Game worlds have the ability to both perplex and beguile; they can conjure up feelings of dread or beauty, or sadness through textured interactions: like simple notes scrawled by troubled denizens; like subtly placed portraits or unkempt desks that may reveal the utmost about a character’s wellbeing or handicap. From the breadth of its cityscapes, to the dead and dying in its blood-flooded holes, Dishonored 2 houses this exact propensity to awe. It is a tale of revenge told through not only intelligent thematic concerns, but also through open-ended, first-person stealth, as you decide the fate of Karnaca and its populace through either violence or pacification.
Set fifteen years after the events of the original game, Dishonored 2 allows you to play as either Emily Kaldwin, now empress of Dunwall, or Corvo Attano, her father and previous protagonist. Each must counteract an imperial coup through a sordid series of assassinations on the southern continent of Serkonos by slaying the conspirators working for Delilah Copperspoon: the bastard child of Emily’s grandfather, with a precarious claim to the throne. Some of my most major qualms with the first game came from its uninteresting, clichéd story and poorly acted cast members. This time, both empathy and weight were firmly cemented to each character’s story. Emily gains perspective after witnessing the suffering and degradation of Karnaca; the impoverished and loss-filled Megan, as well as the ageing, jaded Sokolov act as her only accomplices, meaning that more time is dedicated to their individual stories, and therefore a more rounded and well-told portrait of their character is established.
The villains, ever in your chosen protagonist’s sight, are both compelling yet easily dislikable. The Duke of Serkonos, voiced by the gaudy, menacing Vincent D’Onofrio, is a repugnant man-child. He spouts the tirades of a classic communist over loudspeakers throughout the city, throwing tantrums and retreating to his palace of women and booze whenever events slight him. Kirin Jindosh, on the other hand, speaks unsettlingly through the mouthpieces of clockwork soldiers; his brilliance as an inventor is only rivalled by his arrogance. These characters not only exist as motion-setters for the plot, they exude facets of the game’s world, and strengthen its portrayal as a location of great repercussions through immorality and destruction.
Karnaca is both visually nightmarish, yet beautiful. Vistas of the city at wide angles show a curved diamond of green and shining white, while, up close, rot has been set upon its people, buildings and social structure. The detail presented throughout its locations is outstanding, and Dishonored 2 should be hailed for having one of the most fully utilised game spaces of all time. Every building – of which there are dozens, with hidey holes and basements aplenty – has something to say; bits of rubble or pieces of fruit may reveal more narrative than a single line of dialogue, while notes and audio diaries only deepen these contextual narratives. Nothing is on the nose, as careful observation rewards you with rich detail and additive story. There’s a reason that a portion of Dishonored 2, set in the city’s mining district, refrains from using the overused design of an underground level. It wants the piles of soot and unhappy socialist populace to speak for itself.
These thematic concerns – relating to environment – are not only game-deep. They also bear a likeness to facets of literary naturalism, in which writers of the late nineteenth century produced artistic output using extreme realism; social environments deeply breached and engaged the human subject, and effected both behavioural patterns and mindset. This is only one small fragment of Dishonored 2’s litany of topics that can be analysed at an academic level: simply put, it is an intelligent game, akin to BioShock or Dark Souls. Other such subjects that crop up amongst the blood and butchery are the ineptitude and intolerance of a totalitarian regime, the hypocritical corruption and violence of primogeniture and the monarchy, elements of puritanical purging, and doubts on Neoplatonism – a philosophical thought from Greco-Roman antiquity, in which the entirety of life sprung from “the One”. Dishonored 2 adequately displays the sheer breadth of the human experience through both visual and spoken symbolism; for example, the throne is described as appearing behind a “red carpet of blood.” Its many narratives have the potential to rival Shakespeare in their numeracy, while equalling Cormac McCarthy in their dreadful depth.
The game is not only intelligent in terms of story, however, but also in game design. Levels and the world-altering choices within them are cleverly outlined to both awe and confound with their originality and visual splendour. “How on earth has this been made?” said I when faced with the mind-melting intricacy of Jindosh’s clockwork mansion and its many permutations; you can choose your path throughout its rooms and backstage areas. I was confronted with a similar bout of inexplicability throughout a later venture involving time-travel, and the ability to change past events in order to fix the present. These experiences may come in level-size packages, but smaller, yet no less important, elements also reveal the extent of your actions as a player. Karnaca, already a city on the brink of destruction, is also threatened by an infestation of bloodflies; nasty, carnivorous insects that live amongst red honeycombs made from human corpses. The more you kill, the more flies there shall be, affecting the city, and your path throughout it as you must alter course to steer clear of these terrorful creatures.
This is of course up to you as a player. You may wish to sneak past the flies or guards through careful stealth, or batter your way through them with you sword, crossbow or pistol. Methods of extreme violence, subtle pacification, or somewhere in between, are all viable methods of traversal. You may wish to spare the city’s population, hoping for a better outcome, and so sleeping darts and chokeholds will be your greatest ally in a non-lethal playthrough. Emily and Corvo are not alone in their endeavour, however, as a mysterious supernatural figure, known only as The Outsider, has provided them with a bevy of otherworldly tools, which can be used or spurned if you so choose. Blink allows you to teleport past enemies, while Dark Vision enables you to see them through walls. Each one can be upgraded with Runes made from ancient whale bone scattered throughout each level. On their own, these abilities can be useful when getting out of difficult situations, but when combined with more offensive attacks, your fun as a formidable opponent can ramp up considerably.
While teleporting into a group of foes and separating each one’s torso from their legs may be entertaining, Dishonored 2’s primary mechanics are still somewhat unrefined. Its first-person melee combat is in no way accurate, with hectic blows and sheer required to win most battles. Stealth, similarly, becomes an all-too-frequent hindrance. This stems from the game’s perspective, as first person leaves no room for some much-needed spatial awareness. Enemies may appear behind you from unknown positions, either attacking, or raising the alarm in a matter of seconds. Many frustrating deaths will be the result of this insensible viewpoint.
Some gameplay qualms aside, Dishonored 2 is a masterwork of intricacy and detail. Its locations are frequented by depth, horror and intrigue; its characters and story are just as well-crafted. The world of Karnaca may be merciless and dark but, amongst the flies and rot and filth, it is a city that never ceases to amaze.
A masterwork in game design and intricacy
The clichéd twists of its predecessor are nowhere to be found in this detailed romp through terror and complexity.