Video game characters don’t usually get stuck with boring day jobs, but if I were to choose out of all the digital professions, I’d easily gravitate to being an assassin. Hiding in the shadows, stalking your prey, then driving a hot iron blade into their neck is the fantastical escape that I like to see within the confines of video games (and only video games), so any title with that premise already has my ears perked up. Dishonored is such a game, with an assassin fueled on revenge being the main tagline. A simple label such as that is a reductive way of looking at this game because of the vast array of choices it offers the player. Dishonored is not only one of the most interesting games within the past few years, but it manages to be the most well-designed title complete with multiple ways to approach any situation. This is a recipe for success.
Dishonored‘s tightly woven tale stars silent Lord Protector Corvo Attano in the fictional steampunk town of Dunwall. Having the Lord Protector title is quite honorable, but such nobility comes with the heavy burden of protecting the Empress. In a private meeting between Corvo, the Empress, and her daughter, Corvo witnesses the Empress’ brutal murder and is framed for such a crime and tossed in jail. Although sentenced to death, Corvo is saved and recruited by the Loyalists, an underground group set on putting Dunwall on the rails again with the right heir to the throne. Corvo, now free and armed with supernatural powers and a hefty blade, seeks revenge on all who wronged him and will go through whoever to quench his thirst for vengeance.
A narrative with revenge as its focal point doesn’t seem like a prime candidate for an interesting story, but Dishonored pulls it off with a bunch of contributing factors successfully congealing together. Not to sell the people short, but the city of Dunwall and the fiction around it has to be the most interesting character in the entire title. From the plague, whales, books, notes, and anecdotes from characters, many successful efforts were poured into the backstory and fiction of Dunwall evolving it to a fleshed-out setting that feels like an actual place stretched only a little into the fantastical realm. Rapture from the glorious Bioshock is a spot-on parallel, but with cannibalistic rats instead of coked up Splicers. In spite of the deadly plague, I wanted to be there and felt the urge to absorb as much as I could about this new, imaginative universe.
Dunwall is only one contributing factor to the narrative. Corvo narrowly dodges the “I-hate-silent-protagonists” arrow because everyone around him is alluring enough to, in a sense, speak for him. From the innocent soon-to-be-Empress Emily to the gentle giant Admiral Havelock, each person plays so well because of the solid writing, exceptional delivery, and cartoonish look. Foes were hated appropriately and inversely with allies rounding out the cast and giving everyone a role. Even the ancillary cast is one worth remembering.
Pacing accounts for the final pillar of the burly narrative structure. The intro leads you in slowly, feeding your curiosity from one story beat to the next. With exceptional timing, a giant twist comes about two-thirds of the way through and refreshes the whole game. All of this leads up to a final cutscene and encounter that is strangely calm compared to the events at hand. Such tranquility isn’t a huge pejorative, but it wasn’t as climactic as I would have wanted it to be. Delving any deeper would make this review take a detour into Spoilerville, but don’t expect the biggest battle or explosion to come within the game’s final moments. I felt a little wanting at the end, but the journey to that point was a good one to have in the rear view.
Like 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored is a first-person game that places emphasis on stealth and choices. Although Corvo isn’t an edgier Inspector Gadget, he has his own share of ways to handle his situations. Magic, a crossbow, pistol, and a trusty blade are this silent assassin’s choice armaments, helping him out in every mission and lending more paths and options for those willing to look.
Yeah, you could just stroll through the front door like a clinically insane psychopath, but Dishonored offers much more than that. Paths through certain areas aren’t spelled out, leaving the player’s playstyle to dictate where they go. Blinking (the game’s answer to a short-range teleport) up to a street light to reach the upper floor’s open windows is just as viable as searching around and entering through the basement. Different playstyles can also give the same information, but with different methods of obtaining it. You may stumble across a key from a guard’s pouch, or you many find it in the secret bunker a few rooms away. It’s hard to miss any vital information since it is scattered in different forms in different places. You’re bound to find at least one of them.
The vast array of ways to infiltrate each compound is staggering and further depends on your chosen skill tree and own intellectual prowess. The game doesn’t outright tell you much, but this sets the game up for a lot moments where you feel legitimately smart. You figured it out because the game is designed well, but you’ll mostly end up feeling like a smart cookie. There’s a certain tangible intrinsic reward for finding a path that isn’t blatantly marked via in-game waypoint.
However, the game’s reservoir of powers doesn’t really evolve past the halfway point or so. Finding new entrances remains fun throughout, but they are usually within the same style. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a title with similar goals, didn’t run into this slight issue because of the vast array of powers that were carefully doled out throughout the campaign. Corvo doesn’t have as expansive of a power wheel so it is only natural that his moveset hits a wall more quickly, limiting the new ways to infiltrate and traverse. By absolutely no means is this a deal breaker some huge glaring issue, but it is a facet of the game that could have been dealt with a little better.
Mission structure also leans heavily on choices. In fact, Corvo may as well be the first assassin that doesn’t even have to dirty his blade (and conscience) with blood. Flexibility is granted through the ability to go through big assassination missions (as well as smaller missions) without even harming a soul. Instead of royally gutting the bad guy and bathing in his blood, you can opt to do something a lot worse, but not outright kill him. Maybe you’ll just knock him out and drag him to a prison cell where it only plays Justin Bieber and One Direction? Now that’s a fate worse than death. These non-lethal alternatives exhibit strong, elastic game design for multiple players and yield some replay value. Going in all stabby is thoroughly supported as well, with the knife and crossbow being a blast to experiment with.
Choosing mercy or punishment, Dishonored does tend to favor a sneakier player. Stealth lives on in this title and is welcoming to less skillful players, but offers depth for veterans of espionage. Corvo’s versatile powers allow the player to sneak more efficiently, with the speedy and silent Blink and detective vision-esque Dark Vision powers being vital for any ninja’s arsenal. Becoming handy with the crossbow or knife along with hiding bodies and plain ol’ tiptoeing, breaking and entering becomes a logical stealth puzzle that will make experienced players squeal with excitement. The game allows for such freedom, making it entirely possible to never alert anyone of your presence, regardless of how much blood you spill.
Enemy intelligence plays a significant role in the silent tactical adventures as well. Patrols are usually pretty routine, but the game skillfully finds ways to mix routes up to keep players on their toes. Guards will cough or talk to subtly alert players to their positions along with calling out if they are about to change directions and check a new area off the beaten path. If you do get spotted, they are nifty enough to group up and dispatch of you if you fight back, but will go the extra mile to try and track you down if you scurry back into the shadows. With multiple options combining with the high IQ of your foes, stealth feels open, challenging, and gratifying to anyone willing to put in the effort for that path.
Even if you don’t put much effort into stealth, Dishonored, while it may lean a little more on the difficult side, is set up for people who prefer sword combat or just aren’t good at getting past unnoticed. Melee fights are slightly reminiscent of Bioshock with dual wielding being a main focus. It relies on a simple countering system that is simple fun, but when mixed with the powers, you can open up whole other deeper styles of play for higher difficulties. Getting caught usually doesn’t poison the whole level and systems are conveyed to the player rather well (thanks to the gradual alert markers), putting this as a stealth game you can ease into if you aren’t as experienced in such a genre.
Dunwall and its inhabitants don’t have the most technically stunning visuals (it looks like an average game from a few years ago), but it doesn’t come across as a bad looking game. The heavily stylized art style carries the title far beyond its technical prowess and gives the game its unique look. It may not be pushing as many polygons as Uncharted or God of War, but the stylish visual flair will let this title age a little more gracefully.
Dishonored is a ballsy risk. Being exclusively single-player and a new intellectual property seems like a recipe for being lost in the shuffle but Dishonored is ultimately refreshing and an absolute blast to play around with. Few games can simultaneously scratch so many itches with such pleasure making Dishonored a game that is a jack of all trades and a master of almost all of them. Whether you choose to sheath your blade or choose to keep it moist with red fluid, there’s always one certainty: you’ll be crafting your own wonderful experience.
+Exciting, well-paced narrative with twists, turns, and a whole lot of bloodshed (if you choose) in a unique, well-realized fictional world
+Brilliantly designed from top to bottom
+Challenging, yet incredibly welcoming stealth mechanics
+A healthy amount of choice to carry about each mission, lending incredibly replay value
-Technically unimpressive visuals
-Could have used a bigger selection of powers
Final Score: 9/10