Dishonored revolutionized stealth when it released back in 2012. No longer did playing sneaky mean having to crouch walk from point A to point B at a glacial pace, carefully making note of each and every guard's patrol route to avoid being seen.
With a crazy array of magic powers and some brilliant level design, the first Dishonored showed that the stealth genre could be so much more.
So it is in 2016 that Dishonored 2 arrives for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Developer Arkane Studios doesn't reinvent stealth from the ground up like they did the first time around. Instead, they build on the success of the original game in all the right ways, making Dishonored 2 a fantastic sequel despite some technical problems that can come off as distracting.
The major new addition in Dishonored 2 is Emily Kaldwin, the young princess players spent the first game attempting to rescue. She's all grown up now and rules the kingdom as Empress, with her father, Corvo Attano and the protagonist of the first game, at her side.
Arkane doesn't waste time throwing you into the thick of things. Within the first 5 minutes players must choose whether to play as Corvo or Emily as a deadly coup begins. No matter which character you choose, the story plays out largely the same.
The key difference is in each character's movesets. Corvo's abilities are mostly the same from the first game. He can slow time, blink to out of reach destinations and send swarms of rats to devour enemies.
Emily's toolset is in some ways similar, but with a few key abilities that can dramatically change the game. She shares various attribute upgrades with Corvo, and her Far Reach ability is essentially Corvo's Blink in all but name.
The differences come in her Domino, Doppleganger and Mesmerize powers. Each is a standout ability that lead players to approaching scenarios in all new ways, and makes Emily just as fun as, if not more so than, Corvo.
For an example of the kind of fun you can have with Emily's powers, you first have to understand what each can do.
Mesmerize dazes and confuses enemies into forgetting they ever saw you, while Domino links the fates of enemies together.
Doppleganger creates a shadow clone that can be used to lure enemies into traps or cause a distraction if you need to make a clean getaway.
Combining all these powers together in the playground that is each of Dishonored 2's intricately designed levels is where the game's brilliance shines through. By the end of my playthrough I was Mesmerizing groups of enemies, linking their fates together with Domino and then taking three guards out silently with a single sleeping dart.
I truly felt like a supernatural assassins as I moved from room to room unseen, manipulating enemies from the shadows with ease.
Of course, you don't have to play that way. What's great about Dishonored is that while it definitely rewards careful, stealthy play, you can slice and dice your way through encounters as well, if that's what you prefer.
Doing so, however, inevitably brings the game's morality system in question, a system carried over from the original game that still feels too restrictive given how much freedom Arkane Studios grants players in seemingly every other aspect of Dishonored 2.
The 'Chaos' System
Like in the first Dishonored, hacking and slashing your way through the sequel has consequences in the form of what ending players will receive once the credits roll. Did you kill every high profile target instead of finding the oftentimes creative (and far more interesting) non-lethal options? Did you cut your way through most guards rather than rendering them unconscious? Then you'll find you have the High Chaos (see: Bad) ending.
The "Chaos" system still feels out of place. Dishonored is all about choice. Players can play like an unseen shadow, a supernatural cutthroat or anything in between. But the game seems to want you to only play one way or the other.
If you want the good ending, you can't kill everybody in sight. If you want the bad ending, you need to slit a lot of throats. Just as it does by having two characters with different powers to choose from at the outset, Dishonored 2 begs to be played twice to truly experience all it has to offer, as you'll find yourself ignoring numerous aspects of its gameplay depending on whether you intend to murder your way through the game or not.
Thankfully, the franchise's still shallow morality system does little to diminish the overall experience, largely due to the story of Dishonored 2 being its weakest link. The main setup that propels the characters forward is fine, but there's not a lot of depth to Corvo, Emily or anybody else in the game's world, at least on the surface.
While the game's primary villain does have a suitably tragic backstory, most of the other characters in the game only become interesting if you've stumbled upon various notes or books sprinkled throughout the game world and take the time to read them.
A World Of Meaning
In many ways, the world itself is Dishonored 2's primary character. Arkane Studios has filled every nook and cranny of the game's world with meaning. Players return to gray and dreary Dunwall from the first game, but also get to explore the sunny, Mediterranean-inspired kingdom of Karnaca.
The new setting proves to be a potent breath of fresh air that the series needed, made even better by the fact that each level of Dishonored 2 is put together with such meticulous detail. I often found myself wishing I could make all the enemies disappear simply so I could explore unhindered.
Two levels in particular stand out far above the rest as some of the best gaming experiences I've had in 2016. One involves becoming trapped in a clockwork mansion, where every room comes apart and transforms at the whims of a mad inventor.
As I worked my way through each room (and occasionally slipped behind the walls of the spectacle to see the gears and turbines that made the house come to life), I found myself in awe of what Arkane had accomplished.
Much the same can be said with a mission towards the end of the game, which also happens to take place in a mansion. I don't want to spoil too much, but I will say that time travel is involved and it's handled in a way that is smart, fresh and exciting from the first moment to the last. It's actually a shame more isn't done with the idea.
Incidentally enough, it's in that same mission that some of Dishonored 2's technical problems are most noticeable.
Framerate issues can be found throughout the game, especially in encounters with numerous enemies if you're opting for a combative playthrough.
Strange hiccups involving the game's lighting system result in some distracting graphical mess-ups, and textures often times can take too long to pop in when beginning a level. Dishonored 2 still stands out visually thanks to its fantastic art direction, but these technical problems don't do it any favors.
Dishonored 2 is largely a safe sequel. It doesn't reinvent the franchise in any shape or form, but then again it doesn't need to. New locales, a new optional protagonist and new powers are more than enough to entice fans of the first game to return, and it may even make some new fans in the process.
Couple that with some truly standout missions and a world that is begging to be explored, and Arkane Studios delivers everything fans could possibly want in a sequel and more.
This review is based on impressions from a PS4 copy of Dishonored 2 provided by Bethesda.