By the end of Dishonored 2, the Empire of the Isles has become a world unto itself, from its grimy slum quarters and waterfronts to its glittering cultural centers and mansions. You can spot aesthetic revolutions getting underway, as steampunk-infused neo-Gothic and Beaux Arts give way to Art Nouveau and Art Deco, championed by people who are trying to sweep away far more than dated tastes. It's a game that shows, with hardly any exposition, that the economic underpinnings of society are starting to buckle under the weight of a critical energy shortage, and that cuts to social services are causing cities to crumble. Everything you see, every conversation you overhear, and every locked room you break open gives you a sense of the stakes as you wage a private war of revenge and restoration. Every detail is almost perfect, and no detail is wasted in this triumph of worldbuilding and storytelling.
That said, it does not begin promisingly, with a prologue that cuts to the chase so aggressively that it's both preposterous and disorienting. Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 opens with the Empire once again in the throes of unrest and malaise. As soon as that's established, you witness a bloody coup involving a haughty witch and her retinue of robot assassins, and you're forced to make a choice that will matter throughout the entire game: whether to play as the newly-deposed Empress, Emily Kaldwin, or her father Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector who's so far batted .000 for securing the reigns of his sovereigns. If you've played the previous game and its expansions, Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, this introduction is a bit hasty, but for the most part intelligible. If you haven't, you're in for some detective work.
This is in some ways the very essence of Dishonored 2. It's a stealth game like its predecessor, but almost equally a game about exploration and discovery. Every location is packed with information that colors in the bloody story's backdrop, from well-written letters and books to squalid tableaus of personal misfortune. A dead pest-control agent carries with him a note from a friend telling him (and you) how to combat blood-fly infestations, and what to do if they attack. A butler and a cook commiserate about their capricious, sadistic master, and how badly they wish they could escape their jobs but also their terror that they might lose it. Every detail implies a larger world beyond your own adventure, yet each one also illustrates how your story connects with everyone else's.
That extends to the missions themselves, which are ostensibly assassination missions but involve a lot more than simply finding and killing a target. Dishonored 2 belongs to a lineage of games where the action is secondary to the simulation (Irrational's Bioshock, the classic Thief series) – characters exhibit complex behavior as they go about their tasks, the world reacts to changes you make, and much of the story and your objectives are initially hidden behind obstacles that can be conquered in a variety of ways.
Dishonored 2 might contain the perfect metaphor for itself in a mission called "The Clockwork Mansion." It's a tricky, hazardous place whose interior rearranges as you explore and interact with it, swallowing entire rooms and manifesting new ones from behind the walls and beneath the floorboards. Yet it follows its own logic: nothing is simply whisked into the ether. Everything goes somewhere, every switch is connected to a hidden mechanism, and in order to succeed at your objective, you have to actually learn how those pieces fit together. It's the most literal, explicit expression of the game's design, but every level in the game is governed by similar logic.
If there is a fundamental issue with Dishonored 2 (and the Dishonored series as a whole), it's that the binary morality ill-serves both the fiction and the player. Many of the most entertaining powers and encounters involve the bloody dispatch of entire platoons of guards and thugs. You can use your upgraded "Far Reach" ability not merely as a personal teleporter, but a way to drag enemies onto electrified train tracks, or off tall rooftops. "Domino" lets you bind entire groups of enemies together so that killing one kills them all, meaning that a squad on patrol will suddenly drop like sacks of potatoes with a single well-aimed crossbow shot. Alternately, you can dispense with subtlety altogether and charge into combat like a supercharged dervish, spawning copies of yourself or bending time to overwhelm the enemy.
But if you're trying to stay on the side of the angels, those moments always feel like failures. In the aftermath, as you survey a battlefield newly emptied of life, you'll likely start seeing the other paths you could have taken, the sneaky ways that you could have sidestepped the entire brawl and gotten to the next objective without striking a single blow. And because there's always an implicit judgment hanging over each of these encounters – that killing slowly drags you over to the dark side ("high chaos" in Dishonored's parlance) – it's hard to resist the urge to reload and try again, even when you've just made a miraculous and bloody escape from disaster. The tools of assassination and mayhem, which comprise at least half your arsenal, go back behind the game's moral safety glass: to be used, and immediately regretted, in case of emergency.
This stark ethical conundrum doesn't really make sense within Dishonored's world, whose morality is as gray and grimy as the slums where you take your refuge. At no point has either Dishonored game really made the case that the Kaldwin empresses are really effective rulers; rather, they are the shaky bulwarks protecting a crumbling and compromised order from far worse forces and people waiting in the wings.
At the end of "The Clockwork Mansion," you face the choice of simply murdering its malevolent inventor Kirin Jindosh, or being merciful by... electrocuting him so severely that he gets massive brain damage and will spend the rest of his life acting-out the end of Flowers for Algernon. I chose the latter option not because I was feeling merciful but, having gotten a full measure of the man's sadism, thought it the cruelest fate that could be assigned him. Such is mercy in Dishonored 2, yet nevertheless it tries to map your actions onto the simplistic spectrum of good or evil. That choice not only inhibits the pleasure you can take in your own mayhem, but runs contrary to the evocative, tragically flawed world you see around you.
I wish Dishonored 2 encouraged a bit more flexibility in how you approach it, but those stark choices will also lure me to play it a few more times to see how else I might be able to complete it, and uncover yet more of the secrets hidden in every level. For the most part, Dishonored 2 is a game that is by turns breathtaking, haunting, beautiful, frightening, and thought-provoking. At its best, it's all of those at once.