I must admit to being slightly underwhelmed by the first instalment of the dishonored franchise. The City of Dunwall, Grandiose and gritty as it is, hardly did much for ones aesthetic sensibilities, much less the steampunk technology that resembled the deliberately unappealing design style utilised by the villainous Combine in Half-Life 2 (The two games share a concept artist).
That wasn’t to say I disliked it, I enjoyed it very much, the original setting especially. Set in the Empire of the Isles, consisting of four island nations based on the Anglosphere, Ireland, South America and Eastern Europe, the game had great scope to show us more of the exotic locales the background writers had dreamed up, but due to the focus on Dunwall, and the games general tone of dreariness I found it to be a tad depressing to play through, as entertaining as the many uses I found for both my supernatural powers and tolls were.
For this second instalment, which takes place 15 years after the first game, I’m glad to say the aesthetics have certainly been improved on. Most of the game takes place in the Caribbean inspired city of Karnaca, And the sunny tones made the city feel much more welcoming. As I explored the districts and burglarised flats and offices I found myself wondering how the average Karnacan lived (Something I never did in the first game as the answer was inevitably “in unimaginable misery”). Whilst the game is bookended by two Dunwall segments, the still grey city seems far more liveable under Emily’s rule, with a newspaper office and a rather pleasant Gastro pub this time around. The game as a whole is slightly more light hearted as well, although it does manage to maintain the darker tone of its predecessor when appropriate. While the plot of the two games seem remarkably similar, the sequel takes a few more turns and explores themes that the first game did not.
Sunny Kernonos: Home of the Bloodfly
15 years after the events of Dishonored, the protagonist Corvo Attano (Royal Protector, a role akin to head bodyguard) and his illegitimate Daughter and Empress Emily Kaldwin are in a bit of a rut as of late. Someone is killing people critical of the crown in very brutal ways, casting suspicion on Emily and her Father and compounding already existing doubts about Emily’s inexperienced rulership. The player is thrust (perhaps briefly depending on whether they later choose to play as Corvo) into the body of the Empress as she opens a court ceremony in memory of her mother and Corvo’s elicit lover Jessamine Kaldwin (assassinated in the first game) when a footman announces a visit by the corpulent, kleptocratic Duke Luca Abele, Autocratic Grand Duke of Serkonos. The Duke comes bearing gifts, first, a detachment of mechanical soldiers dreamed up by his court inventor, the second is the supposed long lost sister of Jessamine, Delilah, who the Duke claims to be the rightful Empress. The guests attack, with both mechanical men and supernatural powers, and soon either the father or daughter must flee the capital of Dunwall, whilst the character the player did not select will be turned into stone.
It is a set up that seems quite similar to the last game, although Delilah’s character is examined much more closely than that of Hiram Burrow, the traitorous Lord Regent and antagonist in the first game. You are told by both her and the “outsider” That she was the illegitimate daughter of a chambermaid and the Emperor, giving her more than enough motivation to want to take the throne (though not excuse her later behaviour). This is a large and recurring theme in the game, where power and powerlessness are intertwined and interact with each other in the world at large. Will a person acquainted with cruelty naturally become a cruel leader like Delilah? Will a man raised into the lap of luxury inevitably become a developmentally stunted manchild like Luca Abele? Throughout the game whichever character you chose will comment on their own ineffectiveness, failing to do anything about the Grand Duke’s excesses in Karnaca when you were perfectly able to have him dethroned at your leisure. The outsider, this universes’ Faustian God/Satan figure and the source of most of the supernatural powers present, will even directly dress you down on growing complacent enough in the palace that a monster like Abele was able to rule unmolested. The plot of the game serves as a test of the characteristics of leadership for Emily and Corvo, and the player has the choice to allow the hardships they’ll face to better them, or to make them embrace the nature of the tyrant.
The game judges you largely on the amount of people killed, much like the first did. The more corpses one lays about the streets in the pursuit of Delilah, the darker and more chaotic both the characters and environment become, with the streets becoming disease invested hell scapes should one choose to be too liberal with the blade. Conversely, should one abstain from killing, the character will grow wiser and the world will improve. Thankfully the game improves on the system of the second, meaning now a non-lethal playthrough will not severely limit that abilities which players are able to use. It was exceedingly frustrating to have been gifted awesome powers and be limited to sneaking up on the hapless guards to choke them out, or expend a very limited amount of sleep darts. Now one has the option to throw an assailant of balance before quietly choking them should an open fight take place, making it far less frustrating to be detected in a non-lethal play of the game.
Of course one of the selling points of the original Dishonored was the option to extend this “mercy” to the game’s major targets as well, giving the option to instead subject them to equally as cruel, yet less lethal fates. The game carries on this feature with a nice array of ironic methods to dispose of the major antagonists, usually tied to the attribute that enemy most values. The Grand inventor and genius has his brain electronically erased, The corrupt and power hungry Luca Abele can be consigned to a mental hospital and replaced with his more empathetic body double. This gives the player a satisfying way to deal with the colourful cast of conspirators and villains they are faced with without ever forcing them to lay a blade into a single person.
The game decides to split from its predecessor in a different way by designing most levels with a unique theme or gimmick, Usually in a way that fits the target or targets you are up against in that particular mission. For instance a level featuring a war between socialist gangster Paolo and Liam Byrne, head of the local religious police allows the player to take advantage of the conflict between both factions, whereas the infiltration of the mansion of the Grand Inventor Kirin Jindosh features rooms that shift from one form to another mechanically. The connection between person and place is a constant theme throughout the game, especially with regards to the powerful. We are given many hints that the problems in Karnaca all stem from the selfish rule of Grand Duke Abele. The recent outbreak of flesh eating flies is due to him cutting the exterminator squad budget. Graffiti adorns the walls of the city, complaining about the excessive taxes. Conversely, if the player takes the opportunity to save the sanity of ethical capitalist Aramis Stilton during a mission featuring an interesting time warp element, his tireless campaigning and connection to the Abele family assures that the Batista mining district (Aptly named after Cuba’s Pre-revolutionary dictator and clearly an influence for the Grand Duke’s character) improves radically. Much like the Fisher King of Arthurian mythology, People in Authority are reflected in the character of the areas they rule over.
Luca Abele: Bon vivant, patron of the arts, promoter of green energy
The game has a vast variety of tools and powers to use, allowing for a remarkably loose approach in the way one plays the game. In my first playthrough, I only fired a pistol at a door I needed to splinter open or a window I needed to smash, and only used my sword in anger when faced with mechanical enemies. The supernatural powers too can be used in a myriad of different ways. Emily’s power to mesmerise guards could be utilised to quietly sneak past a group of Abele’s soldiers, or to line them up while you slit their throats one by one. Corvo’s ability to summon a swarm of rats can be used to devour a room full of soldiers and civilians alike, or they can be led into electrified “Wall of Light” Barriers to run down the power supply (Not as useful in this instalment as in the predecessor, as for all his faults Abele has managed to convert his nation to wind power rather than Whale Oil).
The open level design also gives plenty of options when deciding how one should tackle a mission. Many of the stages, particularly the street-level warm ups before each assassination, are designed like actual streets, allowing the player to duck into apartment blocks and shops in an effort to avoid trouble, or simply slaughter their way across the cobble stones. Like the first game, it invites attempts to experiment with the way things work: Could I cross that street by hitchhiking on a passing train? What happens if I break into that condemned apartment? By giving the player an environment and tools to exploit it, it allows a remarkable amount of freedom. With a little creative thinking, I found a sequence that took me an hour or so on the first try could be completed within ten minutes once I worked how the security systems worked. I consistently found that almost every encounter in the game could be tailored to any outcome I wanted with the right use of powers and tools, whether non-lethally or otherwise. It also adds to the general likeability or otherwise of the player character without outright scolding or praising the player. Whether I decided to be as merciful or violent as possible, I knew ultimately I had no one but myself to blame if the streets of Karnaca ran red with the blood of watchmen and worker.
Art plays an important role in both Dishonored games, fitting for a franchise that was praised for looking like a moving painting when first revealed. The player can collect paintings of and by major characters for a monetary reward, and many of these paintings help to further characterise some of the major players. Anton Sokolov, the natural Philosopher credited with bringing the Industrial revolution to the Empire, paints in a very Victorian and realistic fashion, demonstrating his Orthodoxy and rigidness, While the paintings of Delilah are colourful, chaotic, impressionistic and radical, speaking to her violent emotions and disdain for the established order. Even Duke Abele is a hobbyist painter, and his childlike self-portrait allows us to realise quite how stunted the character is. The aspect of the artist as a perfectionist is also vital to the character of Delilah, Whose ultimate plan is to literally paint the world she wants, one in which she is recognised as the legitimate Empress and all the historical wrongs against her are righted.
Inventor Kirin Dinjosh by Delilah: Note the busy hands of the craftsman
Dishonored 2 is ultimately a game about responsibility within authority, and by placing both power and choice in the hands of the player it also places upon them culpability in the prosperity of the world. At the end of the game, the Outsider narrates the consequences of the choices the player has made throughout, which can range from Anarchy in Serkonos and Tyranny in Dunwall or just governance in both nations, depending on the clemency the player showed to the denizens of Karnaca and the fate of certain key characters. The player’s journey is more tailored, I thought, to playing as Emily, the sheltered young Empress learning first-hand how her policies affect the subjects of her Empire, although playing as Corvo changes the tone significantly, now being a story of an old man how quite possibly had too much bad luck thrown his way by the Empire of the isles. I enjoyed my stay on Karnaca, and I’m sure there are things I have yet to see should I decide to play the game again.