Over the years, I’ve found that when I fall in love with some new show or movie or game, my passion burns like Icarus, a brief all-consuming flash followed by oblivion. Every once and a while, however, I find something that sticks with me, that resonates enough to keep me coming back year after year. The first Dishonored, a game I talked about at length some years back, was just one of these slower-burning loves. I suppose it was a perfect storm of themes of images. The game was set in an apocalyptic setting yet was not about the apocalypse. It posited an uncomfortably Gnostic world where God was absent and a whimsical demiurge was making a mess of things. It was set in a city that mixed three centuries’ worth of technological and architectural influence, yet never read as a neo-Victorian stereotype. It was a brave new world, and it gave you a bunch of tools to explore it and do what you would to it. It had its down points; the voice cast could have used some better direction, and the writing could have been more responsive to player input, but these weren’t enough to deeply dampen the experience for me. All in all, Dishonored has earned a place on my mantle of favorite video games of all time.
Dishonored 2, on the other hand…
To be honest, it’s hard for me to properly criticize Dishonored 2. A number of the issues of the game were also issues with its predecessor, and there are moments when everything clicks and the game is just a wonderful experience. But even though the individual parts may shine, the mechanism as a whole creaks and groans, in spite of the smoother-than-ever gameplay.
The story of Dishonored 2 begins fifteen years to the day of the first game. Emily Kaldwin, the daughter of the assassinated empress Jessamine from the previous game and now empress of the Empire of the Isles, is overseeing the memorial ceremony alongside her father, Royal Protector (and previous protagonist) Corvo Attano. The ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of Duke Luca Abele, the ruler of Serkonos, the southernmost state of the empire, bearing a special guest for the occasion. The guest turns out to be Delilah Copperspoon, a powerful witch from the DLC story of the previous game, claiming herself to be Jessamine’s long-lost sister and the true ruler of the realm. With that, the coup proper begins.
Now, here’s a premise worthy of a sequel. In the aforementioned DLC story to the first game (spread over two episodes. The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches), Delilah was marked in her youth by the Outsider, but her gifts manifested in plant and art-based forms. She gathered a coven to share her gifts with, and made an unsuccessful attempt to seize the throne surreptitiously that the player ultimately foils. In Dishonored 2 she forgoes subtlety for a frontal assault and emerges wholly triumphant. Imagine what a setting that would make for a game! The player would have to hide out in the underground while the city around them is savaged and warped by Delilah and her witches, while the populace has to deal with the fact that the highest office in the land is occupied by someone who wields the powers of the cursed Outsider.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, the player flees on a steamer to Karnaca, the capital of Serkonos, and the bulk of the game is concerned with putting together the pieces of the conspiracy that put her on the throne while disposing of her allies one by one.
In terms of gameplay, Dishonored 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor. You have an option of playing as either Corvo or Emily (the unchosen character will essentially be frozen in carbonite by Delilah), each of whom can wield a wholly different set of powers. The game is a lot friendlier to non-lethal players, with hand-to-hand combat providing more options for knocking out an opponent, while the gadget inventory has been updated to include more gear tuned to stun or drive off enemies rather than kill them. There’s even a whole crafting section for passive boosts that lets you properly specialize your character according to your playstyle. The only real downgrade is the fact that every level has an “introductory” section of about five city blocks to trawl through. It’s a churlish complaint, like getting too much mashed potatoes on your plate, but after a while I was starting to miss the tighter levels of the first game.
Another things I missed from the first game was the sense of place. I will admit to being prejudiced against Karnaca; I like my cities to be imposing cold places filled with brick, concrete, and steel, and I sorely wish we could have stayed in Dunwall or headed north to the faux-Slavic state of Tyvia. Karnaca is very heavily Mediterranean/Caribbean in style, and that just doesn’t do it for me. However, while I came into the game predisposed to not like Karnaca, the game did little to raise its esteem for me. A lot of the time it felt like the game was copying what had been done before, but only half-heartedly. Instead of a tyrannical autocrat of a Lord Regent, we have the caudillo Duke Abele (wonderfully voiced by Vincent D’Onofrio) who treats his citizens like slaves and gives rambling rum-fueled public addresses about his insecurities. Instead of a rat plague, there are buildings infested with a type of super-wasp called “bloodflies” whose existence is not seen as out of the ordinary by the populace. Whale oil, the miraculous fuel from the first game, is being phased out by wind power and no one gives it a second thought. A lot of collectible art and documents are also straight-up reused from the first game. It also doesn’t help that there are surprisingly few people to talk to Dishonored 2. Your base of operations in Karnaca is the steamship Dreadful Wale, but at most you’ll only ever have three people to talk to onboard, two of whom you already met in the first game. By contrast, the first game had the Hound Pits Pubs, which had about a half-dozen people to talk to and a place to upgrade your gear and resupply. Rather than building a feeling of camaraderie and familiarity, the Dreadful Wale comes off as a lonely place, while Karnaca just becomes something to trawl through on the way to the next mission.
As for the missions themselves, well, the ones not set in random city districts are great fun. You start to see some of the characterization of the old Dishonored come creeping back. You’ll be skulking around a decrepit hospital, trying to track down a woman with a condition right out of Robert Louis Stevenson. From there, you’ll go to playing with the adjustable rooms in a sociopathic inventor’s manor while dodging his automaton sentries. Even later, you’ll be shifting back and forth through time in a Void-damaged manor in order to discover a key secret of Delilah’s conspiracy. These are the times when the game came alive for me, when I started to really enjoy myself. I had a place to care about, people to care about, and the proper tools to explore the space. It’s something of a weakness of the Dishonored series, I suppose. The individual building blocks of each level are great spaces for gameplay, but the writing falls short when assembling the pieces into a greater whole. It mattered less for the first Dishonored, which could fall on the novelty of its setting to drive the player, but in the sequel, which seems less assured about itself, the result can’t help but be slightly disappointing.
I suppose the reason I care so much about this to blather about it to the Internet is because I feel like the setting of Dishonored is one with great potential, that there is just enough established about its world that it can experiment wildly. One of my own silly little ideas for a sequel was for a game to be centered around an expedition to Pandyssia, the great unexplored supercontinent of Dishonored‘s world. The game would be set aboard the expedition fleet (imagine Christopher Columbus with a carrier battle group), and you, a young geologist on the biggest expedition of her career, would be Marked by the Outsider and wind up having to decide if the expedition succeeds or fails. That’s just a throwaway idea, but it’s the sort of radically different thing that could be done with Dishonored‘s setting. As a result, it’s even more of a pity when all Dishonored 2 offers is more of the same, even if it is a very good same.
Before I sign off, I want to toss off two links. The first is to a tumblr post by ladysmaragdina that gets deeper into the plot issues of Dishonored 2, while suggesting possible improvements. The second is to my favorite moment in the game. It’s in the final level of the game, when you’ve returned to a ravaged smog-blanketed Dunwall. A nearby loudspeak revs up, but instead of a city official announcing some decree, it’s just…this, a lone witch singing an incantation to a dead city. It’s haunting, and it makes me dearly wish we could have stayed in Dunwall in this game.