There are times when I play a game in bemusement, unsure what exactly is going on—or supposed to be going on—with the title. I go through it, level after level, and recognize the artistry and the undoubted skill that it took to create the game, and then just wonder why it is wrapped up in a distressing package.
This is what I experienced playing Bethesda’s Dishonored 2.
The whole thing starts off so well, with a terrible tale of how Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Attano have spent the years between games trying to make the country successful only to see rumors spread and, at the start of the game, the loss of the throne. From there, the player gets to choose whether they’d rather go through the game to remove the evil Empress who has taken over the land as Corvo or Emily. Then, within each mission, the player can decide their approach. That is, do they want to stay hidden or be exposed, would they rather kill bad guys or let them live.
The skills of Emily and Corvo vary somewhat, but one has to make the choice of character before ever getting a good sense of those variations. The decision simply can’t be made with anything approaching enough knowledge.
As for the killing, the game establishes a world where these villains are objectively bad people. They hurt, they maim, they destroy. Their attack at the outset is relatively unprovoked and comes largely out of a desire for power. It isn’t a righteous protest, it’s a nefarious coup d’etat.
VERY MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
This is worth pointing out because the game gives awards for going through missions silently and for not killing anyone. Playing the game in an upbeat manner leads to a more upbeat ending. Rather than feeling like a carrot, a reward for good behavior, it feels like a stick disciplining “bad” behavior. By opting to kill those who would kill the player simply for walking around town, the player gets a negative outcome before the credits roll. The player can’t dialogue with the guards or the witches or the mechanical soldiers to explain how they are just a good guy – the baddies see Corvo/Emily, they try to kill Corvo/Emily. Why does fighting back lead to a negative ending? That doesn’t seem right.
END VERY MINOR SPOILERS
The problems though are readily apparent long before one gets to the end of the game. Missions may play out in different locations with different floor plans, but the object remains relatively constant: find information or an individual and eliminate a threat. The more the player goes around and picks up everything they can, the more information/options they get in their pursuit of their goals. Usually what starts off as an end goal of killing someone ends up with a choice between killing and finding another way. In the first true mission (following the escape from the evil Empress Delilah), the change of goals midway through the mission is interesting, by the end of the game it feels very much been there-done that.
While the goals may always be similar, eventually the game does get bored by its own rules in regards to your character’s abilities and will toss you into a level (or part of one) where Dishonored 2 decides to just change the rules on how things work by allowing you to go backwards and forwards in time. Rather than feeling like a cool new ability, one much more gets the sense that in this moment the game is just bored with itself.
Even leveling up is kind of dull, whether it’s done by wearing bone charms which grant powers, using runes to gain new powers, or blueprints to upgrade weapons (all of these items can be found in every level). While some abilities are obviously different (the ability to create runes and charms or take over the body of an animal), too many offer too little impact. Are hits with the crossbow slightly stronger wearing the right bone charm? Sure, maybe. Is it nice that you can have folks fall asleep with a dart instantly instead of staggering about for five seconds? I guess. Does being able to carry a body with a little more speed matter. Moderately, potentially, depending on how you play the game (and that moderately drops down to not at all if you play differently or have different abilities selected).
Setting all that aside, what Dishonored 2 does do well is, at least right up until the ending, all the player to revel in their style of play. Want to be a silent killer? Be a silent killer! Want to be a loud killer? Go for it! Want to kill no one, get spotted regularly, and run away a lot? That’s a choice! Want to neither get spotted nor kill anyone? I don’t care what one gets for that trophy-wise, it’s really boring (and I’d argue wrong on a moral level), but go for it!
This ability to play as one sees fit, and the obvious artistry and commitment that went into creating the title is what kept me going through the slow, dull, slog that I found to be Dishonored 2. The notion that things are different depending on how you play is great, and getting feedback at the end of a level about what choices you made in comparison to what you could have done is interesting, but it is never deep enough or compelling enough or varied enough for it to matter.
If killing those who try to kill you is right in the first mission, it’s still right in the third mission and the seventh one. There is nothing to change one’s worldview from mission to mission and therefore nothing to change the way one plays, so Dishonored 2 harping on it grows old, fast.
This is what is supposed to set the title apart, and while it makes the game different, it doesn’t make it good.
Dishonored 2 is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: Xbox One and Windows PC.