Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Dishonored 2 was a great game held back by some unfortunate performance issues at launch. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is a follow-up that exists as a strange hybrid of DLC and standalone release. To be clear, you can absolutely buy and play Death of the Outsider without purchasing or playing any of the previous games in the series, but it's so tied into Dishonored 2—in its story, its gameplay, and the Void Engine powering the whole thing—that it feels like an extension of that title despite its technically standalone nature.
Death of the Outsider places players in control of Billie Lurk, a character voiced by Rosario Dawson who appeared in Dishonored 2, as she undertakes a quest from her mentor Daud (himself a major figure in previous Dishonored titles). This being a Dishonored game, players will be using a combination of weapons, gadgets, and mystical Void powers to sneak or fight their way to their goals, pursuing sidequests and uncovering lore along the course of the 8-to-10 hour journey.
Death of the Outsider is more limited in scope than Dishonored 2, but benefits from the lessons the developers were able to learn from that game (especially on the technical side). The new game can feel a bit confining at times, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is as fun as ever, and some of the changes the new game makes to the Dishonored formula are strong enough to have me hoping they are permanent additions to the series.
Gadgets and Void Powers
After an introductory mission in which Billie only has a few mundane gadgets and normal stealth at her disposal, Death of the Outsider hands over most of the abilities you'll get for the entire length of the game right away. Death of the Outsider clearly assumes you have already played Dishonored games before, and doesn't explain any of the basic principles of the series. If you don't know what Void powers are, how to choke out enemies, or how to throw bottles to create distractions, you can learn some of it through optional tutorial videos, but other elements (like bone charm crafting) are just not going to make any sense if you haven't played Dishonored 2. I appreciated being able to get right into the action more quickly, though anyone who, for some reason, plays this game before any other Dishonored titles is going to have a steeper learning curve.
There's little character customization in Death of the Outsider compared to a core Dishonored title, as you won't ever get to choose what Void powers you have or which you will upgrade. The Black Market provides some basic gear improvements, but the magical abilities that make up so much of the Dishonored experience are chosen for you and all unlocked within an hour of starting the game. It's fortunate, then, that Billie's new abilities are so useful and fun, because otherwise the lack of choice could have been a glaring mistake.
While Billie's "displace" teleport ability functions roughly the same way as previous movement-focused Void abilities, her "foresight" and "semblance" powers dramatically change the game. Foresight in particular feels like a power Dishonored has always been waiting for, as it allows you to freeze time and safely scout ahead around corners, marking enemies and points of interest before returning to your body. If you're even slightly interested in the game's stealth aspect (which the Dishonored series has always done better than the combat side of things), you'll be using foresight constantly. Semblance allows you to temporarily impersonate unconscious (but not dead) enemies, which places a minor incentive on non-lethal gameplay, at least part of the time.
Sneaking, fighting, and contracts
The other most significant change Death of the Outsider offers is the fact that Billie's Void energy replenishes automatically in just a few seconds, which means there's no need to hunt for consumables to keep your energy high. None of her abilities are broken or overpowered with this essentially infinite energy supply, but the new system does encourage you to use your Void abilities early and often. And because of the nature of foresight and semblance, your abilities are clearly tailored more towards stealthy gameplay rather than aggressive, out-in-the-open combat. Late in the game you'll find bone charms which tweak your abilities and support more aggressive play, but at least for the game's first half your talents will be better suited towards lurking in the shadows.
And if you do take this stealthy approach, you're likely to find that Death of the Outsider isn't particularly hard, on Normal difficulty. Especially in the game's final hours, which featured the first enemies in the whole game that really felt like a threat, I was a little disappointed by how easy it was to simply run and teleport past everything. That's not a particularly satisfying way to play a Dishonored game, and I know many who play will be going for the "never detected" achievements in each level which would disallow this mad scramble, but I wish there was more in the game that actively prevented this (admittedly cheap) strategy.
If you only focus on the main story missions in Death of the Outsider you'll be missing a lot of the content, as the game's new "Contract" system introduces optional side-quests in each area of the game that are often more challenging than your main goals. In what is now a familiar part of the Dishonored formula, the game sets up richly textured, semi-open areas and then gives you a half dozen things to do in them. You'll be crossing back and forth over the same streets again and again, hunting down treasures or trying to move an unconscious body without being seen. These contract missions push you to master your limited pool of abilities, and though they do offer in-game monetary rewards the real point of contracts is how much fun and variety they add to the game.
The Bank Job, Replay Value, and Original Game+
Death of the Outsider doesn't have any levels that reach the same grand heights as the masquerade in the first game or the time-jumping fun found in Dishonored 2, and that's a shame because those memorable, innovative stages are a large part of what has made past Dishonored titles great. Instead, the standout stage from Death of the Outsider is a multi-stage bank heist, which is a good level, but not a boundary-busting classic like we've seen from the franchise previously.
One element of the bank heist (and the game as a whole) that I did enjoy was how much you are rewarded for reading lore, paying attention to the details around you, and experimenting. There are layers within layers buried in each area and a quick look at the game's list of achievements gives you an idea of the hidden depths it is possible to uncover, with secret goals and riches never hinted at in your official objectives. The Dishonored series has always allowed players to play their own way, to a certain extent, but Death of the Outsider goes a bit further than the previous games in terms of allowing and accounting for creative play that makes sense in the world.
While previous Dishonored games have always encouraged repeat playthroughs by dangling alterate solutions and Void powers you never unlocked or upgraded just outside your reach, Death of the Outsider doesn't work the same way. As previously mentioned there's little in the way of permanent character customization at play (you'll have more than enough money to buy all the upgrades you want from the Black Market, and bone charms can be swapped in and out at will), and there isn't the same incentive to monitor your lethality and "chaos" levels as we've seen in other games (more on that in a bit). That means that the main reason you'll want to play again would be to pursue different solutions and different uses of your same abilities or to try out the game's Original Game+ mode, which gives you three powers from Dishonored 2 instead of Billie's normal Void abilities.
Original Game+ is a great inclusion for Death of the Outsider, and I hope it's a sign we'll eventually get a game which allows for full cross-game compatability for Corvo, Emily, and Billie. That said, Death of the Outsider felt like it was missing part of what makes Dishonored tick by never forcing the player to pick power A or power B for their game. When I talk to people about Dishonored games it's always fun to hear what suite of Void powers they had at their disposal and how that influenced their run through a given level, and conversations about Death of the Outsider won't have that same appeal.
Sound and Visuals
Death of the Outsider, unsurprisingly, looks a lot like Dishonored 2. It's more polished than that game was at launch, and comes with some notable extra bells and whistles, including some major lens flares and other lighting effects that are well done and add visual drama to scenes. As was the case with Dishonored 2, the Void Engine does a fantastic job with lighting and architecture, resulting in gameplay that often looks like something straight out of a Renaissance painting.
Humans have never been a strength of the visuals in Dishonored games, and that problem unfortunately continues here. Beyond a few specific special characters, everyone you encounter in Death of the Outsider might as well share the same face and body, and the human designs manage to be too stylized to feel real but not stylized in a way that's particularly interesting.
Death of the Outsider is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Licht, musical composer for the series, and he deserves high praise for his work both on the series as a whole. Dishonored's music has always been distinct and immediately identifiable thanks to its use of unusual instruments, and one listen to a song from this new game's soundtrack alongside Licht's famous opening theme for the TV show Dexter will give you a sense of how important his special music style has been to the series. He will be missed.
The voice acting in Death of the Outsider is limited, with most of the work done by Rosario Dawson as Billie as she converses with NPCs or (more often) talks to herself about her objectives. Dawson does a fine job as Billie, though Michael Madsen's Daud is a bit too gravely for his own good sometimes, and can be a little hard to understand.
Story and Chaos
Death of the Outsider, as the name implies, focuses on the mysterious Outsider figure that has played such an important but unclear role in the series so far. As the personification of the Void and the source of the supernatural abilities in the series the Outsider has always loomed large, but his motivations (and even whether he is "good" or "evil" or something else entirely) have always been murky. Dishonored 2 started to fill in some of the blanks around the character, and Death of the Outsider goes deeper on the mythology of the world than ever before. It's interesting and original, and deserves praise for breaking from fantasy and steampunk clichés.
While previous Dishonored titles have placed an emphasis on "Chaos" in determining the state of the world and the ending you earn, Death of the Outsider simplifies things. Which of the games endings you get is determined by simple choices at the very end of the game, rather than how many random grunts you kill along the way. For some players this lack of in-game consquence for your actions will feel like a step back, but others will embrace the freedom it provides.
Death of the Outsider places a lot of power and choice in the player's hands and leaves it up to you to decide what to do with it. Who you kill and how is a choice you'll have to make for yourself, without worrying about what it means for the cinematic you'll see at the end of the game. When I discovered, purely by chance, a character being held captive in the basement of a taxidermist's office, nothing in the game told me I had to set that person free. Once I did, there was no objective instructing me to "deal with" the taxidermist. I locked her up and let her get attacked by bloodflies because it felt like the right thing for Billie to do in the circumstances.
Death of the Outsider is a mature and highly polished spin on the core Dishonored formula. It tries new things and mostly succeeds, and it's a must-play for fans of the franchise. While it's nice that it exists as a standalone title, it shouldn't be the first Dishonored game you play. It may not have the deep replay value of previous entries in the series, but it's well-worth its $30 price tag.