Dishonored 2 (2016)

I enjoyed the first “Dishonoured” game very much, and found the premise of the sequel intriguing and a logical progression from the first game, so I had high hopes for “Dishonoured 2”. Unfortunately, where I found the first game a lean, skillfully-made stealth romp in a creative gameworld, I found this second game a clunky, at-times incoherent follow-up. There’s no doubt that many aspects of the game are of extremely high quality – the visual direction, the artstyle, many of the gameplay mechanics themselves – but the writing, voice direction, and structure of the game are at times flat-out awful.

[Note: This review does not contain any spoilers.]

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As a sequel, the game inherited a lot of the best aspects of the first game, such as the interesting gameworld, artstyle, aesthetic, and so on. I have no complaints about the visuals of the game. The art direction is outstanding, both in the returning location of the first game (the whalepunk London-styled industrial city of Dunwall), and the game’s primary city of Karnaca, which game director Harvey Smith (also a lead designer on “Deus Ex”, the 2000 genre-defining masterwork) describes as “if Dunwall was modelled after Scotland and England, Karnaca might be modelled after Greece, Spain, or Italy….It’s like southern Europe. There are warmer beaches there and people go to sun and recover their health….Our world is not exactly the real world but it’s kind of like our world in the 1850s”.

The game has a unique aesthetic more akin to paintings than photorealism, and the actual visual design of Karnaca is amazingly detailed and high-quality. I can’t praise the art direction of the game enough. It’s fantastic. Along with the enjoyable music, the aesthetics of the game are to an extent worth ignoring the clunkier and poorer elements of the game for. They are that good.

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While the music is quite good (I particularly liked the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” that was used heavily in the marketing, yet sadly did not appear anywhere in-game, not even the credits), and reinforces the atmosphere of the gameworld very well, not all the audiowork is up to such a high standard. The voice direction is really odd. At times, it feels like there’s a bizarre disconnect between the actual lines of the dialogue with the performance. The voice cast is not bad, on the contrary, it’s full of both talented industry veterans like Stephen Russel, and skilled screen actors like Vincent D’Onofrio, Rosario Dawson, Sam Rockwell, Pedro Pascal, Jamie Hector, and Robin Lord Taylor. But it feels like somewhere along the line, wires were crossed, because lines are often delivered in very odd ways that don’t mesh well with the intention of the actual dialogue. Perhaps an issue with the voice direction?

At any rate, Stephen Russell stands out as the best overall performance, bringing life to the previously voiceless Corvo in a most enjoyable way. No other actors, save Erica Luttrell as Emily Kaldwin (who does fine, but never rises to the occasion in a particularly engaging way) and Robin Lord Taylor as the Outsider (who does quite good work, but never really has solid enough material to make great work out of) have enough material to build up memorable performances. I commend that the team at Arkane Studios revised their policy of a voiceless protagonist from the first game, and gave us not one but two voiced protagonists with this game; it really did help with forming attachments to the characters.

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The story itself is the biggest issue with the game. I criticised the first game for having little story, and for what little it story it had being very conventional and derivative. While the worldbuilding of the game series is certainly engaging and interesting, the actual narrative of the first game was rather dull. This was rectified somewhat with the DLCs of the first game, which were told by the perspective of the antagonistic Daud, voiced the protagonist (by Michael Madsen, no less), and had more interesting and less typical stories. Rather than follow up on such improvements, “Dishonored 2” maddeningly presents barely any story at all, and what few story beats there are, are very poorly-explained and come with barely any context. The opening hour or so of the game truly astounded me with how bizarre, clunky, and poorly told it was. It didn’t just stretch credulity, it was legitimately that I felt disassociated with the game itself and couldn’t stop thinking about how the writing team of the game decided that that was what they wanted to go with.

The villain of the game, in particular, is such an utter mess that it truly drags the game down significantly. I played the first game multiple times. I played through all the DLCs. I read all the supplementary material, the novels and such, for this game. I played this game two times, from the perspective of each protagonist, and got significantly different endings each time. I searched extensively for in-game notes, documents, and other such documentation, to try and better understand the story and gameworld. I made every effort to engage with the game’s writing in good faith. And nowhere was I more disappointed, than with the antagonist, who’s such an utter mess that it brings down the entire game. Not only is the antagonist so poorly established in the game’s opening scenes, not only is nearly all the relevant information about the antagonist tucked away in hard-to-reach collectible documents, not only is the final boss battle with the antagonist enormously derivative of one of the first game’s DLCs, nearly all development of the character is relegated to the final two missions.

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So for the vast majority of the game, both the player and the protagonists are operating on next to no information about the person they’re spending the whole game working against. It’s a terrible way to motivate both the protagonist and the player. What truly frustrates me is that the premise of the game is actually good, and the two protagonists are both well-established characters, both in interesting positions at the start of the game. The game had plenty of potential to tell a good story. Even the character they chose as antagonist has some interesting parallels to both player characters; the writers could have done some interesting thematic work with that, but it’s mostly ignored in favour of banality.

While I have plenty of complaints with the writing, I do agree with the game’s writers in that the game really does need to be played twice to be properly appreciated. The two broad different playstyles (high chaos, with plenty of violence and direct confrontation, and low chaos, with much more stealth and indirect problem-solving) offer a very different experience, along with different endings, and the two different protagonists both have such different motivations and personalities that the missions – while nearly completely the same – feel recontextualised in such a manner that makes them feel quite different. Playing as Emily in a low-chaos style felt the more logical and organic route to take for me personally, but I had more fun with playing Corvo in a high-chaos style. I found the game really rather short (around eight hours for a playthrough), so I really do recommend playing the game twice.

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A more personal complaint I had with the game I think comes more from my personal tastes than the actual quality of the work done by Arkane on the game, but I find myself growing tired of the style of placing so much story material in collectible documents one must search extensively to find, rather than presenting them outright in dialogues. A game such as “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided” from this year had a good balance, with some very interesting writing confined to such collectible documents strewn around the gameworld, but the majority of important writing contained in cutscenes and dialogues. It’s been some time since I played the original “Deus Ex”, which was directed by the same man who directed both “Dishonored” games, the very talented Harvey Smith, but I don’t recall being as frustrated with its division of writing – perhaps it was the same as this game, and I’ve just grown to dislike the style over time, or perhaps it had a more even balance. There’s so much I love about this style of stealth game, but I find myself growing more and more weary of feeling obligated to search extensively and retrace my steps in the gameworld to scan and try and find documents, when I’d rather be exploring for its own sake, engaging in direct story material, utilising stealth or combat mechanics, and so on.

Am I out of touch, and relegating the vast amount of story material to documents strewn all over a map is actually wise game development? I’m not sure, but it was a concern of mine as I played the game. I don’t want games to be more like movies, my favourite games are all games that used the medium itself to tell stories in ways that couldn’t be replicated so well in film, but I find the tendency of relegating such a vast majority of story material to easy-to-miss collectibles more frustrating than I used to. I’m all for environmental storytelling (like the placement of skeletons indicating how a family was killed, and things like that), but it’s the relegating of storytelling specifically to actual hard-to-find textual documents that frustrates me. Environmental storytelling is creative usage of the video game medium, as offering players the ability to explore lets them organically come across and interpret stories told entirely through the positioning of in-game elements. In-game documents are just literature, the same way cutscenes are derivative of film.

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As for the actual design of the levels – by and large, they’re very well-done. The “clockwork mansion” and “timepiece” levels were truly inspired. While I found some of their mechanics grating in practise, they were very creative and innovative ideas, one of the few ways the game iterated meaningfully from its predecessor. I like that most levels had some sort of gimmick to distinguish themselves, and the game certainly gives the player enough mechanics to play around with, and experiment in fun ways. The game is at its absolute best when you’re having fun experimenting with your powers in a creatively-designed level with brilliantly-designed visuals. While the environments themselves are designed very well, I found the compulsion to track down all the rune and bonecharm collectibles in a level eventually hampered my enjoyment, as I spent so much time backtracking and getting frustrated while trying to find ways to access hard-to-reach areas, instead of admiring the great amount of detail and effort put into designing the visuals of the environments, and their interconnectivity. Perhaps I’m just unskilled in navigating such gameworlds, but I doubt I’m alone in getting frustrated by the amount of backtracking in some levels. Still, there’s no denying the game excels in its establishing senses of place.

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Overall, while there’s much to love in the game, I found it a disappointment. It does not iterate on the first game in any meaningful, substantial, or noticeable way. In many ways, it’s just the first game with slightly nicer visuals, slightly more-developed gameplay mechanics, and much worse writing. I would not call it a bad game by any means, but it’s not the rousing success I hoped a sequel to such a good game would be. I give it three bloodflies, and a corrupted bonecharm.

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