Arkane Studios‘ should be both proud and ashamed of their Dishonored games.
The setting is one of the most original and fantastically realized worlds in modern gaming with its mix of gothic horror atmosphere and electro-punk aesthetic combined with a grimy industrial art direction and dense world building. The franchise’s level design is continuously applauded for how it offers multiple solutions to its challenges and obstacles, lending it considerable replay value. And while the first game had a bare bones revenge narrative that was hamstrung by dull supporting characters functioning mostly as exposition mouthpieces and a severe case of the main character being a player surrogate mute, Dishonored 2… completely misses the mark even further by a wide margin.
So what exactly went wrong? Characters. The first Dishonored had to introduce so much groundwork for its setting that it makes sense character depth would be a tertiary concern at best. However, a sequel doesn’t need to focus too much on world-building, especially when gameplay is mostly unchanged. Groups like the Abbey of the Everyman or the importance of whale oil are already firmly placed so a lot of the legwork is done already. Despite this, consistently Arkane’s decisions of how to focus their narrative leads to some jarring and even downright terrible moments that would have worked a whole lot better if they put that extra bit of thought and care into proceedings.
The first and largest crying shame are the heroes themselves: Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin. Dishonored 2 attempts to give these characters depth and nuance by giving the mute Corvo a voice and by making Emily playable. On a surface level this was a smart decision making both of them equally viable heroes for a stealth-action romp. It especially goes a long way in terms of progressive gender politics since Emily spent the entirety of the first game as a damsel in distress. In addition, the plot stresses that the new setting of Serkonos is where Corvo grew up, which should be a great opportunity to give the ex-supernatural assassin some much needed humanity. Both fertile ground for getting to know these characters more than the roles they inhabit.
Instead we get two equally dull blank slates. Corvo goes from being a player-controlled mute to yet another interchangeable grizzled and tired man with overtly paternal ties to another main character. Even in more intellectual or seasoned work that trope has been done to death. Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite, Joel in The Last of Us, even Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3 isn’t exempt from this worn out character type. Also, despite basically being back home, the only real change to the dialogue is just more predictable grumbling about having to shoot, stab, and sneak around yet again after a fifteen year time gap for a loved one that always seems to get into trouble.
Worse still, Emily feels like an absolute trainwreck. Because of her more colorful backstory and history with the series, there is a lot more character to work with. She spends her formative youth as a political hostage after witnessing the assassination of her mother and the wrongful imprisonment of her father at the beginning of the first game. She’s sheltered and tutored in a small bar, getting to see her subjects up close as the adventure’s events come and go. The very tutorial mission of Dishonored 2 has Corvo train Emily in order to ensure she can handle herself. On paper this is a great mix of regal responsibility, humility in seeing how the other side lives when in chaos without a strong leader, and a learned pragmatism that makes her a stark contrast to Corvo’s rags to royalty origins. Effectively an entire personality and worldview that can be baked right into the presentation without needing to explain it upfront.
Instead, she is utterly dull with little to no defining characteristics outside of gameplay differences and a gender swap. In fact, the very inciting incident that sets the entire game into motion – the witch Delilah Copperspoon setting off a convoluted conspiracy of family ties, political assassination, and bribing the right people in power – winds up being a complete and total retread of the rather trite “rulers should serve, not abuse their power” message that should have been internalized long before things got this bad.
This is just one of many missed opportunities. Everything from the verbal barks Emily delivers in the gameplay to her inner monologue given during cutscenes is nothing but bland reaffirmations of her goal. I need to do the thing, I have to get in there somehow, my next target is a piece of filth and he’s in my way, etc.. Even in the one sole instance where her motivations aren’t about getting revenge or saving her kingdom, a subplot where she writes notes to someone implied to be a romantic interest, is completely devoid of substance. Not only are the notes infuriatingly sparse with personal information, for a bunch of romantic notes they’re very dry, but the character in question was deliberately designed to be gender neutral and of an undefined persuasion. Turns out Emily isn’t the only one with absolutely no substantial personality either, her boyfriend/girlfriend/smizmar is a total non-entity as well. This is to say nothing of an unintentionally hilarious “emotional” scene she shares with someone close to her, or a resolution in the endgame with a member of the supporting cast revealing a dark secret, both of which were in desperate need of pathos that never comes. It’s as if Arkane completely forgot Emily even existed in the first game and decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater to make basically another indeterminate player surrogate instead of what should have been a universal step up for this series.
The supporting cast also barely get enough screen time to grow into their own. To be fair, this is mostly due to Dishonored 2’s awkwardly rushed pacing but it still hurts all the same. While the first game was a relatively slow boil (think Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai but with a lot more gratuitous action and carnivorous rats), things had a logical progression to them with proper peaks and valleys with subplots and minor characters coming into their own naturally. The enigmatic Granny Rags and the gang leader Slackjaw are the first that come to mind. The sequel on the other hand feels like it’s always at contradictory speeds, with big character conflict coming and going while minor non-conflicts get stretched painfully thin. The absolute nadir is the ongoing turf war between the pious Overseers, a group that is eternally loyal to the heroes at a point in the story where there is literally nothing stopping an alliance, and the rambunctious Howler gang lead by a ruthless leader who just so happens to have access to some otherworldly power. Rather than have Emily face something more nuanced with this conflict — let’s say her loyal Overseers doing more harm than good while the roguish Howlers have a legitimate justification for their brutal methods — the game instead opts for the cliched and worn out “choose a side” mission. Instead of being able to find a way to meet both sides halfway and mediate things, which if handled right could have easily pushed this game into truly being special, you have to take out the leader of one faction and then deliver him to the other in order to prove your loyalty to their cause. It’s a cause that is only vaguely explained in the most threadbare manner possible in a game that is known for bursting at the seams with informed detail.
But there is one instance where Arkane Studios did decide to add more personality and detail to a major character. They made him emote and sneer while acting truly snakelike to the protagonists. The de facto Boogeyman of the world of Dishonored, The Outsider. An entity that feels more like an unholy abomination wearing a human skinsuit than anything resembling a person. The lord of an unnatural dimension dripping with unsettling menace.
So of course it makes sense that all of that frightening unknown is stripped bare with The Outsider getting a backstory. In an amazingly hackneyed sequence, the closest thing resembling a reason is big bad Delilah might pose a threat to The Outsider because of her discovering how he was created, he… opens up about his creation to the player. He was the victim of some ancient ritual a really long time ago. It’s exactly as tacked on as it looks.
Not only does this excuse sound like fighting fire with gasoline but it actively robs an element of the series of its edge. The utterly talented Rob Rath wrote a piece long ago about how The Outsider’s power, and by extension the first Dishonored’s utterly ruthless superpowers, could be read as a deliberate attempt by this godlike being to corrupt and erode the hero’s moral center. The road to Hell being paved with good intentions and all that. It’s a reading that not only is a testament to how much of the game’s tone can be expressed through play, but has been rendered inert by these plot points. Especially since the reasoning behind it isn’t to further expand upon the cosmology of the Void but to artificially raise the stakes when you get to the final battle.
Dishonored 2 should have easily learned from its predecessor in these fields. For all of the excuses that can be made, this is a series that deserved better. The first game introduced the world, the second installment should help make it bigger, more real and more human. While this installment gets two out of three elements down, it’s that crucial third that severely makes it lesser.