In the trifecta of virtues that all story-driven video games should possess, Dishonored 2 achieves a solid 2 out of 3.
Much like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 has a simple conceit – sneak, slink, or fight your way (with or without creepy magical powers) through non-linear environments to dispatch the enemies that have taken everything from you in a variety of ways, from merciful to cruel.
Gameplay is the first virtue in which the game excels. Dishonored 2 presents the player with a painstakingly crafted environment that allows them ample opportunities to play however they want. The game affords you with a multitude of powers which you can combine to dispatch enemies in a myriad of creative ways. Within the confines of the level, you are given the chance to use environments to your advantage, find nooks and crannies to gain an advantage over enemies, and search for runes that afford you more powers.
The game succeeds in making exploration enjoyable, because it rewards it richly, with runes and bonecharms that augment your abilities. Dishonored 2 understands that exploration shouldn’t just be about terrain traversal. The pleasures of exploration in Dishonored 2 lie in the fact that it is a cognitive puzzle to be solved, and the richest rewards lie in the application of game systems to reach a hard-to-locate place.
It doesn’t hurt that the game’s environment, setting and art direction are top-notch. Karnaca, a city wracked by the neglect of its ruler, swarming with bloodflies, and yet peeking through with shards of its former elegance, is a worthy successor to the brooding Dunwall of the first game. The world of Dishonored is one of the more interesting settings I’ve come across in fantasy, an original blend of gothic and steampunk vibes, a world with deep history and mystique. Soaring, impossible mountains shepard gale-force winds that howl through the city’s Dust district, blinding the player with occassion in a torrent of sand. Whales roam the vast ocean, harvested for their blubber that serves as the fuel that powers the entire civilisation, and have a mysterious connection to a place called the Void, where strange and powerful gods lurk.
That said, one aspect in which the game doesn’t do so well is in giving the cities life through populating them with human inhabitants. The grand environmental drapery is all well and good, but Dishonored 2 seems to have neglected in its character department. All around the levels the same character models and canned dialogue are reused. The guards all look identical – blue-suited, troglodyte-like with brutish faces and huge hands, either reciting bawdy verse or talking about their families in a transparent attempt to get the player to realise that they’re not faceless gooks, which loses its lustre after the 100th time some random guard spits out the same story. Characters provide some dressing to the gorgeous environments, but most of the time the city feels empty except for the guards, making levels feel like what they are – game levels with a flaking coat of verisimilitudinous paint.
And guess where that leads us? Dishonored 2’s most glaring flaw is in its insipid narrative, flat characters, and terrible writing. It is in the writing that Dishonored 2 reveals its setting and story as nothing but a convenient vehicle for its gameplay intentions. In a sense, it’s hard to fault the writing for being so – convenient, for want of a word. True to the point of the game, the story needs to always contrive a way for the protagonist to make a merciful choice or to make the straightforward, violent one. But the scenarios that the writers have come up with border on the fantastical in how convenient they seem – there is always some badly-hidden clue that leads to your enemy’s downfall somewhere, some achilles’ heel that will lead to their downfall. There is no added challenge in being “good”, making your choices just about your “playstyle” – and there is no uncertainty in deciding to play good guy or bad because the payoffs are so straightforward and predictable. The actions that contribute to either outcome are clear as crystal. The Witcher, this game is not. Although I think that to make your choices meaningful, it is usually a bad idea for the impact of your actions to be telegraphed to you so obviously.
And the game keeps doing that – it keeps shoving morality in your face, despite not making you think about how to be moral. All the characters keep questioning if you will do the easy thing or the good thing. It’s grating because it is not a question of morality but playstyle – to play a certain way – there is no connection to the character that makes the player want to inhabit that character’s headspace and choose how they would have chosen under the consequences. Instead, it’s all about playing the “low chaos” route. The characters – Corvo, Emily, etc – have no interiority. They are just platitude spouting engines of either justice or revenge.
And the game doesn’t respond to your actions – the bad guys never regroup, never learn – even as you kill or dispatch them one by one, the ringleaders of the conspiracy never take any action, and every guard is still as chill as ever as you slowly take out section after section. The world is static – it exists only for player utility. It is a gamespace more than a lived-in place, a set dressing decorated handsomely but ultimately falling somewhat flat in its evocative powers.
In the end, Dishonored 2 is a game that depends on its great atmosphere but thin story to give it a thin raison d’etre for its great gameplay. It doesn’t have anything much to say about anything, its characters are not relatable, and its narrative beats are metronomic – you plod through missions to the inevitable, predictable finish. But heck if it isn’t satisfying to link three goons together and fell them all with a single sleep dart.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 black bonecharms