Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Windows PC
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release: November 11, 2016
The vast majority of games we play don’t aim to challenge us.
Oh, sure, they often pose difficult quests and demand feats of skill so hard as to sometimes border on unfair, but that’s not the sort of challenge to which I’m referring. Or at least not entirely. I’m talking about challenging us intellectually and even emotionally. I’m talking about games that engage our minds as well as our hands.
I tend to refer to games that satisfy these criteria as (admittedly, a bit unimaginatively) games for grown-ups. And I generally encounter only a handful each year. Arkane Studios’ Dishonored 2 is one of them. And it’s probably going to end up the best such game to launch this fall.
Those who played the original Dishonored will be at an advantage in terms of understanding the series’ complex world and multidimensional characters at the outset, but Arkane Studios’ writers do a pretty good job of quickly bringing everyone else up to speed.
In the opening chapter you’ll come to understand that a young empress named Emily sits on a throne vacated by her mother upon her death 15 years earlier. Her father, Corvo – protagonist of the original game, and the man who brought her mother’s betrayers to justice – serves as Emily’s protector.
But all is not right in the Empire of the Isles, which has the look of 19th century Europe with a handful of fantastical flourishes, like gates made of walls of arcing electricity and carriages on tracks elevated like roller coasters. It quickly becomes clear that there are those who oppose the empress. The papers are running stories about an assassin who is conveniently killing off her political adversaries, bringing suspicion upon the crown. And when an unexpected delegation from one of the empire’s territories arrives, complete with an escort of newly invented and deadly automatons called clockwork soldiers, well, you can probably guess what happens next.
The coup brings us to our first key decision: Play as the deposed empress or as her father. Each has access to a set of meaningfully different supernatural powers – such as Corvo’s ability to “blink” and instantly teleport short distances versus the empress’ “far reach” power, which can move her further but flings her in plain view for anyone to see. Your choice will have a marked impact on how the dozens of hours that follow unfold.
Then, not much later, you’ll be given a second and even more crucial choice: Whether to use any supernatural powers at all. While visiting a being known as the Outsider in a dreamlike realm called the Void, you’ll be asked whether you want to accept the “gift” he tenders. Say no, and you’ll be forced to play the game relying solely on human skills – and consequently nudged to play much more aggressively.
It’s worth noting that I chose to play as Emily and that I accepted the gift. This means my experience – from mission tactics to story dialogue – will be much different than, say, someone who chose to play as Corvo and did not accept supernatural powers.
There are fewer than ten missions – nearly all of which are set in the empire’s southern, wind-powered region of Serkonos – but don’t let that small number fool you. I spent in excess of five hours on some of the middle missions thanks to their intricately designed environments, nearly every inch of which screams out to be fully explored and thoroughly looted.
Most missions begin with Emily (we’ll assume you make the same early choices I did) being quietly ferried from the Dreadful Wale – an independent ship aboard which she finds refuge and aid from a sympathetic captain – to a location on the shore several blocks from her objective, which is typically to “neutralize” (you can either kill targets or, as the game puts it, “find another way,” which is usually more creative and at least as satisfying) a key figure in the new regime.
The first half of the mission is generally just getting to the building housing your target, while the second half sees you achieving your objective and then escaping back to the boat. If you play like me and try to be as stealthy as possible, traversing those first few blocks – investigating every apartment building, alleyway, and guard station along the way, all while trying never to be detected – can take hours. The second half of the mission, which generally takes place in a large and ingeniously designed structure, such as a clockwork mansion the layout of which changes each time you throw a switch, or a conservatory filled with curious exhibits and artifacts, may take even longer.
What I’m trying to get at is that this is a surprisingly big game.
A big part of exploration is to active observe and mentally catalogue what’s going on around you using “Dark Vision,” a supernatural power I employed constantly since it highlights practically everything of importance around you. I often perched myself atop lamp standards and spent long moments looking for buildings that seemed as though they might be open to exploration, trying to detect various ways in – which could include balcony windows, basement stairs, pipes, and rooftop skylights – all while monitoring guard movements, looking for patterns.
You might be wondering why you should bother investigating the broader world when you could just hoof it straight to the target. It’s because of what you can find along the way. Whale bone charms that bestow perks like additional bullet damage. Runes used to purchase and enhance supernatural powers. Paintings and other items worth money that can be spent at black markets on useful items and gear upgrades.
The most important reason to explore, though, is the story. Notes, newspapers, diaries, and audio files – some of which will actually unlock additional quests and alternative strategies – are scattered everywhere. They’re all beautifully written and, when taken as a whole, create a rich mythology well deserving of our attention. You’ll learn about the technologies and mystical rules that glue the Dishonored universe together, come to better understand each of the many factions we encounter, discover the origin and meaning of the bloodfly plague currently ravaging the empire, get a glimpse of the civilian population’s psychology, and run across backstories for villains that make them more sympathetic.
In most games were I to encounter a random five or six paragraph note that had little to do with the main plot I’d probably just skip it, but the quality of the lore in Dishonored 2 compelled me to read virtually everything I found.
You’ll even stumble across details about individual guards – like one who wistfully muses about getting home to his family – that will help you see some NPCs not just as obstacles to be overcome but actual people who are just doing a job and who don’t necessarily deserve a knife in the back.
And if that’s not enough reason to go the stealthy route, remember that enemies aren’t dumb. You’ll have no more than a second or two to dart to cover if they think they see something lurking in the shadows. And if one catches direct sight of you chances are you’ll soon have a cadre of soldiers giving chase and trying to sniff you out, looking under tables and behind closed doors. Once you begin encountering witches – who have many of the abilities you do, and can be just as hard to detect (make sure you check the chandeliers!) – surviving a scuffle is by no means guaranteed.
Consider, too, that – as in the first game – each person you kill adds a little to the world’s overall “chaos,” causing unease and distrust in the population at large. There’s nothing so crude as a morality meter, and the game tells us that there are no simple or right ways to play, but if you want an optimistic outcome at the end of the game – or at least what passes for one in such a dark domain – you’ll need to strive for zero detection and maximum non-lethality.
Admittedly, even for the craftiest of crafty players who make the most of Emily’s powers – like taking the form of a shadow to lower her chance of being detected, momentarily mesmerizing a guard, or summoning a doppelgänger to distract groups of enemies; all of which can be assigned to the d-pad button of your choice to suit how you want to play – achieving such a goal will likely entail loads of saving and reloading as your plans inevitably go awry.
Indeed, sometimes it seems all but impossible to avoid detection the first time you explore an area. This is probably the biggest hitch in the game. But at least Arkane foresaw and tried to mitigate the problem by providing speedy quick save and quick load options in the pause menu. So long as you save often you should be able to avoid (too much) frustration.
Should you decide not to be stealthy, on the other hand, I suspect the game will proceed a lot faster. And I can’t deny that this option remains tempting throughout. On the rare occasions I was forced to fight I enjoyed the mix of quick jabs and defensive parries involved in fencing, and I was almost too happy to put to use my accumulated stockpile of weapons and ammunition, which included a pistol, explosive razor traps, and a crossbow with multiple types of bolts.
I’m actually itching to begin a second play-through during which I allow myself to take on anyone who gets in my way.
Some of the beefs I had with the original Dishonored – such as the forced first-person perspective, which can make certain platforming elements tricky, and that we spend so much time using Dark Vision that we often don’t get to see or fully appreciate the beautiful world Arkane’s artists have created in its natural state and colours – persist in the sequel.
But I generally found myself forgetting these quibbles as I focused on everything else that the game was getting right. My mind was constantly and delightfully engaged by the characters and the story, the sense of discovery and the satisfying stealth and combat mechanics.
Dishonored 2 is the sort of experience that validates and reaffirms my choice to continue playing and being passionate about games as an adult.
I just wish there were more like it.