Game review: Dishonored 2 – meticulously plotted sequel will give you whale of a time
Whether you play the lethal assassin or the merciful outlaw, this immersive sim offers players nine chapters of meaningful choices
Dunwall, the briny, whale-oil-guzzling capital of the first Dishonored game was a city defined by Dickensian hardship. This suited Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the empress, for whose murder he was framed, allowing him to squeeze through society’s cracks and skulk unseen among the plague rats.
For this sequel the setting has changed to the sun-bronzed (and in later stages, dust-blasted) Karnaca, an archipelago whose ports might offer an enviable holiday destination were it not for an infestation of murderous insects.
You play again as Attano or alternatively, the newly monarched Emily Kaldwin, a choice that must be made in the game’s opening moments and adhered to until the final credits. Both are wrongfully accused of murder (although by the game’s end, all but the most patient players will have blood on their hands). Both must flee the charges and pursue their accusers in the dark. At least Karnaca’s high sun casts long shadows to hide in.
Whale oil continues to flow through the city’s veins (your base is now the Dreadful Wale, a paddle steamer helmed by Meagan Foster, a muted, laconic one-armed whaler, who ferries you between land and sea on a handsome skiff), powering its lamps and tramways. But Karnaca is a place that runs on clockwork as much as mammal fuels. Lumbering human guards still present the most immediate menace to your safety. But the most deadly threats are the clockwork soldiers, progeny of the eccentric inventor Kirin Jindosh, who patrol the streets in service to the coup-masterminding Duke Luca Abele of Serkonos. Clockwork is an appropriate theme for this meticulous sequel – its mechanical parts interlock with a grand, delightful intricacy.
Dishonored 2 (for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One) sits in the tradition of the so-called “immersive sim” games that emphasise player choice over directorial control. As such, each of the nine, expansive chapters offers a playpen for personal expression. Fundamentally, this means choosing whether you want to play as the lethal assassin, leaping from ramparts to deliver killing blows to those who stand in the way of your immediate goals, or that of a stealthily merciful outlaw, thoughtfully putting guards to sleep with a well-aimed dart to the neck. Will you, in other words, lock up your enemies, or bury them?
The more murderous your approach, the greater the “chaos” you bring to Karnaca and the more messy the story’s conclusion (a non-lethal approach, meanwhile, invites a more “optimistic” conclusion, in the game’s phrase). The grain of the fiction therefore encourages a quiet, gracious approach, even though, for players who want to make it to the ending without ever being spotted by a guard, this will mean frequent and boring loads from backup saves in order to undo indiscretions.
The jewel in Dishonored 2’s crown, and one that exemplifies its game design philosophy, is set at its midway point in a chapter dubbed The Clockwork Mansion, a reference to Jindosh’s Rubick’s cube of a stately home, which you must infiltrate. The mansion’s rooms can be rearranged into all manner of configurations, while its architect watches and comments sarcastically on your progress as you move to confront him (unless, that is, you manage to slip into its hollow walls, and make your way unseen up and over its cogs and pulleys).
As well as providing a vivid scene, a delightful contraption and a character-deepening look at one of the game’s stand-out antagonists, The Clockwork Mansion holds a mirror up to the craft and obsessions of game designers themselves, and the standoffish relationship they often have with the players who attempt to crack their puzzles.
The intricate world-crafting extends far beyond Jindosh’s domain. Dishonored 2 is both luxurious and consistent in its set dressing. Every virtual item demonstrates its own kind of wondrous craftsmanship: the taut leather, the sunny brass. Each room is a varnished memorial to some hollowed-out forest.
Your choice of approach dictates the scale of the game’s challenge, which is tallest when tackled by a player hoping to role-play exclusively as the silent interloper. Enemies are ceaselessly vigilant. Make a noise or cast an unexpected shadow and they’ll race to investigate. Unlike the buffoonish guards that patrol most video games, suspicion escalates to confrontation in a split second. Still, approach a guard with pad-foot calm (crouching quietens your movements, while stowing your weapons quickens them) and you’ll be able to lift the keys from their belt and pass on, spectrally.
There is meaningful choice here, in these crammed parishes, but perhaps not as much as there first appears to be. To be seen or not to be seen: this is the fundamental question upon which your approach hinges. Less meaningful, but more engaging is the choice offered by these messy, complicated streets, which offer dozens of different pathways to each goal.
Will you scale the building and steal through an open window, or possess a rat and squeeze through a sewer pipe? In literature, these would be the less interesting questions for the work to pose. But in Dishonored 2, herein lies that game’s true wonder – along with the gathering appreciation for how this exquisite clockwork world fits together.