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  • Writer's pictureA.J. Sobel

Dishonored 2: Everything a Sequel Should Be

If you’ve read my post on the first Dishonored, then you know I love this franchise. Its ability to blend stealth/action gameplay, RPG elements, a fully fleshed out world, and a true “play-your-way” style has never been equaled. So it’s a small wonder that the second game is in my top 5 favorites of all time.

Rather than skimming over the whole game, giving only the vaguest of impressions as to why it’s so good, I thought I’d do a deep dive into the first two levels and showcase some of the specifics. Bear with me here, we’ll be going deep (phrasing).

Oh, and there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

First Level

The game opens with the player looking through the eyes of Empress Emily Kaldwin, daughter of Jessamine and Corvo. It’s the anniversary of her mother’s death, and she heads a ceremony in Jessamine’s honor. Corvo, still the Royal Protector, escorts her to the throne, offering her a piece of fatherly advice.

As Emily sits, ready to receive visitors, the Duke of Serkonos, Luca Abele (played with gusto by the incomparable Vincent D’Onofrio) bursts into the throne room, flanked by a procession of massive automatons called Clockwork Soldiers. Bristling with blades, they uniformly salute as Abele sarcastically offers his condolences to Emily. Stepping aside, he reveals our antagonist, Delilah Copperspoon, who Abele claims is the one, true Empress.

The Clockworks suddenly spring into action, slaughtering anyone they come across, and a pitched battle ensues, during which the player chooses whether to play as Emily or Corvo. For the purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter too much, but I chose Corvo, so that’s who we’re going with.

Delilah uses the magic of the Void to steal Corvo’s powers away and turn Emily to stone (if you choose to play as Emily, then it’s Corvo that gets stoned (rimshot)).

Corvo escapes the castle, and heads out into Dunwall (Side note, Sam Rockwell has a bit part in this game and is criminally underutilized). Along the way, he discovers that a ship’s captain out at the docks has been looking for him, and might just have information he needs.

The city of Dunwall is much the same as you remember it (assuming you’ve played the first game). It’s bleak, it’s cold, it’s gray; filled with stone buildings and stone-faced people.

As you move, gunshots and screams fill the air, bodies litter the streets, and the city watch reveal their perfidy as Delilah’s coup begins in earnest.

Even at this early stage, the developers, Arkane Studios, encourages you to explore the world. In an unassuming building, you’ll find the latest crime scene of the Crown Killer, a vicious murderer who’s been systematically dispatching some of Emily’s biggest detractors. Ever since the murders started, articles have been springing up, insinuating that the Killer is actually Corvo.

Further on, you’ll come across the editor of the biggest newspaper in the city, who (if you save his life) will tell you that he was forced to plant those at the behest of Duke Abele.

In the end, you find the ship you’re looking for, the Dreadful Wale, and its captain, Meagan Foster (voiced by the equally incomparable Rosario Dawson), who tells you that the conspiracy to remove Emily from power originated in Karnaca, the Jewel of the Southern Isles. She tells you an old ally of yours, Anton Sokolov, has been kidnapped, and you’ll need to recover him to discover what he knows.

Setting sail, you flee to the south. The only things you carry are your blade, your mask, and a promise to your daughter that you’ll return to rescue her.


As with most games, this first level serves as a way to get you reacquainted with the world of Dishonored. Streamlined to get the player to grips with the stealth, combat, and traversal systems, it’s also packed with information for the more inquisitive players to learn about what’s been happening since they last sprinted across Dunwall’s rooftops.

It’s a nicely-contained space; little more than a single street, really. It eases you into the world in a way that keeps you from being overwhelmed. If this section had the intricacy that some of the later levels do, I’d imagine that more than a few people would’ve been turned off to the whole experience.

This level also sets you up with the knowledge that not everything is going to be handed to you. Yes, you can follow the main road and get to where you need to be, but there are always places off the beaten path that will, without fail, enrich your playing experience in some way.


Waking up in your cabin aboard the Dreadful Wale, you immediately feel that something is wrong. You find your door locked, and as you turn around, you see that the back bulkhead has given way to the Void, the world beneath the world.

You meet with the Outsider (voiced by Robin Lord Taylor of Gotham fame) and he gives you back the dark powers that Delilah took from you (you can also refuse to take them, if you don’t like having fun).

This place gives you the chance to learn how to use a character-specific traversal ability that will be your best friend for the rest of the game.

Here, you learn a little bit more of Delilah’s backstory (trying to keep it to a minimum here, despite my spoiler warning up top), and the stakes are reiterated for you before the Outsider pats you on the head (metaphorically speaking) and sends you back to the real world.

You wake up on the Dreadful Wale and meet with Meagan, who reveals that she last saw Sokolov being dragged to Addermire Institute by a figure she couldn’t get a clear look at. Fast and strong, it carried Sokolov like he was nothing.

She says that Alexandria Hypatia, the alchemist that runs the Institute, might know more. She never leaves the facility anymore, and will hopefully be able to shed some light on the situation.

When the player is ready, Meagan will transport them to the shores of Karnaca, the city of Corvo’s birth.

Second Level, Part 1

The ride in has this breezy sort of feel as you bounce along the waves. It’s heavily at odds with the mission briefing that Meagan is giving you. To your left, you’ll see the tram system that will take you to Addermire. To your right, Karnaca unfolds before you, begging to be explored.

As you’re dropped off on the docks, you’ll find a bright sun beating down on you, and life that’s in full swing. Carpenters repair boats, a photographer takes pictures of the bay, people are chatting amongst themselves. Blood spills from the fresh carcass of a whale that’s being butchered down the street, filling in the gaps between the cobblestones as you pass. This is a city filled with people that were living their lives before you got there, and will continue to do so long after you’ve gone.

As you clear the docks, you’re confronted by a dingy alleyway that leads you to a black-market dealer. With what coins you’ve managed to scrape together, you outfit yourself as best you can and press on into the city.

Right next door, you find a massive bloodfly infestation, which has caused the whole building to be condemned. Karnaca’s answer to the rat plague of the first game, they quickly swarm over you, stinging and biting, threatening to lay their eggs beneath your flesh. You manage to deal with them with a few adept swings of your sword as Corvo remembers stirring their nests as a child.

Whether you cut through the buildings (stealing everything that isn’t nailed down), or follow the winding streets, you eventually come across an Overseer outpost. Government-sanctioned religious zealots, they proselytize to a group of people about the dangers of the Void and the Outsider, and about how everyone must be vigilant against His influence. Should you choose, you can pass by completely unnoticed.

Further up the street is a small market, filled merchants hawking their wares, pedestrians stopping for a moment to see what’s on offer. Nearby, a musical duo sing and play their instruments for a few tossed coins. You can almost smell the rotting produce as it bakes under the Serkonan sun.

Ahead of you is your first real challenge: The tram station has been locked down under the orders of the Duke. How you get on the tram is up to you. Do you sneak through, leaving behind nothing but shadows and the strange feeling that something has passed? Or do you stride in the front door, blade drawn, and carve a bloody swath to your objective?

Whatever you choose, the outcome remains the same: You board the tram and set off for Addermire Institute.


The beginning section of this level is a masterclass in worldbuilding. Whether you take your time and explore every nook and cranny (like I did, because I fucking love this game), or you speed through and pick up only glimpses of the world around you, you find yourself understanding Karnaca. You see what it’s all about, you become immersed in a place that is fundamentally different from Dunwall, but still fits like a glove.

Rare are the games that take the time to world-build like this these days. With most Triple-A releases, I find myself just lurching from one objective marker to the next, never really giving a shit about the who’s and why’s. Maybe I’ll skim one of the endless entries in my player journal (a crutch that developers seriously need to stop leaning so heavily on) to find out some background info about a certain person or place.

In Dishonored 2, it’s all out there in front of you to see, scripted events and real-time sequences that you can completely miss if you’re not looking out for them. For instance, if you choose to creep through the bloodfly-infested building, you can completely miss the Grand Guard murdering an innocent for daring to speak out against them. An innocent you could’ve saved, if only you’d gone that way.

I won’t say Dishonored 2 forces you to explore (whether or not that guy survives has no bearing on the outcome of the story), but it definitely invites you to. And it’s an invitation that you’d be a fool to turn down.

Second Level, Part 2

You climb off the tram and are immediately confronted by an empty, desolate facility on a tiny spit of rock out in the bay. A storm has just climbed over the eastern edge of Karnaca and is sweeping towards you, chasing away the blue skies and the sun in the west. The rain has already begun to patter down as you walk into the decrepit manor in search of your quarry.

The creeping sense of isolation is almost palpable, the guards few and far between. Some of them play dice in an abandoned room, while others are just asleep on post. There isn’t a single person on that island that wants to be there. It’s the perfect place for a predator such as yourself to play.

But you’re not the only predator here…

Moving through the facility, you look for clues as to where Hypatia has gone. She’s got to be there; the Duke won’t let her leave Addermire. Among the shattered windowpanes and peeling wallpaper, you discover that she’s been sequestered deeper in the facility.

Along the way, you begin to find mutilated bodies. You hear the guards telling tales of a monster prowling the halls at night, leaving smears of blood across the floors. You discover that Hypatia — a doctor once famed for her altruism and brilliance — has become despondent, never leaving Intensive Treatment wing.

When you finally gain access to her, you find a broken woman, attempting to perform research, but unable to focus on anything for more than a moment. She speaks in a monotone, uttering half-thought of words and vicious phrases that sound like they’re coming from a different person altogether. She’s no use to anyone in this state.

As you inspect the wing for clues as to Sokolov’s whereabouts, you come across a body, hidden in the back room, beaten and broken and covered with bandages. As you approach, it suddenly reaches out and grabs you, pulling you close and whispering frantically.

This is Hypatia’s assistant, Vasco. He explains that the original formula of the Addermire Solution, a revolutionary serum to help the silver miners in the mountains above Karnaca, caused a psychotic break in the good doctor after repeated testing. It caused her to manifest a personality that calls herself Grim Alex, a personality that is known to the Empire as the Crown Killer.

With his dying breaths, Vasco begs you to create the counter-serum, the formula to which is hidden in the safe in his office.

The choice is yours: Do you create the serum, releasing the doctor from her torment and forcing her to live with the atrocities she’s committed? Or do you simply kill her and be done with it, content in the knowledge that she’ll never hurt anyone again? Whatever your decision, you discover that Sokolov was taken to the home of Kirin Jindosh, Karnaca’s Grand Inventor, and the mastermind behind the Clockwork Soldiers that allowed Delilah to take control of Dunwall.

As you sail away from the island aboard Meagan’s skiff, you leave Addermire much as you found it; cold, decrepit, and lonely.


The brilliance of this section lies in its juxtaposition against the city itself. The sense of isolation is made all the more extreme by the fact that your brain is still assimilating Karnaca, as you walked through it not five minutes before.

Whereas in the first part of the level, you saw a city in full swing, you climb off the tram into a place where there’s almost no one. The only people here are guards, and what few support staff were brave enough to remain. You’re not supposed to be here, and the level makes you feel it.

The music, as well, does a fantastic job of reinforcing this feeling; a few lonely notes here and there, never fully developing into a melody. It almost tails you, nipping at your heels as you explore. When it dies down, you’re left with the distinct impression that something will be waiting to jump out at you as you round the next corner.

On the subject of sound, there are moments in this part of the level where a guard will slam onto the facility’s PA system at random intervals. It may be a cheap jump scare, but damn it if it wasn’t effective.

Another effective piece of this section is the weather, as well as the resulting lighting effects that it creates. It’s still bright as you climb off the tram. Everything can clearly be seen, and the shadows are — ironically for a stealth game — somewhat limited.

But the looming storm that has suddenly swept in adds another dimension to the tense atmosphere that I never would’ve thought of. When we think 'fear,' we naturally conjure images of the night, of dark corners, gleaming blades, and men in masks.

Well, guess what? You are the one wearing the mask, a blade in your hand. But the lighting adds tension, because you have so few corners to hide in. Corners where something else, something worse, could be waiting for you.

If you’ve been paying attention to the clues spread out across in this part of the level, you might have worked out what’s going on before you’ve even met Doctor Hypatia. The interesting part is that all this really does is add another layer of fear, because you still don’t know what to expect.

But on subsequent playthroughs, even though I knew what was going to happen, confronting her still set my teeth on edge.

The voice actress does a brilliant job conveying the helplessness and frailty of Hypatia, letting you know that something is very wrong with this woman, even if you don’t know what. When she asks if I heard someone calling out to her (that someone being the split personality from inside her head) in the middle of our conversation, my skin crawls every time.

When she transforms into the Crown Killer, the actress manages to bring across the insanity in an even more powerful performance that completely eclipses her previous one. Somehow, she gets across utter viciousness that is still leashed by the character.


What amazes me most about Dishonored 2 is that the rest of the game is exactly like this. Every level is brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed (from a technical standpoint alone, the Clockwork Mansion deserved to win all the awards). Every character is fully fleshed out and realized. Every detail, from the turning gears of the Clockwork Soldiers, to the tidbits of information you glean on a guard as she walks by, is all so wonderfully done.

The sheer amount of work that went into the branching paths (both physically and narratively) of this game is staggering when you sit down and think about it. Every action the player could take had to be accounted for and written in.

Based on how you decide to play, the world will mold itself around you. It becomes darker with every life you take, or provides a glimmer of hope if you can stay your hand.

In the end, you could give Emily a blood-soaked empire that she’ll rule with an iron fist. Or, you can begin to heal the divide that’s grown between the isles, allowing her to bring harmony where before there was only chaos.

You can even leave her encased stone, seizing the throne for yourself, the skull-like visage of your mask becoming the symbol of your despotic rule.

Dishonored 2’s harshest critics say that it simply retread ground that the first game had already blazed; you play as a character that is fighting to win back a throne. They’re not wrong, but allow me to say this: You’re missing the damned point.

This game is very much about the journey, not the destination.

It’s about helping a woman recover the body of her friend. It’s about stumbling across a soldier, dead from the poisoned wine he’d been given as a gift. It’s about discovering a guard’s letter home, telling his children that he loves them.

It’s about all the little things that add up to a fully-realized world that you can’t help but think will continue to exist even after you’ve put the game disc back on your shelf.

You can really feel the love that Arkane Studios put into this game, and it’s a love that isn’t found in this industry anymore. Dishonored 2 is not some half-assed asset flip designed to squeeze a few more bucks out of the consumer (looking at you Ubisoft… and EA… and Blizzard… and BioWare…). It’s a love letter to an IP that deserves only the best, and unequivocally got it.

There’s a reason why this game makes it into my top 5 list, and I hope that this little breakdown has sufficiently whetted your appetite to give it a try.


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