Having recently played both Dishonored games in succession, I have had the opportunity to compose my thoughts about the series; initially I was eager to discount it as not for me simply because stealth games are not my favourite type and the nonspecific steampunk-pseudo-British aesthetic of the first game, all whalers, fog and clunky technology, seemed overplayed and uninteresting. However, I came to quite enjoy the games as I played through them and even ended up playing the second in a mostly non-lethal fashion, with attempts at a much higher level of stealth and creativity than the first game (which ended up as a kind of farce as a masked assassin roamed the streets lobbing grenades and land-mines and shooting pistols at anything that moved).
Note: This review discusses a number of plot points from both Dishonored and Dishonored 2 and assumes some familiarity with the games’ stories.
A recurring criticism – and indeed one I shared for some time – was that the game created an annoying tension between resource availablity and preferred play style; if one used nonlethal weaponry, one still found piles of useless bullets and explosives while not finding appreciably more tranquilisers (or in the second game stun rounds). Similarly the power set in the first game was distinctly lethally-focused outside of traversal powers; the player could summon carnivorous rats, push foes off ledges and so on. Being evil seemed to be where all the interesting mechanics and items were, while trying to remain spotless limited the gameplay almost exclusively to avoidance (for even subverting security methods would be frequently lethal). As a result, it seemed natural to want to play the route of the moustache-twirling sword-fighting, grenade-tossing vigilante, and the player’s reward for this mechanically easy route was rats everywhere and an ending where nobody liked them and the new monarch was a sociopathic brat.
The second game improved upon this immediately; the new playable character, Emily, had a much more interesting and diverse set of powers that had obvious applications for both nefarious and stealthy ends. Dishonored had nothing as interesting as the Doppelganger or Domino powers – the former summoning a decoy that could distract or tie up enemies, while the latter meant whatever happened to one foe was passed on to others (be it nonlethal subdual or a fiery death). Suddenly playing nonlethally still allowed the player to use a good selection of abilities, there were more gadgets and items to go alongside the various weapons, and generally the game offered a lot more ably what the first had tried to do. It still had some of the issues of the first in terms of item allocation – either by mistake or by omission I failed to find any upgrades allowing me more non-lethal ammunition types all game – but the experience was consistently more interesting and mechanically diverse.
What also helped was the much more interesting setting; Dishonored was restricted to the grey and oppressive city of Dunwall, with a slight diversion into a toxic flooded slum and a set of plague graves at the game’s climax. It suited the oppressive steampunk dystopia, for sure, but it was – in my opinion – very staid. Traditional London-style pubs, the usual “corrupt city” locales of a brothel, an aristocrat’s party, offices and so on were overly familiar and unambitious. Outside of perhaps two missions – the very impressive Boyle party and the opening mission involving visiting a high-ranking figure in the Inquisition-like Overseers – there was something aesthetically and narratively lacking. The story of both games is a revenge plot – in the first, the hero is wrongfully accused of murdering the Empress and must clear his name, stop a coup and install the rightful heir. In the second, a usurper arrives, seizes control with powerful magic and robots, and must be stopped by the one they usurped.
If anything the less elaborate second game works a lot better. The grand story about conspiracies, engineered plagues to suppress the poor and so on always felt as I played secondary to the little vignettes witnessed on the way through – the side-missions involving a vindictive supernatural pensioner who turned out to be more evil than you initially expected were particularly good. By contrast the revelation of exactly who the villainous Delilah is in Dishonored 2 worked far better – this is not the nobility enacting some grand scheme of urban cleansing in a bit of social commentary that did not quite work for me, it is a woman who was slighted once too often for her lack of rank and illegitimate birth and who came back with a very personal vendetta and who even in the final mission is so petty as to deface graves with insults. If anything the two stories justified my gameplay decisions – a gang of crooked, murderous toffs and chancers needed a violent revolution to be cleared out, while a mad witch whose descent into villainy was triggered by a childhood spat that got out of hand seemed more deserving of poetic justic, alongside her cronies.
By extension, the nonlethal options in Dishonored 2 were among the more interesting in the sorts of games that offer them; a few times I found myself wondering if simply death was the kinder fate for Delilah’s henchmen, especially in the storyline involving the engineer Jindosh. Much as the Boyle party was the big-ticket mission in the first game, Jindosh’s moving mansion was the piece de resistance of Dishonored 2; it was a level of unusual routes, the opportunity to do some seriously interesting things with navigation and the introduction of the clockwork soldiers, a challenging new enemy significantly more interesting to deal with than Dishonored‘s Tallboy power armours. If one took the non-lethal route – after previous missions’ peaceful resolutions curing a woman drugged to commit crimes unknowingly – a genius inventor was left with severe brain damage, unable to remember any of his work and barely able to function. It was necessary, because his role in the plot was providing an unstoppable mechanical army to the usurper, but when later in the campaign I encountered a recording of him, clearly insensible and childlike, it was a little poignant.
More generally Dishonored 2 had a significantly more interesting aesthetic, a kind of Mediterranean city of wind power, dust storms and visually fascinating architecture. Something I find much steampunk fails to do is explore in non-caricaturish ways other cultures’ accelerated industrialisation. Britain and the British Empire are easy fallbacks. Thus visiting a much more culturally diverse city, with its own architecture and visuals that communicated rapid industrial progress but also a foreignness compared to Dunwall, was refreshing. Instead of rats, mosquitos were the prevailing wildlife hazard. There were cable-cars and French Foreign Legion style uniforms for the soldiers and wind turbines and the big palace infiltration mission was a kind of Art Deco / Art Nouveau edifice rather than a crumbling Gothic pile. More generally the variety of locales – a natural history museum, winding shopping arcades, an island sanitarium, and so on – offered significantly more visual and environmental variety. It made returning to the grey city you had left for the final showdown come the game’s end feel climactic; you visited familiar Dishonored locations after having seen the alternative.
Both games, mechanically, were fun. The fact that outside of the new items, upgrades and character the only real changes were small quality-of-life and interface ones shows that the formula worked. But while the first was – as I had initially completely dismissed it as – a fairly ordinary steampunk dystopia in familiar streets and familiar pubs, the sequel was colourful, diverse and uncommon which made it really stand out.