of it.
These cases are few and far between, however, and Dishonored 2 gives you plenty of abilities to throw off the guards. Corvo and Emily have their specific skill sets – blink, time warp, possession et al for the former, and new powers for Emily; reach, mesmerise, domino et al. Emily’s new skills can dramatically alter the state of play, domino for instance allows you to link enemies together with those linked sharing the same fate as the first. This can be incredibly effective in sudden combat situations, and frequently inspired me to draw a knife and take to the main stage when I’m usually far more comfortable in the shadows. All of these can be improved through runes found throughout the levels, and the way you play is further influenced by bone charms found and strapped to your person.
By the end of the game I was a well quenched stealth machine; turning taps filled my mana and health, and a quick swim underwater would further replenish my need for magical energy. I could drop from a large height and knock out enemies, blink across chasms, possess guards and sprint across rooms… yet I never felt overpowered. I was still mortal, could die awfully quickly to a blade. I had to be careful, and I commend Arkane for this. Dishonored wasn’t difficult so long as you were patient, and Arkane has addressed that in the sequel. Yes, the AI is occasionally a little too quick to spot you hiding in the bushes – but the complexity of patrol patterns and their keenness to buddy up and peek under desks adds to the challenge. Ghosting a level feels like a real achievement.
Staying stealthy also affects the conclusion, a la Dishonored, though in this instance we have the chaos system. I never saw the attraction in such a system, and feel it unnecessarily limits a player in their approach. The new summary screens at the end of each level also irritate me – they emphasise the ‘gaminess’ of Dishonored 2 and thus impacted on my immersion in the story. Their presence, and the presence of the chaos system, will force many a player to constantly reload saves in order to improve their stats – which isn’t a bad feature for a second playthrough, but unnecessary in the first.
Dishonored 2 will be remembered not for its human characters, but for Karnaca. Karnaca lives and breathes, and it’s immediately clear when you step off of the skip onto the cities shores that this is a place with layers of history – that this environment was built with a clear approach in mind. The narrow streets channel winds towards the turbines whose every turn generates energy, used to fuel machines of death and destruction deployed below. Where sandstorms tear at the walls and bloodflies nest in the derelict and decaying. Then, of course, there’s the intricate complexity of the Clockwork Mansion. There’s the hidden depths of Stilton’s Mansion. It’s a game full of crafted mazes rendered in a beautiful painterly style, and it’s everything I ever wanted in a sequel.
Almost, but not quite, a masterpiece.
‘Dishonored 2’ was reviewed on PC, and kindly provided to us by Bethesda Softworks for review.