You are the Lord Protector Corvo Attano, assigned to safeguard the Empress of Dunwall, Jessamine Kaldwin and her daughter Emily. Dunwall was a great and thriving city but is being destroyed by the rat plague. At the urging of the Spy Master the Empress decides to send you to other lands looking for aid, perhaps even a cure. You return bearing unfavorable news, but during your briefing with Empress Jessamine assassins break into the meeting. Their numbers are too great and they kill the Empress, kidnap Emily, and leave you to take the blame for it all. You are imprisoned; you are sentenced to death; you are Dishonored.
Developed by Arkane Studios, Dishonored is a game that defies easy genre classification. Published by Bethesda, many assumed a Skyrim style RPG, especially in scope and playtime. While it has some RPG elements, such as being able to upgrade Corvo’s abilities and weapons, it is not a Bethesda style RPG. Some expected from the visuals, which are a mix of Half-Life 2’s City 17 and Bioshock’s Rapture, that Dishonored would be an action game in the vein of Bioshock. While the game is in first person perspective and does allow you to fight multiple enemies at once, particularly if you’ve chosen combat oriented abilities, it is not primarily an action game.
Instead, Dishonored plays most similarly to the Deus Ex games. The similarities between the two are that both offer you a number of choices in how to approach a mission but nearly all of them center on stealth. Whether you want to accomplish your goals without killing anyone, or you want to leave a trail of bodies, you are generally going to operate from a position of surprise. Enemies and targets can be dispatched by getting close enough to use a sleeper hold, or to slit their throats. From a distance you can use tranquilizer darts from a crossbow, or bolts kill with a single headshot.
But unlike Deus Ex, in Dishonored action is a more viable alternative. If you choose, after using stealth to find a good spot, you can drop-assassinate a guard then use your pistol and grenades to take out enemies that converge on your position. Augment these weapons with the slow time ability and you can make short work of a fairly large group of enemies (there is an achievement for killing six enemies in less than a second). The combat mechanic may not be as varied as it is in Bioshock or as well-honed as it is in Half-Life 2 but it is satisfying.
The level design is great in that it supports these varied approaches to gameplay and opens up a large number of possibilities, many of which you will not likely see in a single play through of the game. Whether you repeat a mission after completing it or do a second complete run (recommended for story reasons) there are options for almost every action. The exceptions to this many path approach occur at the start and end of a level where it is more narrow.
There are nine missions total with each featuring multiple levels. Some missions have more levels than others and some levels in a mission can be skipped (or simply missed), which has led to some debate about how long the game takes to complete. Quality is more important to me than quantity but the game delivers both if you delve into the lore of the world at all. Depending on how deep you go into the lore and how much exploring you do the game is in the 15-25 hour range.
The art style of the game is wonderful, creating a world that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, even if the whaling theme invokes more of Herman Melville. It is an alternate history setting with a steam-punk aesthetic but instead of steam it is whale oil that drives this world. The sharpness of the graphics and the details of the textures are not on par with most AAA games though. For those who are looking for crisp, realistic graphics, the game may be disappointing in this area. However, for the majority of players the graphics will be fine and do not hinder the art style.
The sound design is superb as is fitting a stealth game. You can hear the guards’ footfalls and tell when they are moving close or moving away. The ambient sounds of Dunwall’s different districts help establish the tone of the city, from the sound of the water in the flooded district to sounds of the party at the Boyle’s mansion. You will want to play with either a headset or a good set of speakers if possible.
The game offers multiple ways to upgrade Corvo’s abilities. One way is runes, which are used to buy supernatural powers and their upgrades. Corvo is given the first level of the blink power, which allows him to teleport to a different location, but powers such slowing time, possessing creatures, and more can be obtained if you have enough runes. Charms are enhancements and have more variety. Charms may grant you additional health from food, or may improve the speed at which you move when carrying a body. Corvo is given a bio-mechanical heart early in the game that helps in locating runes and charms. When you have the heart equipped it will directionally reveal where the runes and charms are on the level and the distance to them.
Runes and charms can be used at any point in the game. But improvements to Corvo’s weapons can only be done by Piero Joplin. Piero is located in the area of the Hounds Pit Pub, where Corvo returns between missions to rest and get his next assignment. In the game fiction Piero needs material to build the tools which Corvo uses including ammunition and weapon upgrades. The game simplifies this into a coin system so that any element, from bird feathers (presumably for your crossbow bolts) to ore, gets converted to money. Then you buy whatever ammunition or upgrades you want from Piero.
The story in Dishonored has been called predictable and the plot outline is familiar. But what Dishonored attempts is to have the player’s actions affect the game world/story. While in many ways it doesn’t do this as well as the original Deus Ex, in a few ways it does it better. The world itself changes based on whether Corvo is bent on revenge, killing anyone who gets in his way, or whether he is looking for justice, killing only when necessary if at all. These changes include whether the rat plague worsens over the course of the game and the behavior of some key characters.
How you played the game also impacts the ending. This means you cannot simply make a choice at the end of the game and get a drastically different ending as in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. So choice does matter to how the story plays out but your actions will not change the basic nature of the missions you are given. Dishonored improves on the consequence of choice when compared to most games, but there is still room for growth.
The background of Dunwall and its inhabitants is revealed in many ways, including books, letters, and audiographs. But the best way to learn about the city and its people is by using the bio-mechanical heart, which, when activated, reveals hidden details about the object towards which it was aimed. One guard lost all of his family to the plague, while another guard will kill two people tonight if he is not killed. The most interesting reveals are around the more significant characters in the game, like Samuel, the boatman who ferries you to your missions.
This review is based on the PC version of Dishonored and at least in that version you have the option of disabling the visual clues in the game. For the best experience it is recommend that most of these, especially the objective waypoints, are disabled. Dishonored is at its best when the player is freely exploring the city of Dunwall. If the player moves from objective to objective much of what makes Dishonored special will be missed. This means if you are looking for a fast-paced game, Dishonored may not be for you.
Dishonored is a wonderful experience. It’s a world that is unique, even if some elements are borrowed. In a time when we are seeing sequel piled upon sequel and many of them similar to other games, Dishonored stands out. It is not perfect but its aim was high and it came close enough to hitting the mark to make it one of the outstanding titles of 2012 and perhaps of this generation.