Friday, 25 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Film Review)

It's hard not to groan when a franchise is dragged out. When it comes to a near perfect ending, totally concluding and wrapping up events, to see it stretched out can be torturous to say the least. Forcing out new sequels or extensions can easily drive a franchise into the infamous "cash cow" status which is so derided these days. However, once in a while this can actually prove to be a move for the better. Especially when it comes to adapting old worlds for new mediums.

While the Harry Potter saga itself might be praised and lauded about the land, the truth is that it was often its own worst enemy. Oh it had plenty of hits, a great ensemble of actors and a truly stunning final two films, but as an adaptation they often failed to live up to the grandeur of the books or even capture what made those stories great to begin with. As such, this is oddly a situation where the source material was actually holding the films back. With total sincerity, there's no denying that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is quite simply the best Harry Potter production to date.

Rather than following the source book (and in-universe textbook) which helped to flesh out the magical ecosystem of the world, the film instead takes a different route. It's less about the book itself and more partially about how it was written, with things going horribly wrong for Newt Scamander's magical suitcase. While that might be a bit scant as descriptions go, this is honestly one of the films you should walk into without knowing too much about the core plot itself. The only thing worth adding is that, while this is intended to help kick-start a new film series, it can easily be taken in its own right as a single production. Well, save for one tail end scene at any rate.

With Director David Yates returning to helm this new outing, many of of his old traits are back in full force. Everything is slightest twisted about in an oddly whimsical way, there's always a slightly discordant element to the camerawork, and there are few rules in how magic itself works. It's a very style over substance approach to things, It carries the feeling of cinematically shooting from the hip but, unlike a few other laissez-faire directors, he backs this up with enough talent and emotion to pull it through. Sure, you might end up with whole scenes which break the basic rules of magic for the universe, or one which seem to exist purely to show off the artistic direction, but these pass quickly. They don't take up the entire film, and between them you end up with whole sequences resplendent in the wonder of the universe itself and or enough sheer excitement to keep you entertained.

The story itself is fairly direct to say the least, all but pulling a Dredd in saying "this is point A, this is point B" with a few bumps along the way. While there's certainly a bit more too it than that admittedly, it's a story which doesn't try to bog itself down with two dozen sub-plots or running themes. When it does stop, it's usually to help show a bit more of the universe itself, such as how magic is handled in America or the nature of these beasts. Often these are managed about the core plot itself itself, and its laid-back - almost flippant - general direction allows it to get away with this. It's almost as if whole sections of the script were just general notes passed about to the actors, and Yates  said "mention this stuff, do these bits, but otherwise have fun and show off." Honestly, it pays off for the better, allowing it to focus upon the here and now over dealing with lengthy backstories.

The beasts themselves and the artistic designs are expectedly outstanding, managing to nail that sweet spot halfway between Discworld and Middle-Earth in concept. It's that odd blend where it can pull of an insane level of whimsy but still switch back to terrifyingly magnificent at a moment's notice without breaking anything; and while the CGI itself is unfortunately sub-par, it's not so bad that it wrecks the entire experience. So long as you don't pay attention to their eyes, it's just about passable rather than remaining blatantly obvious they're playing with thin air. The true moments where it does shine though are when it delves into the more practical effects, giving the actors more to work with and blending far better with the general going's on. While these certainly don't offer the best money shots (AKA big explosive trailer pieces) they tend to be the most atmospheric and immersive of all the scenes. 

The same really goes for the casting choices, all of who remain strong despite a few fitting the old Harry Potter positions with a few general changes. You still have the outsider, the hard working comedic relief and the overachiever, but the context behind their roles has changed, as has their attitude. The outsider in this case is split across two characters, while the overachiever is actually losing out a great deal of the time rather than eclipsing everyone else. What's more, the audience surrogate is not the protagonist this time but a supporting character, who stumbles upon magic by accident. It definitely pays off for the better here, producing (heretical as it might sound) more engaging protagonists from the start. Thus allowing them to start strong rather than needing a few books to really get going, or explaining away too much of the world.

While Eddie Redmayne might be channeling a little too much of the Eleventh Doctor into his role as Newt, the man's innate charm and enthusiasm pulls through. He provides a fantastic balance between a fool, a a socially awkward bohemian and an adventuring genius; one who manages to be insanely talented and capable without ever pushing into the unstoppable territory. 
Equally, while the muggle worker Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, might have drifted too far into film-Ron Weasley's greatest failings, the humour is spot on. Better yet, he's given a few more glory moments than expected to balance this out, and the fish-out-of-water element he provides is far more effective than Harry's own first outings. There's a real sense of amazement to what he finds, but the fact he has to force his way through terrifying insanity first helps nail it. 

This leaves Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein, the "Hermione" of the group. Talented, brilliant and hard working, but whereas the past franchise had this unfortunate habit of overdoing Hermione's capabilities, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does a better job of balancing out her skills. She does fail several times to accomplish her goals, and there's more of a struggle to actually achieve personal victories. As such, even though there's an antagonistic start between her and Newt, Waterson's acting talent and drive means there's still reasons to root for her.

However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does still have a few major no-nos and distinct face-palming moments despite its strengths. At times it can be equal parts overly predictable and infuriatingly cliche, especially in regards to the moment which kicks off the action. The suitcase is effectively unmarked and there's a busy luggage scene at one point, so guess what happens. What's more, at many points it does recycle many ideas from the main Harry Potter films, especially the introductory segments. The big moving newspaper shows up once again and it's sadly more than a little overdone by this point. The same goes for a few shots and big moments, all of which feel far too much like prior Potter films in visual settings and styling. It doesn't kill the atmosphere, but it does hold the film back from making a truly fresh start in the same world when it keeps reminding you of past outings.

Another aspect which does unfortunately complicate things is the fact that the film tries to juggle between two stories at once, despite the simple premise. This often seemed to be needlessly over-complicating things, especially given how rarely they actually interconnected. Each could have been a good film to itself, but it often seemed like it was being somewhat hindered by the presence of a second story, cutting away from its core scenes. It's less Empire Strikes Back in terms of handling twin narratives, and more Matrix Revolutions at times, just to emphasize how distant these can be.

For all the fun the film offers, there were plenty of times where the direction simply did not to respect the intelligence of its audience. While it did not go into the expected exposition heavy sequences, often the camera lingered on what was supposed to be a subtle hint or visual suggestion. This is especially problematic when it comes to Colin Farrell as Graves, where you have a man pulling off a stunning performance but the film gives away the big twist over and over again. The same goes with some of the secondary characters as well, where the audiences is given such unsubtle hints as to what's going to happen that you're at least one step ahead of the film's plot. 

This is hardly a perfect film, but despite that it still manages to set a high benchmark for Harry Potter films on the whole. It's hard to think of a more engaging fantasy film since Pirates of the Caribbean which has struck that same mix of simplicity, humour, darkness and brilliance; all while managing to offer subtle hints of things to come. Even if you're not a big time fan of this series, or if the recent Cursed Child atrocity left a bitter taste in your mouth, give this one a shot. 

Plus, hey, if none that gets your attention, name another film which offers Ron Perlman playing a New York goblin gangster.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Arrival (Film Review)

Science fiction has always had something of an unfortunate image stuck with it. Since the late 60s, the genre as a whole has always carried the image of schlock raygun fights, space battles and simple storytelling. This is wrong of course, in the same way that anime is hardly limited to unfortunately placed tentacles and Super Saiyans, but even in this supposed new golden age it's an image which still sticks. Over the last few years though, it seems that big budget cinema has seriously been pushing to finally cast off this old limitation, with Arrival being its latest effort.

This is a story adapted from the short tale Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Focusing upon the first contact between species, but perhaps not in the way you would imagine. While it plays with a few of the usual tropes and ideas, often they are pushed into the background in favour of a single question - How do you communicate with something which lacks any and all cultural context or understanding? How do you come to an understanding with a creature which does not even have vocal chords?

Arriving out of nowhere, seemingly at random across the globe, multiple UFOs begin landing and waiting for humanity to make contact. Uncertain of what to do at first, each nation begins trying to comprehend the alien visitors in their own way, and determine whether or not they are a threat. Doctor Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly are tasked by the United States with determining things from their end, but they begin to question if they are even approaching the aliens in the right way.

Perhaps the most striking thing you will notice immediately once the credits finish rolling is how Arrival is unsettling. There's something oddly skin crawling about its presentation, and even an oddly clinically lifeless quality to the most human of scenes, such as a University classroom. Yet, there is method to this madness. It's not simply one of these situations where it's screwed up by a bad director, but instead crafted by a great one. From the very shot composition to the music and atmosphere of the piece, everything Denis Villeneuve puts onto the screen is intent upon keeping you on-edge. You know something is wrong even without seeing it being wholly out of place, and this only increases as the film pushes well into the second act.

The intent here is apparently to make the audience truly feel out of place and caught up in events, so that the immensity of the situation comes crushing down atop of them. While most directors would have gone for the most absolute obvious route, what we have here instead something which relies almost entirely on atmosphere to convey this idea. Through little more than news reports, sound effects, shots and performances, the film manages to give the sense of the ground being tugged out from under the world. At first the wrongness stems from the more expected sights for such a film - notably jets hurtling over cities to help quarantine these UFOs, but it continues to build from there until you see the vessels themselves.

The cinematography itself is utterly beautiful throughout the film, despite this intentionally off-putting thematic quality. From the first shots of the UFOs to the more human moments inside the confines of the small camp helping to study the new arrivals, the setting and structure is near perfect. While you won't notice it at first, the sheer number of long takes and extended shots helps to offer a more grounded feel to the film which helps cement the idea of this being a point for point depiction of how the world would react to such an arrival.

However, what's truly inspired stems from the way the script adapts the themes of the book. Almost the entire film is spent first building up the aliens - almost Lovecraftian creatures who in any other film might have been a horrifying monster - before focusing upon the building blocks of how to tackle the problems. Making noises more akin to whales than any structured human speech, it goes step by step through the problems of trying to translate even the bare basics of such a language, and then even basic structure or communication. While it doesn't talk down to the audience, the script enters the themes at a slow enough of a speed for everyone to keep pace and comprehend the monumental difficulty of the task before them.

Much of the direct acting weight here falls upon the shoulders of Amy Adams, who is required to not only face the stressful and almost impossible task, but deal with a far greater problem in her life. Exactly what it is only becomes clear in the final act, with the revelation of the film's very structure and staging being a bait-and-switch, but the very nature of this abrupt twist turns the character into something of a cipher. In the hands of a lesser actress, half of Banks' scenes might have seemed lifeless or emotionless, yet Adams manages to add slights shades and subtleties to it. Small alterations and shifts help to continually make her seem all the more human and likable, even when the script itself is focused more upon the core theme and problem over the more human element. For all that Villeneuve accomplishes here, it's no exaggeration to say that without her talent Arrival could have easily been crushed under the weight of its own ambition.

This is hardly to say that the other cast members put in poor performances, of course. Each of them adds slight touches and changes to ensure they remain both reasonable and avoid the usual tropes we would expect. For example, Forest Whitaker is playing the expected hard-ass of a military officer, but his demands are hardly unreasonable and for all his pushing he is never looking for an excuse to start a war with someone. The same goes for Jeremy Renner, who is set up to be the usual self-superior smart scientist, but the man's natural likability and reasoning helps turn the character into a figure an audience is willing to support rather than hate.

However, while much of the film is a definite success until the very end, the final act is likely to leave many people questioning the viability of certain twists and the story. For all its efforts to avoid certain tropes, there's a big one which hits the film hard and a few ideas seem to be too cleanly resolved. There are difficulties to be sure, but everything is pushed together or closed off with a surprising speed until it's all finished. For something which was so strong at the start, there's a good chance at least one major bit will leave you asking "Wait, that's all it took?"

In addition to this, while much of the initial science and logic behind the gradual progression of the story was strong throughout, the twist might be odd to say the least. It near perfectly hinges upon how language can be used as a keystone in understanding others, or cultures in question; not to mention completely changing the audience's perspective of past scenes and how they played out. Yet, despite this, the way it affects Banks' character can be a difficult pill to swallow to say the least, and the idea of it can seem very out of place even in a film such as this. It's one of those things you would expect there would be much more of a story to, and much more effort behind, and yet it's suddenly just there.

While it's not as perfect as some might be claiming, Arrival is nevertheless one of the best films of 2016. Honestly, even if alien visitation/invasion films are almost total anathema to your tastes, this is definitely one you should stop and watch. It's intelligent, slow burning and very detailed, with ideas which will likely spawn articles and essays alike for years to come. It's a major push away from the 'splosions approach to big budget science fiction, and one that definitely works. If Villeneuve can continue to keep up this cinematic winning streak, Blade Runner 2 is in very good hands.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Infrequent Updates For The Foreseeable Months

Yes, it's another one of these posts. This is going to be kept quick as you can probably guess what it's about - Life screwing me over and meaning i'm too mentally and physically drained to continue working on here. In this case, it's down to one of my jobs going to hell in a hand-basket, with one thing after another going horribly wrong over and over again. Not the kind where i'm likely to lose it - with any luck - but the sort where work just keeps mounting up until we're insanely understaffed and everyone is having to work overtime (not to mention give up their days off) just to keep up with a few basic things. It's for this same reason we had nothing up to celebrate Halloween or a few other major events over the past weeks. I would call it crunch time, but that would imply we were reaching the end of something, whereas this is a total hell with no end in sight.

There are things in the pipeline, and Lord do I hope I am given the opportunity to write about them, but don't expect much for the next few weeks.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King (Video Game Preview)

It takes a rare talent to truly stand out with a classically inspired video game, especially today. While you might get the odd Echoes of Aetheria, a simple glance at Steam Greenlight shows a disturbing number of half-finished games shoved out by the truckload, each attempting to lazily cash in on nostalgia with minimal effort. Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is not one of those games. In fact, if anything, this could be a new standard to hold 16-bit inspired releases against.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Calgar's Siege by Paul Kearney (Book Review)

Calgar's Siege is a story of a multitude of outcasts, failures and legends coming together to do the impossible. It's a fairly generic and almost by the book story, but remarkably this describes many behind the scenes elements as much as the core story. For starters, you have a book which is set to follow one of the most infamously derided events in the lore, which helped build-up the anti-Ultramarines sentiment: Calgar single-handedly holding back an entire Ork Waaagh! by guarding a single gate. Then you have the Space Marine Battles series, which has slowly slid further into obscurity, never having returned to the heights it achieved with Battle of the Fang and Helsreach. Even beyond that though, you then have the author, Paul Kearney, offered his second opportunity to helm a Warhammer 40,000 novel after the Umbra Sumus fiasco.

It's an odd mix of elements to be sure, but the end result proves to be a solid read which takes off in an odd direction. You see, for a novel which incorporates and cycles about so much of the existing canon, Calgar's Gate treats itself like a gateway novel. You know the kind, the sort of ones which aim for a straight forwards story but weave their way about enough of the setting to give a reader an impression of what Warhammer is about. The sort of ones which pride themselves on character dynamics and vast scopes as much as heavy action, but never truly push themselves to the point where an average non-fan would end up confused. This is evident fairly early on, with the depiction and introduction of the orks, and establishment of Calgar himself. While it's not a full on introduction to everything from the ground up, it offers just enough of a general impression to keep the reader going before moving into the main story.

We see a great deal going on here, and to give Kearney credit the core story never truly feels as if it's beating you over the head with each general depiction. While the introduction to the world, Zalathras, might seem a little forced at first, the general follow-up and character dynamics soon make it a natural part of the story. It's a good impression of what a frontier world of the Imperium might seem like without devolving into the usual feudal tropes, and many ideas tie closely into it. The concept of Ultramar, the state of the Imperium as a whole, the threat of the Ork Waaagh! and state of the galaxy are all readily and easily established from this with few complaints. In some of the more interesting moments, we also get to see an autopsy of an ork and a few of their more general traits better remarked upon, such as their life cycle, habits and even sub-species. While the novel itself might be aiming for a basic appeal, Kearney himself has definitely done his homework, and the appearance of a few more obscure lore elements is definitely welcome here. For one thing, it's the first novel we've had in years where Storm Troopers appear rather than Scions.

The novel also does a solid job of balancing the Ultramarines' humanity and post-human aspects. Guilliman's chapter here are definitely leaning towards their more sympathetic and populace-serving elements here, but there's enough done to still show they're a cut above the average human. It's akin to the Uriel Ventris approach to things, albeit a little more effective than that, where you can still see the man each astartes was supposed to be to an extent. It's just that they've been reshaped into something else, something far more powerful and removed from the public. The conversations, attitudes and character moments which result from this are a definite plus in the book's favour, and the novel works them in as a kind of point of stability. In contrast to them, many of the side characters are varied and often far more undisciplined, with many ranging from old soldiers past their prime to drunk psykers. Yes, that last one is hilarious as it is tragic.

As you would expect from this, the book also doesn't rush into things. It takes almost a third of the story to even have the orks arrive at the city they intend to besiege. This offers plenty of time to establish all the ideas the book is to cover and the setting as a whole, without front-loading or info-dumping everything at once. This makes it remarkably easy to breeze through even on the first read, which proves to be both a plus and a negative. On the one hand, it allows readers who were more easily off-put by the sheer scope of the setting to adjust to the overall theme of Warhammer as a universe. On the other though, it makes the story surprisingly arduous to get through for everyone else, and lacks many of its core strengths.

When people read Soul Hunter, Dark Apostle or Nightbringer, what often captivates a reader the most is its atmosphere. There's a sense of great age, depth and vastness to the world, as descriptions build-up this idea of vast empires, established planets and an ages old war against countless foes. By comparison, Calgar's Gate lacks that core engagement, and the sheer intensity of such emotions fails to click in many places. As such, long-time readers of Black Library will likely find the first half to plod along for quite a bit and you'll end up just hoping it'll get to the meat of the action. This might not have been too bad on its own, but many of the characters are also remarkably interchangeable. While serviceable in the moment, besides Calgar himself and a few of the top ranking human figures, almost everyone else is info fodder. Figures just there to drop info, add a bit to the story, and then die for drama.

The fighting itself is also rather mixed as well unfortunately. On the one hand, there's an oddly poetic quality in how the bigger battle scenes are described and the running offenses against hordes of foes. The scenes of orks charging astartes lines, fighting their way through the firing squads and ripping Storm Troopers apart are quite atmospheric, and they do get across a sense of constantly being pursues by greater foes at every moment. At the same time though, some of the more visceral engagements in single combat or focusing upon Calgar fighting his way through foes, lacks the punch you would expect. Odd as it sounds, everything is presented in a very distant light.

Finally, the story unfortunately fails to take many risks. While it thankfully sidesteps the obvious issue of Calgar himself being initially presented as an unstoppable uber-human, it doesn't quite reach the Mortarion's Heart level of correcting everything. It just presents a surprisingly general and direct tale, but one which proves to be surprisingly basic and predictable despite the author's obvious efforts.

Overall, Calgar's Siege is solid but relatively forgettable. Ultramarines fans might get a kick out of reading this one, and it is a solid introduction to that corner of the galaxy, but it pales when compared to previous gateway novels like Rynn's World. Give some early extracts a look if you're interested, but don't rush out to grab this one.

Verdict: 5 out of 10

Monday, 14 November 2016

Tyranny (Video Game Review)

Writers love to subvert tropes. They’re the tools of their trade after all, and as much as they establish certain genres, often working against them produces far more fascinating. Today’s example does exactly that, as Tyranny sticks to the old fantasy tropes of ancient past civilisations, a war between good and evil, and a tyrannical overlord then twists them. Not only is the war long over, but the bad guys won, and you’re no hero but a Fatebinder AKA the overlord’s enforcer.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Dishonored 2 (Video Game Review)

The true beauty of the original Dishonored was its balance between two contradictory qualities. Managing to utterly nail a quietly stealthy experience which rewarded careful planning, it nevertheless still offered the power fantasy which appeals to many modern gamers, all of which was neatly tied up with an ingenious story. Proving to be well crafted, intelligent and promising a wider and much more fantastical world beyond Dunwall's borders, the game looked ready to kick-start an entire new series. Well, four years and one tie-in novel on, and we have our first sequel. 

The story here follows the prior game's hero Corvo Attano and Empress Emily Kaldwin as they seek to strengthen and continue her rule over their kingdom. However, despite defeating the previous coup by Hiram Burrows fifteen years ago, he was not the only threat to their stability. A far more powerful foe has arisen: Delilah Copperspoon. Having apparently survived Daud's penitent rampage through her followers, she now calls herself Delilah Kaldwin and has taken the throne for herself, forcing the true heiress and her protector into hiding. With few allies to call upon for help save for the amoral and enigmatic Outsider, they must find their own path to victory.

Much of what worked last time has served as a foundation for new ideas, and there has been a clear focus on trying not to reinvent the wheel. Many returning players will note that Corvo's key abilities have largely remained the same, with the indispensable Blink and Dark Vision both making a return along side a few old favourites. If you knew how best to employ them last time, you'll know how they work here, and the big changes tend to come in the form of the assassin's equipment. With a few new specialist crossbow bolts and gadgets to help get him out of very abrupt fights or situations, players have a few more options to help murder to conk out their foes in a few creative ways. 

None of this is to say that this is bad however, the experience of developing the first game has clearly benefited Arkane Studios. Many sprawling levels and environments offer far more opportunities to explore for secrets, and the way you employ certain powers has certainly been tweaked many times over. Rather than the carefully timed Blink jumps of the last game, the likes of the Clockwork Mansion often force players to use multiple powers one after another to bypass or overcome obstacles. Even many foes have a bit more challenge to them this time, as the clockwork soldier can't simply be rushed or quickly brought low, and instead often require multiple hit and fade tactics to down them. The real fun tends to come down to exactly how you accomplish this end, and the steeper difficulty curve means players will often be forced to plan out infiltration missions Hitman style, rather than playing by the ear and hoping to run into something.

It should go without saying that the artistic design of Dishonoured 2 is without equal, and easily among the most creatively (and beautifully) exaggerated settings short of a Fable game. Trading Dunwall's bleak and often decaying streets for the sunlit environments of Karnaca, the steampunk inspired elements are there but they've taken on a very different theme. There's an obvious emphasis upon colonialism, the visuals of Spain or Italy matched with advanced technology, and hidden corruption disguised behind the beautiful scenery. A key point of this becomes clear when you learn just what keeps the wheels turning in Karnaca, of the horrors of the mines and the vast turbines used to power the city. 

The background lore and information on display here is excellent, and brilliantly compliments the aesthetic of the world. Once again using the prior game as a stepping-stone towards bigger things, there are more visual cues to help you build a bigger image of the setting. While lore books, texts and records are still present throughout the game - all of which offer some very interesting insights into the rest of the world - a clear effort has been put into expressing more ideas through the visuals. There's apparently more trust in the players to put together certain ideas in their heads or understand certain scenes without it being spelled out to them, and this makes the story all the stronger as a result. It becomes especially clear as you move about some of the bigger areas of the game, hunting for loot, and stumble upon scenes told through few corpses. Whereas before such a scene would have been better explained via a journal, here the staging of the deaths and the scene itself is enough to quickly get these ideas across. This might sound like a small thing, but it makes the experience all the more immersive; especially once a few of these points start to drop hints on how to bring down your targets via lethal and cruel means alike.

The big change touted more than anything else in the trailers is, obviously, the fact there are two protagonists on offer this time. While Corvo once more emerges as the man in the iron skull-mask, Emily has the option of taking a few of her own powers if chosen in his place. Unlike her defender though, the dethroned Empress lacks the usual combination of Blink, Slow Time or summoning rats to consume your enemies. Instead, she attains an almost Venom-esque set of black claws, using them to hurl herself about the city, bring down her guards and generally wreck hell alongside a few other inventive bonuses. Doppelganger allows you to create a body double of yourself, while Mesmerize can be used to turn guards to your side for a time. While a few essential bits crossover with Corvo's own power set, notably her Blink substitute by the name of Far Reach, there's enough here to establish Emily as more than just a clone of Corvo.

So, with all that this sounds like a perfect game, right? Well, unfortunately, no. All of this does work, but there are a sizable number of shortcomings which actually makes this strangely weaker than the original Dishonored despite all its steps forwards. For starters, Arkane Studios have stuck little too close to what worked last time, which both benefits and hurts their game. 

We have discussed how each element uses the past as a skeleton to better flesh out the experience, but there's a surprisingly large number of creative shortcomings. Massive chunks of the overarching story feels as if it's retreading old territory, right down to the basic concept. You have a dethroned empress, a villain who has claimed it for themselves and starts to make a mockery of the position, then you need to erode their powerbase by bumping off her supporters. Some of these ideas are good ones and even a general similarity would be fine, but the plot ends up being so similar to the original that this game could be subtitled The Force Awakens. Matters are only made worse when even the fates of certain returning characters are repeated wholesale, right down to the final boss. Even if you can accept all that, however, the opening is so front-loaded with information and rushed through that it seems laughably forced at first, and it takes some time to actually gain its bearings. A definite failing given the atmospheric and well-paced introduction to the first game.

Another very clear issue sadly lies in the use of twin characters. While, at first, this looked as if it would be a promising asset to the game, on reflection it proves to be something of a hindrance. While returning players know just what sort of magic tricks Corvo has up his sleeve, there's no time to test Emily's skills or gain an impression of whether you'd favour one character over the other. If you end up doing so, the only way to fix this is completely starting over. This proves to be a definite problem as Emily unfortunately ends up being the far weaker of the two characters. While many of her powers are indeed original and do not simply mimic Corvo's core skills, there's no denying that most of them are surprisingly inferior to the older assassin's skill set. 

Even if you accept there's no substitute to the all-powerful Slow Time skill which makes the game so much fun to play, many of them are either limited or even downright counterproductive. Mesmerize is useful in a quick fix, but it rarely gets you out of any situations which would not have been just as easily solved via a sleeping dart, and using Doppelganger will draw guards away from your location, but also put them on high alert. Even her substitute to Blink proves to be sadly inferior, as it takes more time to latch onto a ledge, and offers your foes more opportunities to spot you out in the open.

The game's strong narrative might have made up for Emily's mechanical issues if done properly. Unfortunately, even here it fails to truly make use of the idea of having two very different figures on hand. Despite their different skills, the obstacles and solutions to each task are ultimately identical for both Corvo and Emily, and you'll rarely find any challenge one can complete which remains impossible to the other. If one chooses to approach a task in one way, you can be guaranteed it will be the same for the other. In fact, save for a scant few lines and the odd (very fleeting) cutscene, there's absolutely no difference between the two.

The character choices aren't the only strength squandered here either, as the vastly improved visual design is undercut by a constant need to point out the obvious. Honestly, Dishonored 2's protagonists give Geralt of Rivia and Solid Snake a run for their money when it comes to parroting exposition, right up to the point where they're citing the blindingly obvious over and over again. This becomes especially painful during what should be the game's smartest moments - the non-lethal take-downs of your targets - as several have Corvo or Emily going "Gee, I wonder if that would work?" While they don't spell out the exact way you should accomplish your task, their lines might as well be a gigantic neon sign hanging over the solution.

Finally, we have the big one: The PC port. While often these reviews will focus squarely upon the nitty gritty of the game itself and try to give a balanced opinion no matter the system, there's no denying Arkane Studios seriously botched this one. If you try to run this on anything short of a high end gaming PC, you'll find yourself running into bizarre failings which all but wreck the game. For starters, the frame rate often plummets to about ten FPS during the more processor intensive moments, and the cutscenes might as well be a Powerpoint Presentation for all the movement found in them. The mouse acceleration issue here also puts Bioshock to shame, turning the task of carefully picking off guards with a crossbow into an exercise in frustration. The constant micro-stuttering and unresponsive keys will drive players up the wall (quite literally if you're unfortunate enough to hotkey Blink) and it soon turns any attempts at stealth into a complete impossibility. Really, it's as if the developers took one look at No Man's Sky and announced "Challenge accepted!"

So, despite all these issues, is Dishonored 2 to worth getting? Yes. It's still a great game, and while not a fantastic one, it remains a worthy successor to the 2012 release. There's plenty to love here, from the lore to the creative assassinations, and as flawed as it is there's no denying the genius behind its design, or the obvious love put into this world. Unless you're playing on PC, this is still well worth a full price purchase. Just keep in mind that, while this is a breath of fresh air from the open world experiences and endless parade of FPS shooters, it carries with it the vague stench of something rotten.

Verdict: 7 out of 10