Any time I'm given a choice between stealth and action, I go stealth. I love the hold-your-breath tension of hoping a guard didn't spot you and the hard-earned triumph of executing a perfectly timed plan. Dishonored 2 delivers that sneaky satisfaction, arming you with stealth essentials like hiding bodies, peering through keyholes, and silent takedowns. But it's also an incredible engine for gleeful chaos, one so engrossing and amusing that I kind of accidentally beat the entire campaign raining hilarious, elaborate death on my enemies.
I kicked people through skylights, blasted them off seaside cliffs, lured them into bottlenecks and watched as my carefully placed shrapnel mine shredded them. At one point, I got murdered badly, so I reloaded a recent quicksave, shot a guard with incendiary bolt, and blew up another four with one grenade when they ran to help. Sadistic? Yes. But also incredibly satisfying from a gameplay standpoint. Moments like that happen frequently in Dishonored 2 because it's as much a toy box as it is a game. It's meant to be experimented with. It rewards and even demands creativity.
This was true of the first game, and it's true here as well, mainly because the sequel simply takes the original formula and builds on it. You'll find more ways to engage enemies without killing them, like nonlethal drop attacks and parries that stun opponents momentarily, allowing you to grab them and choke them out. There are new weapons and gadgets, including crossbow bolts that blind enemies or send them sprinting in a chemical-induced madness. Weapons can be upgraded in new ways, so your starter pistol can eventually be modded into a semi-auto hand cannon with explosive, ricocheting rounds.
And most importantly, there's an entirely new protagonist with her own set of powers. You can still play as classic hero Corvo and enjoy all his original supernatural abilities like pausing time and possessing rodents, but Empress Emily Kaldwin offers some exciting new choices, most notably Domino: All marked targets suffer the same fate, so knocking one unconscious puts them all out, for example. Emily can also hypnotize enemies with Mesmerize and become a moving shadow with Shadow Walk. She can even mimic Corvo's signature teleportation ability with Far Reach. Much like the weaponry, the diverse and inventive mechanics inherent in these powers turn the gameplay in a joyful cycle of experimentation and reward. Nearly all can be used in a variety of ways--lethal and nonlethal, straightforward and unconventional--to accommodate whatever strategy you happen to hatch.
Part of what makes the experimentation fun is the fact that your enemies are genuinely threatening, which makes cleverly dispatching them feel that much more empowering. They parry, dodge, flank, kick you away, even throw rocks to keep you off balance, and they never relent. Rather than telegraphing their attacks or waiting patiently for you to strike them, they just come at you, which both gets your adrenaline pumping and makes your one-hit-kill counterattacks feel earned. Even if you ignore your supernatural assassin skills and focus purely on swordplay, Dishonored gives you plenty of options, including sprinting slide tackles and combo-driven executions.
And if you're a stealth player, enemies are aware enough to present a real challenge, frequently breaking from the "preset pattern" behavior observable in many stealth games. Tricks that might not draw attention in other games get noticed here. Guards remember, for example, that another guard was standing nearby a moment ago. Rather than shrug off the absence, they'll either investigate or jump straight to sounding the alarm. This definitely creates a bit of a learning curve; you can't sloppily run and fight everyone and expect to get far. I had to play for a few hours before I really started to understand and enjoy the game--though the payoff for that upfront investment proved substantial.
The experience may be demanding overall, but weirdly, the campaign doesn't really grow more challenging as you progress. You'd think you'd face new, more intricate scenarios or larger numbers of tougher enemies, but that's not really the case. Unexpected new enemies types do emerge, but feel underutilized, as they're limited to certain levels and areas. By the end, I actually felt overpowered because the game never demanded more of me. Messing around with the mechanics is a lot more fun if you're presented with varied scenarios that force you to be skilled, clever, or creative enough to succeed. Removing the challenge undercuts some of the fun. Dishonored does such a stellar job of consistently adding new gameplay elements, it's a shame that never culminated in a grand, all-encompassing challenge.
Much like the weaponry, the diverse and inventive mechanics inherent in these powers turn the gameplay in a joyful cycle of experimentation and reward.
The story also doesn't evolve much over the course of the campaign. The original game opened with a bloody power grab that sent you on a quest for vengeance; the plot here is essentially identical, just with most cryptic occult gibberish. You're primarily still tracking down and murdering a series of people, and your motivation for the entire ordeal hinges on a single rushed scene at the very beginning of the game. Ultimately, the plotline is fine, but the delivery proves lackluster. Contrary to the gameplay, the storytelling holds your hand, bombarding you with heavy-handed exposition. You character constantly states the obvious in game, then narrates their exact thoughts and feelings over motion comics between missions. I frequently felt like I was just being told stuff rather than living and participating in an active story.
Still, Dishonored's world is undeniably intriguing thanks mainly to its vaguely steampunk aesthetic and the tangible history hidden in every detail. The characters you encounter are, by and large, interesting and well developed, and the expansive areas you visit feel alive and burst with unique details. Areas are larger than those found in the previous and seem much bigger than they really are--a welcome illusion that makes the world feel more believable. There's also plenty of side content to uncover in the hub areas, from unearthing backstory to finding the one ultra clever way to break into a fortified black market shop. And of course, you'll constantly be hunting for hidden runes, a process that takes up just as much (if not more) time as the core gameplay. Some are obvious, some are cleverly hidden, some are excruciatingly frustrating, but you're forced to find them because they fuel the progression system.
Most impressively, individual missions frequently distinguish themselves by offering a unique gameplay hook. There's a mission late in the game that involves time manipulation and might be one of the most unforgettable standalone missions in any game ever. It is masterpiece unto itself. There's also the intricate, mind-bending clockwork mansion, which turns the entire level into a giant Rubik's cube. And just like before, you can find elaborate, story-driven ways to "eliminate" every major target without actually killing them.
If you use your powers creatively and judiciously, you can be in complete control. It feels exceptionally empowering, especially since when you mess up, you realize your enemies really are smart and powerful enough to kill you quickly. Dishonored 2 might lack challenge in its later levels, but the basic tools are a joy to play with regardless. And with two characters and two basic play styles to choose from--both of which noticeably impact the story and the world as you go--there's a lot of longevity to be wrung from the campaign. It's an incredible shame you can't restart the campaign with all your powers intact once you beat the game, but you can, at least, bring up old saves, adjust the difficulty, and see what unfolds.