TL; DR(eview) - Dishonored 2 is a master class in action-adventure sandbox level design. The game provides you with a variety of tools and an objective and allows you the freedom to fulfill that objective however you see fit. Adding Emily as a playable character in addition to Corvo this time around, gives players twice the options. Whether you on stealth, action, or a mix of the two, the game is satisfying any way you play it and well worth revisiting to explore the gamut of options.
Dishonored 2 picks up fifteen years following the end of the first game, with Empress Emily Kaldwin ruling in Dunwall with her father and Royal Protector Corvo Attano at her side. There’s a mysterious murderer known as the Crown Killer wreaking havoc with a series of murders against Emily’s political enemies and causing citizens to doubt her rule. The game opens on the anniversary in remembrance of the assassination Emily’s mother, the former Empress Jessamine Kaldwin. Duke Luca Abele of the nearby region of Serkonos arrives with the witch Delilah Copperspoon, who claims to be Jessamine’s half-sister and therefore the rightful heir to the throne.*
* Interestingly, Dishonored 2 celebrates and pays homage to the DLC from the first game (The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches) almost as much, if not more so, than it does the original base game, itself. Having only played the original game, I didn’t have the same connection to some of the characters introduced in the DLC, but any essential details are also provided here so I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. But, having read synopses of the DLC after the fact, I imagine the added context of those stories could make for an even richer experience.
After an efficient and bloody coup d’état, you are given the option to play as Corvo or Emily. The story plays out the same regardless of who you choose, with only the occasional change in dialogue as the differentiating factor in the story. The character not selected will be imprisoned in a magical stone statue why you are taken away to another part of the palace. After escaping Dunwall with the help of a nearby ship captain, you retreat to Serkonos to gather intel on the allies of the Duke and Delilah. As with the original game, this leads to a person-by-person dismantling of the big bad’s allies as you travel from location to location. Depending on how lethal you are in your pursuit to restore Emily to the throne, the world of Serkonos will change to match the chaos you inflict. This most notably takes the form of a bloodfly infestation (think giant mosquitoes that basically set up their nests around corpses). If you kill enough people, you will find far more of these bloodflies in your path. Spare those in your path, though, and the city is cleaner and safer for all. Throughout your quest to overthrow her, you’ll discover just how Delilah was able to amass such power seemingly right under your nose.
Customizing Your Character
As mentioned above, the story barely changes depending on if you choose to play as Emily or Corvo. The real difference lies in their respective power sets as both characters have their own, distinct abilities. Corvo’s powers will be familiar to those who played the original game, while Emily has a distinct set all her own.
Both characters’ power sets allow for a wide array of custom character builds to best suit your own given playstyle. For example, in one of my playthroughs, I focused on a low-chaos run with Emily where I played without being detected or killing anyone. So a skill like Domino came in quite handy. With Domino, you can link up to four characters in close proximity together who will then share a fate. So if I linked up four characters and then shot one of them with a sleep dart, the other three would pass out as well (similar, killing one would kill the rest). Or during my murder-spree playthrough as Corvo, investing runes (found scattered throughout the levels once again as a sort of experience point system) into Devouring Swarm gave me the ability to summon swarms of rats to attack my enemies or consume the bodies, leaving no evidence behind for other patrolling guards.
Regardless of who you choose, you’ll also have access to a shared set of enhancements that serve as more passive abilities to invest your runes in if you so choose. Again, some of these will benefit a non-lethal game, while others; a more lethal strategy. As Corvo, I invested in Reflexes, which allowed me to deflect bullets back at guards, taking them out with their own attacks. As Emily, I relied on something like Bonecharm Crafting to create better, more customized Bonecharms.
Bonecharms are equippable items that can be found throughout the levels and come in three forms: standard, Black Bonecharms, and Corrupt Bonecharms. The standard ones provide a miscellaneous passive ability (e.g. move faster with your weapons sheathed, using a potion may fully restore health, etc.) and can be broken down into components that can then be re-configured with the Bonecharm Crafting skills. Black Bonecharms have even better abilities, but cannot be broken down. And Corrupted Bonecharms effectively have a negative side effect attached (for example, one might allow you to take less damage, but also decrease your movement speed). Investing in the Bonecharm Crafting enhancements can allow you to combine up to four effects into a single Bonecharm, meaning what would have taken up four slots (out of a starting five; maximum with upgrades, ten) now fits neatly into one.
The last upgrades worth mentioning come in the form of the Black Market upgrades. Most levels will feature a Black Market shop on the map where you can purchase supplies or upgrades. Some upgrades will allow you to purchase different ammo types (like sleep darts or incinerator darts for your crossbow), while others might upgrade your carrying capacity or ability to (as mentioned above) equip more Bonecharms. Blueprints hidden throughout the levels will unlock more upgrades for purchase. All of these Black Market items can be purchased using the gold found scouring the levels, making exploring off the beaten path in order to find a painting worth 200 coins well worth the time.
The level design led to some of the best fun I had all year. As with the first game, and something like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided from earlier this year, Dishonored 2 is often about giving you a large open map, some tools, and an objective, and leaves you to explore all of the difference ways to achieve that goal. Need to get past that “Wall of Light” that will incinerate you if you just walk through it? Well you can teleport up to the power source and remove. Or you can rewire it so it lets you through and incinerates your enemies. Or you can possess one of your enemies and walk through as them unharmed. Or you can completely bypass the wall and sneak through a nearby house to get around it. And on and on.
Pretty much each level will feature an objective to eliminate your primary target. By default, the option presented before you is the more straightforward assassination. But exploring the levels will shine a light on a non-lethal strategy that will help keep the chaos levels in Serkonos from rising too high. And some of the targets may even prove useful allies if you don’t just murder them.
Aside from these primary targets, there will also be the occasional secondary objectives as well as secret safes and buildings to explore in each level. One of my favorite recurring optional side objectives was the ability to break into and rob each Black Market. Choosing to do so, will lock out your ability to purchase equipment or upgrades for the rest of the level. But in exchange, you can just swipe any of the inventory on the shelves as well as the typically healthy stockpile of weapons and coins in the back. And if you do rob these locations, Black Market dealers later in the game will start to comment on it and show concern for their own locations. Meanwhile, completing other secondary objectives might open up a new path to you that will allow you to bypass part of the map.
There are a couple notable standout sequences, including some of the levels briefly show off in pre-release trailers, like the Clockwork Mansion or Stilton Manor. Without delving into specifics, the Clockwork Mansion is an exquisitely crafted level where levers sprinkled throughout will completely alter the layout of the house and your access to certain points, which you can use to your advantage in sneaking around or taking the place out by force. The Stilton Manor presents a puzzle where you can look into and transfer between two parallel timelines (akin to one of the best levels from Titanfall 2) and decisions you make in the past can and will affect the mansion’s layout in the present.
Rarely does a game come along where a stealth approach and action/combat-heavy approach can be equally satisfying but I found Dishonored 2 expertly walking that line. In a stealth run as Emily, I had to prioritize patience and strategy to quietly work my way through the objectives without getting detected. That’s where strategies like the Domino/sleep dart combination came in handy. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I’d finally sneak up on my primary target and take them out utilizing the non-lethal approach. Similarly, running through each level, mercilessly slaying guards as Corvo was fun because I was able to explore the full arsenal of weapons, like the pistol or grenades, that I kept sheathed in my non-lethal run. Even my third playthrough, where I chose to play without powers and explored a mix of stealth and violence, was a ton of fun.
Dishonored, and now Dishonored 2, tell one of my favorite kinds of stories. Revenge tales like The Count of Monte Cristo have always resonated for me. I imagine I find the notion of somebody losing everything and having to fight their way back - systematically targeting everyone who wronged them - a very rewarding and cathartic character arc. And Dishonored 2 lets you choose nearly every aspect of how that arc plays out. Will you show mercy toward your enemies or tear them apart for wronging you? That choice is yours and one of those experiences only video games can truly provide.