When Dishonored first hit shelves four years ago, it was a breath of fresh air for the stealth genre. From its unique graphical style, immersing players in the steampunk metropolis of Dunwall, to the array of supernatural powers at the player’s disposal, Arkane’s new IP made quite the impression in the industry. Fast forward to today, and the studio has at last released the long-awaited sequel; Dishonored 2 betters the original with improved controls and graphics, while remaining true to the world created in its predecessor. Perhaps the most striking thing about that world, and something that remains intact in this sequel, is the freedom of gameplay offered to the player. Though the series is ostensibly centered on stealth and assassination, players can complete either title lethally or non-lethally, changing the game’s world state as a result and bringing the characters to the same ending levels, but not the same conclusion. In this way, Arkane sets up the world and levels, creating a narrative therein, but leaves it up to players how to approach the narrative and experience the story.
While the first game, aside from the DLC, showcased only Royal Protector Corvo Attano’s perspective, the sequel wisely offers a choice to play as either Corvo, or his daughter, the Empress Emily Kaldwin—all grown up since players last saw her as a child in Dishonored. This first decision is an important one as, though the game’s levels remain the same, the eyes through which the player sees them are vastly different. Previously silent, Corvo now has a voice, his perspective one of jaded wisdom and nostalgia as he fails his daughter in much the same way he failed her mother, and dons his mask once more to right this wrong. Fans of the first game will get more enjoyment from playing as Corvo again as he references the past and uses similar powers as those wielded before. Emily, on the other hand, offers an entirely new perspective. The young empress’s world is turned upside down, and the stealth and combat training instilled in her by Corvo is put to the ultimate test. Her commentary is more wistful than Corvo’s—naïve even—as she is forced to leave the confines and protection of her station to reclaim her social position. While the first game took place entirely in Dunwall, the new setting of coastal Karnaca, Corvo’s hometown, means different things to both characters. It is worthwhile to play the game from both perspectives as either a bittersweet homecoming or a journey of self-discovery and eye-opening insight. Though some players may wish for a more marked narrative difference between the characters, the commentary of each and the reactions of NPCs to them is suitably varied, and the gameplay is completely different powers-wise. For the most part, however, Arkane ensures that players feel as though their choice of character matters within the narrative, even if the levels and targets for each remain the same.
In terms of gameplay, the difference between the protagonists is much more obvious than in the plot, as Corvo and Emily each have their own unique set of supernatural powers to help them on their quest to reclaim the throne. Despite this, players are not forced to use the powers, though those powers are delightfully fun and are part of what makes the series so unique. When players first meet the Outsider, the enigmatic denizen of the Void from the first game, they can refuse his offered abilities outright. The reasons for doing so may be as simple as seeking the achievement for not using any powers in a playthrough, or as nuanced as roleplaying a specific version of either character who would not want the powers for whatever reason the player chooses. This highly-personalized sense of roleplaying is at the heart of the freedom that Dishonored 2 offers. The game never directs players down a set path, but instead simply lays out the options.
That freedom extends to the most important choice of the game: non-lethal, lethal, or somewhere in between. As important as the choices of character and use (or non-use) of the Outsider’s powers are, the methods in which the player interacts with enemies and targets is the most game-changing. Player actions shape the world via the Chaos System through which Corvo’s or Emily’s morality is measured and reflected. Starting at low chaos by default, the world becomes increasingly deranged with the more NPCs the player kills; this results in more challenging levels as time goes by, as the corpse-feeding blood flies become numerous, and the enemies become unhinged and made paranoid by the river of blood following the player. Dishonored 2 can become disturbingly dark if players commit to a high-chaos playthrough, and again it falls to the individual to justify why Corvo or Emily would desire so much carnage. On the other hand, a low-chaos playthrough can be just as rewarding, and potentially more challenging, as instead of killing the targets, players must put in the footwork to find alternatives to eliminate their enemies. One could argue that some of these choices are worse than death, such as robbing an evil genius of his intelligence and reducing him to a babbling moron, or locking a traitor in the vault he so desperately wanted to gain entry to. Again, the game never directly instructs the player of a right or a wrong way to play, though there are notes to read and hints to hear that suggest which characters deserve life or death. A fan of the Hitman series, for instance, could go for a ‘Silent Assassin’ playthrough a la Agent 47, where they only kill the targets and are never spotted. It is a challenging but ultimately rewarding approach, and just one of many that players can choose to experience.
Few games can boast such a happy marriage between player choice and railroading while remaining thoroughly entertaining. Yet, with Dishonored 2, Arkane has seemingly perfected the formula, crafted beautiful, unique levels ripe with lore and opportunity, and handed the player the tools to engage with those sandboxes. Will players be a heartbroken Corvo, distraught over failing his daughter, who kills everyone standing in his way with blind rage and devastating powers? Or, will they be a patient Emily, resourceful and canny, silently disabling her foes, yet keeping them alive for the sake of a better empire? Or, will they forge their own path, taking each character and level on a case-by-case basis, enforcing their own moral code upon Arkane’s world? The choice is ultimately the player’s, which is paramount in the interactivity that games offer. When presented with such a sandbox, it is hard to be disappointed, as there is a strong story to be had no matter how the player chooses to play it out. There is a story for every appetite, and a gaming experience unlike any other to be had.