On paper, Dishonored 2 is a marked improvement on almost everything the original game brought to the table. The stages are bigger, character interactions are numerous, and there’s dozens of ways to approach any given situation. And yet, despite there being so much more to the game, Dishonored has lost something along the way. In the first game, even as murky as things got in the plague-ridden streets of Dunwall, there was a palpable sense of the developers wanting to deliver a sense of freedom and power to the player. In Dishonored 2, that sense of power is ever so slightly muted.
In the 15 years since the events of the first game, Emily Kaldwin has shown neither the desire nor the aptitude for rulership of Dunwall; the industrial whaling city and capital of Gristol maintains the status quo but doesn’t appear to prosper. When the duke of neighboring island nation Serkonos arrives in Dunwall, he brings with him the sorceress Delilah Copperspoon, who was introduced in the first Dishonored’s two DLC packs and has returned from the dead with the shocker that she and Emily’s mother were sisters, making Delilah the rightful heir to the Dunwall throne. Delilah then stages a swift coup, taking the throne by force, both technological and magical, and the people, without a moment’s hesitation, fall into line.
Depending on player choice, either Emily or Corvo can escape to Serkonos with the help of bitter, disfigured boat captain Meagan Foster to plot how to take the throne back, but it’s with Emily as the protagonist that the question of a leader’s responsibility to use her power to the benefit of the people truly hits home. As Emily is forced to walk the streets of Serkonos in disguise, the populace’s resentment is thick and virulent. Emily’s rule hasn’t brought prosperity or mirth, and even with Delilah being a scarier proposition, she at least represents the kind of vulgar displays of power that get things done.
Much of the ancillary story in Dishonored 2 and many of the player’s decisions on how to deal with a mission’s VIP target can be informed by how best to earn the people’s trust in Emily’s leadership. The neglect of her time in office is palpable throughout the world of the game, and it’s impressive just how many little details shift and how conversations differ as Emily takes action. Playing as Corvo, by comparison, is a more passive experience, shaped as it is by his unnecessary guilt more than anything else.
Dishonored was no cakewalk, but it was designed to give one a feeling of mastery over a given environment. The game subtly guided players upward to stalk prey from above, giving you ample opportunity to trick foes into their own demise. It also encouraged exploration, and though the game was somewhat linear, it offered you the freedom to find your way through the world. These elements are still in place in Dishonored 2, and they certainly benefit from increased ambition; the level design for some stages introduces a few twists that are brilliantly mind-bending. However, all of this is paired with relentlessly aggressive enemies who are far more curious and alert than before; runes and bonecharms (used to enhance Emily and Corvo’s abilities) that are trickier to obtain; and more cramped environments that are much harder to reach, especially for Emily, whose riff on Corvo’s Blink power isn’t nearly as versatile as his ability to teleport players from point to point.
The game makes up for its newfound trickiness with a few of Emily and Corvo’s new powers. Emily’s Shadow Walk marvelously turns her into a skulking, tenebrous demon that can quickly scuttle past guards, sweep enemies off their feet, and drag them off into the shadows from afar, and her Domino ability is probably the most fun that can be had in the game, allowing you to mark multiple enemies and have whatever she does to one affect the others. Even then, the game balances that out by introducing a new enemy, the Clockwork Soldier, which can’t be backstabbed or put to sleep, and can see both in front and behind, making assassination impossible except from above. Encounters are now slower, deliberate affairs where one can expect constant failure. Corvo’s moveset hasn’t changed much, making many levels a bit easier; as such, he represents the narratively boring side of this game, as he’s too often behind the eight ball in most situations. There’s no moment where the two characters aren’t clearly meant to cut loose with their extensive powers. In Dishonored, Corvo was a predator. In Dishonored 2, he and Emily are constantly and frustratingly outgunned prey.
If anything, the shift away from the player’s powers being the main event of Dishonored does mean spending a lot more time observing the world, figuring out exactly what change you should be the agent of, and how to accomplish this without sending a flood of enemy soldiers your way. Figuring out how people operate in the world of Dishonored 2 is more effective than figuring out which direction to stick a blade in them, and the world is rife with alternatives to just about every problem. It just means far more time planning and not doing. In Dishonored 2, great power comes with great responsibility, and the simple fact is that responsibility isn’t always going to be fun to play.