Yes, that pun is fully intended in the title.
Now to get that out of the way, the first Dishonored game was one that truly surprised me, back when I played it a few years ago. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but it turned out to be much more complex and engaging than I was expecting. It’s one of those games that I think a lot about. When you play a lot of games like I do, that’s pretty important. So naturally I was beyond excited when the second game was announced at E3 last year, and even more excited when it was announced you could play as a grown up Emily Kaldwin, the girl you rescue in the first game. It’s rare to play as a woman in a AAA stealth game, even rarer still to play as the object that was rescued and protected in the first game. So needless to say, my hopes were high. Unfortunately, those hopes really weren’t met. While Dishonored 2 is a great stealth game, and innovative in terms of level design and mechanics, the narrative just wasn’t there for me in the same way it was in the first game. It’s less complex and less nuanced in some ways, and I think the game suffers quite a bit from that. But let’s start out with what I did like.
This is a next gen game, so I kind of think it goes without saying that aesthetically speaking, Dishonored 2 is beautiful. And Karnaca is beautiful too, a sprawling seaside town with great weather and views, kind of a cross between a Mediterranean island and Rio de Janeiro. It’s Corvo’s birthplace, and like everywhere in Dishonored, hideously, terribly corrupt (And full of bloodflies, a plague which manages to be grosser than the rat plague). If it weren’t for that last bit, I would maybe even want to vacation there. Each level is a separate area, and they are of course bigger and better than the first game. I can’t even count on both hands the number of ways it’s possible to traverse a level, either stealthily or not, and they’re much more open world-like than the first game. There’s a lot more to see, and a lot more options for some goals, though of course this is at times a double edged sword. It means sometimes it’s easy to miss things, or not be able to find them entirely. It’s much harder to figure out how to do the non-lethal option in some levels, at least in comparison to the first game. But there are some truly impressive levels, like the much seen Clockwork Mansion, which is a house that is an entire puzzle of pulleys and mazes. My favourite was an abandoned, decaying mansion where you are given a device that lets you travel back and forth between the present and the past, when the mansion was still fully inhabited and in all its splendor.
However, I’m not entirely sure if Karnaca as a setting worked for me. It feels like it has much less history than Dunwall did, and much less personality. I don’t really understand what its deal is as much as I did with Dunwall, if that makes any sense. While there is more neutral space and more civilian characters, there are very few people you can actually talk to. You can overhear their conversations, but you never really engage with anyone, outside of killing them (or scaring them enough they call the guards on you). In the first game, you had an entire pub full of people involved in Corvo’s mission, and while Corvo was silent, they would still interact with him and there was always something going on there between missions. In Dishonored 2, you don’t have that at all. If you play as Emily in particular, the only sense of her life that you get is through letters and found documents, and that’s about it. It’s kind of absurd, given that you’re the actual Empress. And while you do have a home base in the Dreadful Wale, you only have two allies, and they don’t interact with you all that much. I just didn’t connect with the characters or setting as much, because there really aren’t any to connect to.
Now this leads me to the game’s lack of nuance. While Dishonored’s philosophy has always been “if you do bad things bad things will happen”, there was definitely a lot more nuance to that in the first game. Not just in endgame outcomes, but in how people perceive you as well. One moment I always bring up from the first game is how, at the mission accomplished party with co-conspirators, a couple of the servants gossip about how I killed all the little people (guards, servants, people who were just doing their jobs basically), and spared the people I was supposed to assassinate. This hit me pretty hard, because I didn’t even realize until that moment that’s what I had done. You aren’t really given that kind of moral nuance in Dishonored 2. If you use the Heart ability on guards, they’re pretty much all rotten to the core. If you get someone who’s nice, they’re a civilian and you probably won’t kill them anyway, unless they attack you, which most don’t. There is also very little emotional conflict with your played character over this as well. I was hoping with the inclusion of voice actors for both Emily and Corvo would offer more in terms of internal dialogue and conflict, but there really isn’t any. If you go high chaos, they just say some creepy dark shit sometimes. And a lot of plot points are brought up only to be not included in the endgame summation, or simply never resolved at all. I found the ending to be pretty unsatisfying overall, and really did not get any sense of what the world state I created even was. Narratively, it’s much more dumbed down and straight forward. It’s possible this is because a lot is going to be resolved in DLC, which is honestly something I hate and developers need to stop doing.
I do think Dishonored 2 is very, very good at being a stealth game. Gameplay-wise, yes, it’s fun and engaging and it does very cool things. But I just had no emotional connection to it the way I did with the first one. I really wanted to! I really wanted to love Emily so much. I mean, I do, but it’s because she is a murderating badass, not because I think she wound up being a particularly interesting or compelling person. I haven’t gotten to my Corvo playthrough yet, but from what I’ve seen and friends have told me, it sounds like it is a lot more emotionally satisfying. Which is a huge shame. There are glimmers of a compelling person through things like letters and journal entries, but you literally get to experience none of it! (The game also has a big problem with being impossible to read documents on console because of UI design and font issues, which actually winds up being a huge problem on some levels.) It’s incredibly frustrating.
So in all, I give Dishonored 2 three creepy staring at you for some reason murderheads out of five, even though I would love to give it more.