Dishonored 2 feels reassuringly familiar. The action may have shifted from plague-ridden, Dickensian squalor to sun-baked, equatorial squalor, but the constituent parts remain: it looks the same, it plays the same, it almost smells the same.
Thank goodness, because Dishonored is at the very apex of video-game design, dense and textured, beautiful despite the muck and despair that seeps into every pixel.
The art direction is so good, in fact, that it overshadows everything else – no character comes close to competing with the darkly cartoonish environment in which they reside. Even a voice cast including Rosario Dawson and Sam Rockwell struggle to make the denizens of Dunwall shine in comparison to the rotting whale carcasses and skeletal clockwork soldiers of this dystopian land.
You can choose to play as either Corvo, the lead character from the first game, with his familiar time-bending skill-set, or his daughter Emily, who commands a new roster of mystical powers. Pick carefully: the decision is final.
Corvo lends himself to those who favour complete evasion, able to pause time or possess nearby wildlife to sneak around undetected. Emily, on the other hand, is more geared towards clearing a path for herself, with the power to entrance enemies or distract them with a doppelgänger.
The level design is more intricate than ever, with two missions in particular featuring spatial and time-bending puzzles that recall dungeons from the Zelda games. More conventional but equally impressive are the Shutter Island-esque medical facility and a Harry Potter-inspired witch’s college, both rich in incidental detail that you could spend hours poring over, from telling personal letters to the remains of dinner. Even after thoroughly exploring during my first play-through, I still uncovered dozens of new areas the second time round.
The gameplay, meanwhile, remains brilliantly open-ended: there are at least half a dozen distinct ways to overcome any given scenario – will you drop on a guard from above and smash his head open, possess a passing rat and scuttle by undetected, or just blow everything up with grenades?
The literature claims all play-styles are equally valid, but this feels disingenuous – the stealthy, non-lethal method always feels “right”. It’s more meticulous, more rewarding. You get a little green tick at the end of each level. You get the “good” ending.
Another issue carried over from the first instalment – in fact exacerbated by the inclusion of a “quick-save” and “quick-load” function – is that Dishonored appeals to the very worst part of me as a gamer: the chronic perfectionist. In an ideal world I would breeze through levels, chaining together powers and looking incredibly competent. But your character is forever on the cusp of being spotted by eagle-eyed guards, and there’s a constant, nagging temptation to play the scenario over and over again until you get it just right, by which time you’re not sure if the inevitable victory is down to skill or the law of averages.
But when things work out as planned, there are few games as satisfying, with your path feeling unmistakably your own. With the game virtually demanding a second play-through, chances are you’ll be spending a lot of time in the company of Emily and Corvo; Dishonored 2 has the depth to make almost every one of them a pleasure.
First published in City A.M.