Dishonored 2 hands-on: exquisite stealth in a shifting clockwork mansion

The mission I’ve chosen to accept is a familiar one: infiltrate a mansion, kill one guy, save another. During the opening minutes of my time with Dishonored 2, as my ornate skyrail travels from the Aventa district up towards a cliffside mansion, I feel like I’ve been asked to do this too many times before. I’ve entered many mansions belonging to eccentric yet powerful men, and lately, I have opted for the path of least resistance.

The mansion belongs to Kirin Jindosh, “Grand Inventor of the Duke and creator of the Clockwork soldier.” Being responsible for these things, presumably, makes him bad. He’s holding Anton Sokolov captive, a familiar face from the first Dishonored who I’ve been sent to retrieve. As I mount the steps to the mansion and enter through the front door, I’m expecting a fairly rote combination of creeping, Blink teleporting, and panic-killing.

As Chris observed earlier this year, Dishonored 2 is very much a sequel rather than a reinvention, but it iterates and grows the formula in positive ways. In addition to the previous game’s hero Corvo Attano, you’re able to play as Emily Kaldwin, a child heir in the first game but now, 15 years later, Empress of the Isles. You’ll choose between one or the other per playthrough, but I was able to play both during my hands-on session. Aside from the powers they wield the characters feel more or less the same, though differences in the way the plot unfolds can probably be banked on. Overall, aside from slightly prettier graphics (Aventa looks like some steampunk paradise on the Adriatic coast), this sequel feels very much like the first game, whether you choose Emily or Corvo.

Two in one

Feeling weary of yet another mansion infiltration mission, I longed for a twist. When the twist arrived it did so with grandeur: flick a switch inside Jindosh’s mansion and a baffling array of cogs and panels transform the house into whole new arrangements. A Clockwork soldier roams the lobby, but I’m too distracted by the tactical possibilities emerging: not only are there two room configurations, but there is the in-between of rooms. Jindosh taunts me from the other side of a locked door, yabbering on about how ill-equipped I am to negotiate his fancy mansion. I just want to congratulate him on his pad.

I play as Emily first, and then Corvo. There are differences in their arsenal, though only three supernatural powers were unlocked for my session. Corvo had Windblast and Bend Time, familiar from the first game. Emily had Shadow Walk, which transforms her into a weird, undetectable smoke beast, and Domino, which links two human enemies together, meaning they’ll die (or be tranquilised) simultaneously.  Corvo’s most useful power, Blink, is replicated by Emily with Far Reach, though her version functions more like a spectral grappling hook and is thus a bit more fun to use.

First I wanted to find Sokolov, so I used a variety of tactics familiar to anyone who played the first game: I crept around corners, Blinked between rafters and, though I had hoped not to, landed many explosive shotgun shells into the clockwork soldiers. (This, I’m told by a Bethesda rep, won’t be so easy in the final build. The version I played had its difficulty tweaked for a consumer show.)

The layout and mechanisms of the mansion can be used stealthily, and while its many layers and maintenance shafts were utterly confusing on my first playthrough, logic emerged on my third run. Arranged into three major floors, all of which connect to a large performance space in the centre, it’s an immaculate example of interconnected level design—and there is not a single air duct in sight. As one of the mansion’s butlers can be overheard saying, there are parts of this house that he will never know are there. After my third playthrough of this mission, there were at least two additional areas I wanted to pursue but didn’t—and I barely explored the third floor. This mansion doesn’t just sprawl outwards, up and down: it sprawls inside itself.

A more immersive sim

I note the absence of air ducts because, while a “clockwork mansion” is a fantastical, deliberately unreal environment, I didn’t encounter any design which could be described as overtly “unrealistic.” In other words, nothing appeared to exist just so that I, an assassin wanting to kill the owner of the premises, might have an easier or more enjoyable time of it. Stealth bugbears remain: simply moving between floors via elevator is enough to calm the nerves of alerted guards, even just seconds after they’ve copped heat from Emily’s pistol. I was impressed by the AI’s hearing, though: shuffling too quickly through an empty corridor will alert enemies in adjacent rooms. 

Close attention to the environment reaps rewards, as always. Jindosh thought he had me stumped with an insta-kill electric barrier, until I took note of where its power lines lead. To deactivate the barrier, I needed to set a room transformation off, duck between the shifting panels into the innards of the mansion, and dispose of the power box. 

Later in the performance space, I'm able to bypass a guard strewn elevator path by tucking the grand piano away, then slipping through the moving cracks into the decorative water feature below.  

I eventually find Sokolov imprisoned in an assessment chamber, which is a grid of shapeshifting boxes manipulated by pressure plates. It’s a pretty straightforward puzzle, save the angry clockwork soldier roaming around inside. As Emily, I carved its stupid arms off with my sword, but later as Corvo, managed to evade it. Having reached the chamber via the most obvious routes, implementing Shadow Walk and wanton violence, I saw fit to stealth my way back out via the clockwork maintenance halls. Thankfully Blink and Far Reach both work when holding an unconscious Sokolov, but the halls are not safe, and I am not patient.

In keeping with the first game's rules, it’s possible to opt out of killing Jindosh. Despite my best efforts to solve a puzzle in his headquarters, I killed the mongrel three times instead. His large circular room was populated with clockwork soldiers, and I can only assume it’s possible to get Jindosh stuck in the firing line of these sentinels. For mine, I just shot him and fled. It worked wonders.

I really enjoyed the original Dishonored, but had found myself ambivalent towards its sequel: early signs pointed to more of the same, which in many ways, this is. But after three hours with a single mission—completable within ten minutes, if you’re quick—I’m newly in awe of Arkane as a studio capable of taking the immersive sim forward. The level design is some of the best I’ve encountered in a stealth-oriented game, with so many structural variables to tinker with, so many obscure passages and crawl spaces to follow, and barely an air duct in sight. I look forward to killing Jindosh another couple of times, before eventually, I guess, not killing him—somehow.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.