- Editor's Rating
New IPs are rare these days, given that gaming is currently stuck in an age plagued by sequelitis and reboots. So when a brand new idea like Dishonored is brought to the table, it\’s refreshing. Even more refreshing is when the game actually turns out to be fantastic and shows that for game developers, taking a risk can often be rewarded.
The sum of Dishonored\’s parts is what makes it unique, in that everything that\’s done here, we\’ve seen before: first-person stealth, ranged and melee combat, a steampunk world, a spreading plague, and magical powers. But it\’s safe to say that we\’ve never seen a game that combines all of these elements together into a single experience…and mostly seamlessly, at that.
A Tale of Revenge
Dishonored is a single player-only game that takes place in the industrial, steampunk city of Dunwall where its citizens appear to have a bizarre obsession with whales: nearly everything is powered by whale oil, people eat whale meat, etc. But more importantly, you play as Corvo Attano, the bodyguard of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and her daughter, Emily.
Unfortunately, Dunwall is in dire straits as a result of a horrific rat plague. The rats are spreading death and disease, turning ordinary citizens into zombie-like beings called weepers, while the corpses are causing the rat population to grow at an alarming rate. This, of course, is a factor in the gameplay, and a higher kill count causes the plague to spread at a faster rate, spawning more weepers and rat swarms to deal with as you progress (while also affecting the endgame).
And despite the fact that this makes for a rather disgusting environment, I can assure you that Dishonored is an exceedingly great-looking game with a distinct – though perhaps not entirely original – art style. Its pastel colors and its character models that straddle the line between realistic and cartoonish have Bioshock written all over them, but more on this inspiration later. Also, the game does experience its fair share of texture pop-ins, mostly after loads, but beyond that the visuals are a real treat.
So after being sent by Jessamine to a neighboring city to seek aid with the plague (which is swiftly denied with the threat of embargo), Corvo returns to Dunwall to report to the city\’s empress at the start of the game. Their meeting is interrupted by a mysterious band of assassins who murder Jessamine in front of Corvo and kidnap young Emily before vanishing from the scene. Corvo is subsequently framed for the murder and sentenced to death.
Needless to say, Corvo escapes from imprisonment and you begin your quest to clear your name and rescue Emily from her kidnappers. In order to do so, you must neutralize the supporters of the man – and eventually, the man himself — who has seized control of Dunwall and is responsible for your framing: the Lord Regent, Hiram Burrows.
The game is broken up into 9 individual missions with transitional moments at a makeshift home base in between most of them. Personally, I love this set up from both a gameplay and logistical standpoint. I prefer this sort of linearity and compartmentalization, because it\’s preferable to the alternative, which would have been for developer Arkane to jump on the sandbox/open world bandwagon and attempt to turn Dunwall into the next Liberty City or Steelport or whatever. And guess what? In all likelihood, it would have been a rather bland, half-assed open world environment that\’s basically lifeless, save for a handful of POIs (think No More Heroes, for example).
Rather, Arkane has carved out chunks of the city for you to explore at a time and carefully fleshed them out with details. You even get to see how certain parts of the city are connected when revisiting some of the same areas at the start of a mission, only to branch off in a different direction to get to another section of Dunwall.
And logistically, breaking the game up into distinct missions is great for stat tracking. There are three types of collectables in the game: runes (used to level up your magical powers), bone charms (which provide different perks, like more mana, but only when they\’re equipped in your limited slots), and paintings (basically net you tons of money). At the end of each mission, you get to see your stats and note how many of the collectables you found (or missed), as well as other info like number of alarms sounded, whether or not you were ever spotted, number of unconscious bodies or corpses that were found, and, of course, number of kills.
Also tracked is your chaos level, which is effected by the number of kills you have, as well as the number of bodies found and alarms sounded. As mentioned, high chaos levels lead to a faster, wider spread of the rat plague and a darker endgame (story-wise), while low chaos leads to a more stable city and an all-around happier endgame. But such is the beauty of Dishonored: the power of choice. You don\’t even necessarily have to kill the supporters and associates of the Lord Regent, or even the Lord Regent himself. Each target has an alternate, non-lethal method by which you can dispose of them. In fact, you can complete the entire game without killing anyone.
Admittedly, the appeal to this power of choice has less to do with the story changes and outcome than it does with simply getting to experience the game in a different manner. I did two run-throughs of the game, one no detection/no kill run and one…well, all kill run. And each run played like two completely different games. Despite the fact that I did my kill run on a higher difficulty, I still found the stealth/no kill run far more difficult than just running and gunning, though it was equally enjoyable. However, each run gave me the opportunity to explore the benefits of the game\’s expansive arsenal, equipment, and magical powers.
So Many Toys
On paper, this may seem like the type of game that\’s too ambitious because it\’s trying to cram too many elements into one place, but in practice, it works quite well for the most part. Your staple is your trusty sword, which is always bound to the right trigger, while weapons and magical powers are bound to the left trigger; all users need to do is pull up an inventory wheel with the left bumper (which drastically slows, but does not completely freeze, time) and equip their weapon or power of choice for the left hand.
Weapons include a crossbow – featuring regular, incendiary, and sleep bolts – as well as grenades, a pistol, and a rather brutal type of trap called a spring razor. You can use money that you collect to buy upgrades for your weapons, like a bigger clip for the pistol, better accuracy and range for your crossbow, or even weapon variations like sticky grenades or explosive rounds for your pistol. They\’re all equally fun to play with, though the pistol and its stopping power (if it doesn\’t immediately kill your enemy, it will always at least knock him to the ground) quickly became a favorite of mine.
You have a fair amount of equipment at your disposal, and like your arsenal, it can also be upgraded. Certain upgrades can be purchased from the get-go, while others can only be purchased once Corvo finds the appropriate blueprints during the missions. Corvo\’s mask can be upgraded with a zoom capability, while he can also purchase better quality armor and increased carry capacities for ammo and potions. Finally, there\’s the Heart, which is a mechanical human heart (gross) that Corvo can whip out and use to track down runes and bone charms.
After the weapons and equipment, the last piece of the puzzle is Corvo\’s assortment of magical powers. Now, while this works out well in terms of gameplay, it\’s true that this is probably the aspect that feels the most tacked-on, at least as far as the narrative is concerned. Part of the culture of Dishonored involves a semi-godlike figure known as the Overseer that basically serves as the centerpiece for some peoples\’ religious beliefs despite the fact that he\’s apparently a very neutral, impartial being with no leanings towards good or evil. For whatever reason, the Overseer can embue random people (that he seemingly arbitrarily chooses) with magic powers, and Corvo is one of those lucky few: after the prologue, Corvo is visited by the Overseer in a dream and is granted the ability to cast spells. (It\’s also worth mentioning that the Overseer is a worthless character, doing little during his appearances throughout the game other than describe the situation at hand and pose expansive philosophical question after question while answering precisely none of them.)
Okay, so the reasons for the inclusion of magic in the game are flimsy at best, but that can be somewhat forgiven considering that your magical powers and enhancements are easily the most fun aspects of Dishonored and the primary reason that the gameplay gets flipped on its head at times. Take Bend Time, for instance: once fully upgraded (all magical powers and enhancements have two levels), it can freeze time completely, allowing you to systematically execute or sneak by your enemies without anyone being any the wiser once time has resumed. You can also queue up actions like firing crossbow bolts, which will launch themselves at your enemies once time kicks back in, or even pick up live grenades that your opponents may have lobbed at you and toss them back home.
There are plenty of other powers for you to use, including Dark Vision, which allows you to see enemies through walls; Possession, which lets you take control of animals and even other humans (great for sneaking as its a full-body transferral and Corvo reappears wherever he relinquishes control of his target); Devouring Swarm, a brutal power that unleashes a swarm of flesh-eating rates upon your target; and Wind Blast, which can be used to break down doors or launch enemies into walls or over ledges. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there\’s Blink, your bread and butter. A short-range teleportation spell, Blink allows you to scale buildings or get to high, hard-to-reach places for stealthy approaches when closing in
So during one mission on my first runthrough, just for fun, I thought I\’d blast in the front doors of my target\’s residence, freeze time as the guards came charging towards me, strap a spring razor to one of their backs, lob out a grenade, and fire off a couple of crossbow bolts just as time resumed, with most of them dying around me. One remained, so I unleashed a swarm of rats on him to stop him in his tracks and voila, the way to my target was clear. But this was my stealth runthrough, so I reloaded my save game. This time, I possessed a rat outside of the building, guided it through an air duct, and emerged from it inside the building before Blinking my way up to a chandolier to avoid any guards and, ultimately, stroll right into my target\’s bedroom through its balcony overlooking the main foyer. They were two completely different approaches to accomplish the same ultimate goal, and they were both insanely fun. Your powers are all part of the game\’s emphasis on choice, and they\’re a blast to experiment with.
Now, when I first played Dishonored back E3, I expressed some concern over the magical abilities making Corvo just a touch overpowered, as it was easy to abuse them, what with a partially regenerating mana meter and mana potions littered all over the levels. This is still kind of the case, as the game got a little easier by the end when many of my powers were fully upgraded and I could more or less do what I pleased without being stopped; as mentioned, my kill run was especially easy.
But I think that in the final product, Arkane tweaked the balancing — and designed the levels — just well enough to still provide a bit of a challenge at times. It helped that your source for upgrading your spells, the runes, were spread out well across the game to pace my character\’s progression. And there are a limited number of runes in the game; there aren\’t enough to allow you to fully upgrade all of your spells. So choose your upgrades wisely.
A Living, Breathing City
What I\’ve been reading in some other reviews is that some people seem to find the narrative to be a bit lacking, that aside from Corvo\’s somewhat generic tale of revenge, we\’re teased with these hints about life in the city of Dunwall without ever getting to a chance to take a closer look at it.
I think that last part is simply untrue. Dunwall is a meticulously crafted city that\’s not only populated by unique characters and factions and ordinary citizens alike, it\’s also teeming with lore just waiting to be discovered. Books and letters litter the environment, and the Heart can recite interesting tidbits of information about people or locations at your command. There are even bizarre forms of wildlife that you encounter, like hagfish or river krusts.
Yes, this is, first and foremost, the tale of Corvo Attano, not the tale of Dunwall, and we\’re seeing the city through his eyes and with his priorities in mind. But that doesn\’t mean that Dunwall is just an unexplored territory in which this linear story unfolds. Aside from the people and creatures, there is a fascinating undercurrent of social tensions, not just as a result of the conspiracy and the Lord Regent\’s rise to power, but also because many of the citizens clash over beliefs regarding the Overseer and the otherworldly forces he\’s bestowed upon some.
If you\’re not that interested in Dunwall or life in the city, that\’s fine; you can blow by all of it if you\’re not interested. But just know that the Dunwall is as fleshed out as you want it to be. This is one hell of a cool world and the people who brought it to life deserve credit for creating such a unique, intriguing environment for the game to take place in.
What I will concede is that the nature of Corvo\’s story is indeed a bit generic — and the whole random presence of magic thing is a bit silly — though the ability to handle your \”revenge\” in so many different ways does provide a bit of a twist. And not all elements of the game\’s world are entirely original. Dishonored walks a fine line between paying tribute to its influences and more or less aping other games, and it stumbles occasionally.
The way the stealth gameplay feels like a Thief game (or at times, Deus Ex, with its obstacles with multiple solutions) can\’t really be helped – though an Easter egg containing a word-for-word reenactment of a scene from The Dark Project makes it clear where the inspiration came from – but the environments don\’t exactly hide the fact that Arkane worked on Bioshock 2, whose art style is awfully similar. Likewise, certain aspects of Dunwall, especially the lockdowns/curfews and Tall Boys (giant, mechanical stilt walkers), reek of Half Life 2\’s City 17 and, specifically, its Striders.
But perhaps the biggest flaw is how abruptly the game ends. I won\’t spoil anything, but rest assured that it\’s extremely anticlimactic, both in terms of the story and gameplay. The narrative wraps up very tidily and while there isn\’t anything inherently wrong with that, in this particular case the epilogue makes a few leaps and subsequently raises some questions about, \”Well, how exactly did we get from the end of the game to this happy, cleaned up ending?\” And as far as the actual gameplay is concerned, I can appreciate the fact that the game\’s developers have said that they didn\’t feel compelled to include boss fights in the game, but without some sort of grand finale or finish, the game kind of fizzles out and ends rather suddenly (and easily).
\”This game is all about choice,\” is a popular claim made by game developers these days. Usually this boils down to a thinly-veiled morality system with clear cut, painfully obvious \”good\” and \”evil\” decisions (will you save the puppies and feed the homeless or will you blow up the orphanage and eat babies?). But Dishonored is all about choice in a different way: this isn\’t about right or wrong, it\’s all about how you choose to play the game. And Arkane has come up with no shortage of resources that allow you to make tons of choices about how you want to play Dishonored.
Sure, there\’s still that whole \”light\” or \”dark\” ending element that comes into play depending on your Chaos level, but Corvo\’s tale isn\’t really the highlight of the game here. It\’s decent, but it ends rather abruptly and I found the world in which it took place to be far more fascinating. Rather, the appeal of the game lies in the fact that I was able to play through the entire game twice and have it feel like two completely different experiences. Dishonored may have a linear structure with the way it\’s broken up into distinct missions, but the way you go about those missions is very non-linear, and that\’s what makes this such a fantastic game.
Dishonored is definitely worth your money if you\’re willing to explore, experiment, and tinker with everything the game has to offer, which takes at least a couple of runthroughs. My first runthrough alone took about 18 hours, and that was because I was exploring every last corner, finding every last collectible, and just toying around with all of the different approaches granted by the game\’s magnificent design. After all, the best part of Dishonored is thinking outside of the box and reloading an old save just to try a different approach because you find yourself wondering, \”Hm, how else can I pull this off?\”