Video game expansions are good places to focus on storytelling. Developers can give players a fine-tuned and familiar experience, but with a new narrative attached — like Fallout 4’s “Far Harbor” hard-boiled mystery, or the power struggle over a supercomputer in BioShock 2’s “Minerva’s Den.” Arkane Studios has reinforced this idea with the Dishonored 2 follow-up Death of the Outsider, calling it a “standalone story” set in the same universe. But Death of the Outsider isn’t just an extra chapter to Dishonored 2. It’s a satisfying experiment in stripping the series to its essentials, without losing the complexity that makes it interesting.
Similar to the original Dishonored’s “The Knife of Dunwall” and “The Brigmore Witches” expansions, Death of the Outsider spins out the story of a side character from Dishonored 2: ship’s captain Meagan Foster, a retired assassin once known as Billie Lurk. After the events of Dishonored 2, Lurk seeks out her old mentor Daud, who she betrayed years ago in “Knife of Dunwall.” Near death, Daud gives Lurk one last job: killing the Outsider, a godlike figure who dispenses deadly supernatural powers — used by both Daud and Lurk — with amoral detachment. You can catch plenty of references to Dishonored 2, but you don’t need to own the original game to play it, nor have more than a basic familiarity with the series’ premise.
Death of the Outsider has the biggest and most fantastical stakes in the entire Dishonored series, as Lurk must infiltrate a cult that’s found a way to reach the Outsider and a weapon that could kill him. But it’s a markedly shorter game than Dishonored 2; I spent nine hours on a moderately exploration-heavy playthrough, a bit over half of what I put into Dishonored 2. It feels smaller in other ways as well. The game reuses locations from its predecessor, and pares the main voice cast down to Lurk, Daud, and the Outsider himself.
There’s less character-building, but a new flow
Death of the Outsider also scales back the number of supernatural talents you get, and removes the system for unlocking them. After a short introduction, Lurk gets three powers: Displace, which lets you place teleportation markers and warp to them; Semblance, which lets you impersonate another character; and Foresight, which stops time and highlights items and enemies. Unlike the rest of the series, you don’t upgrade these abilities. Instead, you can tweak their properties with bone charms, which are scattered plentifully around levels. You get a couple more powers as the story progresses, but nothing as game-changingly dramatic as conjuring rat swarms or stopping time, to name two Dishonored options.
Accordingly, Death of the Outsider doesn’t offer the character-building you’ll find in other Dishonored games, but it plays with a new sense of flow. There’s no initial underpowered period of hunting upgrade runes to unlock core abilities, and no endgame of toying with ancillary powers once you’re flush with them. Levels still feel dense and intricate, but the incentives to explore them are story-related. You might uncover a useful secret, like a convenient getaway boat, or a helpful character, like a captive cultist who can access a locked room.
It helps that your abilities are flexible and complementary. Displace and Foresight are tweaked equivalents to Blink and Dark Vision, the two workhorse powers of Dishonored. Displace makes almost every corner of every level accessible, and Foresight lets you build a plan of attack, even predicting the paths of enemies you’ve marked. Semblance, meanwhile, is an all-purpose way to get through crowded areas without being detected — a little like Hitman’s disguise system. Naturally, you can also impersonate specific high-profile people, which opens up a whole new set of strategies. And Death of the Outsider encourages using powers more often with a mana bar that refills completely over time, instead of making players use vials to refill it.
This slimmer outlay may have less staying power than the original system, because there are fewer truly outlandish experiments to try once you’ve mastered the core elements. (An “Original Game Plus” mode, which lets Lurk play with some classic Dishonored powers, could help.) As someone who doesn’t really enjoy playing Dishonored as an aggressive action game, it’s also hard to say how players less interested in stealth will feel about the new system. You’ve got the classic Dishonored sword and gun, and there are some clever lethal options — you can make someone explode by Displacing into them, for instance. But the new additions seem to favor methodical planning even more than the original games did, especially if you’re tracking targets with Foresight. That said, Dishonored has always encouraged sneaky non-lethal play, so it’s a subtle shift at most.
The game’s high point made me feel very clever
You also won’t find anything like Dishonored 2’s most incredible levels in Death of the Outsider — it’s clearly repurposing existing work, not creating radically new material. But it hits a high point with a perfect extended bank heist, rewarding careful planning and experimentation with a real feeling of cleverness and accomplishment. And its story is more focused than Dishonored or Dishonored 2. You’ll still find the intrigue that marks the series, but it’s secondary to Lurk’s melancholy relationship with the ailing Daud, and her ambivalence over stopping a violent threat with yet more violence.
As its name suggests, there’s a note of finality in Death of the Outsider. Dishonored 2 wasn’t a massive financial success, and moving the series forward from here would mean either reworking the world or retroactively lowering the stakes of Lurk’s challenge. But if this is the end, it’s a fitting way to go out. And if it’s not, it’s a good template for future one-off projects — a game that feels notably smaller, but never cut short.
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.