Note: There are unmarked spoilers for both Dishonored and Dishonored 2 in here.
When Dishonored first came out in 2012, it was a revelation for me. Late 2012/early 2013 I was super jaded with gaming. I hadn't kept up at all with gaming news and I hadn't played a game for quite a long time. At that point I'm pretty sure the last game I had enjoyed was Arkham City, a game I got at launch and beat pretty soon afterwards. I played a couple other games, almost all of which I was so bored and jaded with that I never played more than one hour. TBH, i wasn't excited by gaming anymore and was pretty much done with it. One weekend, though, I was bored and there was a thread about Dishonored on Reddit. I was like, screw it, I have nothing better to do, might as well play this game.
When I had sunk into it, it really grabbed me. It was the first game where I felt like I had an emotional connection to the characters, and after the first time through I ended up with the medium chaos ending, it really broke my heart. I immediately restarted the game and played through the entire thing again to get the low chaos ending, and to this day I still view it as a defining moment as someone who plays video games.
Fast forward to 2015, and I became incredibly psyched at a new Dishonored. A year later, it came out and I played it at launch on a brand new PS4, and, well... I was crestfallen. It built upon some of what I loved about the first game, but completely eschewed others. Months have passed, and I think I need to finally flesh out what made me so disappointed with the game.
One of the more polarizing parts of Dishonored was the story. Some felt it was incredibly cliche and predictable, while others thought it did its part well. Personally, I felt like it worked well. Even in subsequent playthroughs (I've played the first game maybe five or six times, in total) I still feel it holds up meaningfully well. Sure, the twist can be seen miles away, and sure it doesn't push boundaries in any major way, but it works, and it works well for the game that it is. Dishonored 2, on the other hand, falls incredibly flat in this regard, and it does so in many ways but I think I'll break it up.
The main plot is as thus: Delilah somehow escapes her imprisonment from the Knife of Dunwall DLC, and comes back to steal the throne. OK, setup works, if a bit unambitious. Where it goes from there, though, feels hastened and unorganized. They played up the Crown Killer angle to make them seem like a threat to be aware of, but then immediately negate that threat with little buildup. And then you take out Jindosh, the Sokolov-equivalent of this game (we'll get to characters in a moment). And then Delilah's second-in-command, on and on until you almost unceremoniously take out Delilah herself. This roughly follows the format of the first game, but unlike that game where it felt like the good guys were slowly and methodically taking players off of the field to weaken the main enemy, everything here just feels completely removed and unnecessary, like Emily/Corvo is just going down a checklist of people to take out for vengance or whatever. Instead of the smooth waves of momentum of the first game, where each step felt justified, the momentum here feels jagged and uneven, like the game is making you do all this because that is the way things are done. On top of all of it, it lacks a late game twist along the lines of the first game, so once the climax has been reached, the game just abruptly ends, leaving you unsatisfied. It's a very poor showing altogether.
One of the more overlooked parts of Dishonored was its characters. Each character, for what little screen time they got, felt fleshed out and likable in their own way. Piero was an affable bookish type, in spite of the fact he was a little perverted (you catch him spying on one of the maids taking a bath). Emily was a perfect bit of sunshine, whose childish ignorance was charming in all of the right ways. Samuel was just the most likeable character ever, and one of the standouts of the game. They were meaningful characters that you created bonds with. In comparison, how does Dishonored 2 hold up?
- Delilah is Delilah. She plays the part of the villain alright, if a bit generic. The aura of mystery she held in the old DLC is long gone and with it part of what made the character so foreboding.
- Sokolov plays the part that Piero did last game, but not as well. Whereas Piero always felt like the Professor in Red Dead Redemption but less cartoony and more unlikeable, Sokolov just feels like an old man telling you what to do. Even playing a bad guy last game he still felt more likeable, or rather at least elicited something. Now he's just another video game NPC.
- Billie Lurk/whatever her fake name was is the ship's captain, and she is maybe the most fleshed out character out of the bunch. You do feel her loss, but on some level a lot of what makes her compelling was the fact that she was in that DLC for the first game and knowing what type of character she is.
- Jindosh is Sokolov's old role except more of an asshole. Kind of like his character but he exits the narrative as soon as he shows up.
- The Duke spends so little time in the narrative it's hard to tell if he's really a bad guy who doesn't care for the everyman or just really bad at his job and the everyman suffers as a result.
- Emily is OK. Her narrative is a bit weak as a whole and you don't get the impression that she changes much despite seeing what her empire really is at the bottom.
- Corvo sucks. His voice actor is a very poor choice and I couldn't stand listening to his exposition dumps at the beginning, much less play as him.
- The Outsider is worse than last time. Last time he felt like an apathetic demigod throwing his gift to people he thought could make massive changes and seeing the chaos that ensued, now it feels like he actually cares about Emily/Corvo's plight for some reason, and the new VA doesn't help.
There's a few more, but you get the point. While the Dishonored cast was interesting and held their own when held up to inspection, all of Dishonored 2 feels flat and video game-y in comparison. This isn't helped by clunky dialogue or bad voice acting, as some of the characters suffer from.
The one thing that was unequivocally agreed upon for Dishonored was that the gameplay had some merit to it. It managed the balance of action and chaos quite well, and each level was a richly designed, packed world. Dishonored 2 mostly delivers on this, with new abilities and unique gameplay systems, but there are the suggestions of something even more interesting that the game doesn't really play off of. Most of the levels work well, or at least as well as any one level from the last game, but the levels where they tried to experiment--The Clockwork Mansion, The Time-shifting Level, The Dust District--aren't the greatest.
The Clockwork Mansion
This level was maybe the biggest thrust of their sell for this game--it was in the first CG trailer, it was the level press were allowed to play for preview, it was a major selling point for the game. But as a stealth player, I felt that it became an exercise of tediousness. It was the first time either game constrained the player's choices. Usually, if you want to go high and avoid most of the action, you can do so. Want to go in guns blazing? That works too. Or you can avoid magic and just try to get around guards. Here, though, the main area was constrained, small, and at times irrationally difficult for stealth players. It was hard to get around the Jindosh machines when there was little room to maneuver, period. Changing rooms usually didn't make too much of a change to the environment--sure this display case got replaced, but what functional difference does that make? It was just a lot of those style of design decisions that made that level very unfun.
The Time Level
I'll be fair to this level--I don't remember what it's called and I did kind of rush through it, but the reason for that is that the whole schtick of this level is that they get rid of your powers and make you shift through time to get through the level. It sounds cool, but it got really annoying for one problem: the device you use to change time period has a tiny viewport on the left side of the screen that you're supposed to use to try to get through time. Staring at this tiny window while trying to control the character in the current environment quickly gave me a migraine, and I ended up rushing through the level.
The Dust District
Isn't actually that bad of a level, just a bit disappointing. They showed this off at E3 with the mechanic of having dust storms blocking visibility, allowing you to do more things unseen, but I felt like these storms came in too rarely to be of any use. Felt like a major misfire--the dust storms were almost always going off while I was indoors, making them functionally useless to me. And since they took so long to come around, I was never really willing to bunker down and wait for one.
Lady Boyle's Last Party (or the lack thereof)
The best level, by far, in the first game was Lady Boyle's Last Party. It was a large part RNG, was a great environment, and the first game at its best. Dishonored 2 doesn't have an equivalent, not in terms of coherent messaging, nor in terms of memorability, nor in terms of just being a visual splendor. The lack of this sort of level maybe felt like a microcosm to me of what the game really lacked.
I should point out, there are things I loved about Dishonored 2. I loved the game world just as much as in the first game, and there were some levels (like the Conservatory, and the Duke's Palace) that were absolutely wonderful and great to play. But I left that game with a bitter taste in my mouth and really have not come back to play it again as I was expecting to before release. There's a moment at the end of the game, while it's wrapping up, where it hints at Billie Lurk searching for and finding Daud, and I got really excited for a DLC starring him again. But after that moment passed, I realized--the only thing to really excite me about this game was the tease of picking up where the last game left off. Maybe Arkane will do some good work with the DLC. Maybe we won't even get DLC after the lower-than-expected sales. Nonetheless, I hope that if there is a continuation of this series in any form, that it will be able to live up to the legacy of the first game, instead of falling short like this entry did.