Dishonored is the story of a man, a little girl, and the people he’ll kill to keep her safe
It’s important to note that the first thing you attempt to do in Dishonored ends in failure. Corvo may be a perfectly adequate body guard, but when things go sideways he’s taken out of the equation quickly and easily by enemies of the Empress. An assassin kills his target, the woman you are sworn to protect, and the wrong people assume you drove in the knife. There are mighty forces fighting over the future of the “steampunk by way of whale exploitation” setting that houses the story of Dishonored, and you’re not one of them. At least not until a supernatural being steps in to grant you inhuman powers.
This is like interrupting a game of chess to allow the knight to move any way he’d like on the board. A mid-tier player is suddenly a powerful force in the game, and you’re asked to take control of that player. This is the basic set up of Dishonored. Also, there is a plague going on, and rats are everywhere. No fun.
You’re the bullet in the gun, not the finger on the trigger
The game takes place in a city where whale oil powers everything, a supernatural being regularly steps in to change the course of events, and a plague is tearing the streets apart. There are many balls in the air here, and the setting doesn’t come together as well as Arkane would have liked. The aesthetic itself is strong however, and on a powerful PC it looks almost like an oil painting come to life.
There are many unsettling touches throughout the game, including organ grinder-like characters who stop you from using your magic and a ball where all the guests wear grotesque masks. So many of the images are provocative, but seem to exist only to unsettle the player. You can dig into the world by reading the books and papers spread around the levels, or even by listening to the beating, mechanical heart that helps you find upgrades, but the sense of both scale and place don’t seem to land. There is little context for the size of the city, and so much of the people’s suffering is described instead of shown. It’s hard to get a sense for what’s at stake when you only see a street or two around each location.
Even Corvo’s mask seems like a way to brand the character rather than a necessary item from the game; are we expected to believe a regular person knows what the lord protector looks like at a glance? Or that a menacing steel mask is less likely to cause a stir than Corvo showing his real face in public?
The story isn’t about redemption as much as it’s about trying to gain control of a scared populace. Corvo is repeatedly treated as nothing more than an asset in that struggle, despite his amazing powers. Notice how many times outside forces save him as you play the game. He’s not a superhero, he’s a man being pushed around by other men looking for power. To be specific, the power held by a young lady.
Emily is the heir to the throne and, now that her mother has been killed, she’s next in line. She’s also around 10 years old. Corvo is your standard silent protagonist in Dishonored, but pay attention to how much the artists behind the game were able to tell us about his relationship with Emily through their animations. She runs into his arms, and he spins her around with the easy familiarity of an adult who has spent years with a child.
Dishonored doesn’t spend much time making a big deal of the bond between Emily and Corvo because it doesn’t have to; that connection is always there in the background, made implicit by the game’s smaller details. You get the sense that the political realities of Emily’s lineage don’t matter to Corvo; he would fight this hard just because he cares about her. That’s what makes him dangerous, and it’s a connection few other characters in the game seem to grasp.
Fighting the future
A dark figure grants you special powers early in the game, and you can add to that arsenal of arcane ability by finding runes throughout each mission using the aforementioned heart. You can slow down, and ultimately stop, time. You can teleport from rooftop to rooftop, or appear behind an enemy before putting your blade through their neck.
You can possess the bodies of rats and even humans when fully powered up. You can unlock the ability to see through walls, or turn enemies to ash the moment they die. With no bodies in your wake, it’s easier to skulk around each level. Your crossbow can also be loaded with darts that cause your targets to sleep, or you can sneak behind them and choke targets into unconsciousness. There isn’t a huge number of powers to be unlocked, but the game comes to life when you begin to learn how to stack them on top of each other to kill or incapacitate people in unique ways.
Stop time, fire knockout arrows at multiple targets, leave the room, restart time, and watch them all drop as the arrows hit their targets. Teleport around a level and simply avoid all the enemies. Re-wire defensive devices so they attack your enemies and not yourself. There are multiple ways to finish each mission, along with options that kill your targets or leave them alive but removed from the equation.
While the game takes great pains to remind you that you can kill everyone you see or use stealth to reduce the bloodshed, it’s clear that stealth is the “light side” option. The fewer people you kill the lower the chaos of the city, and the better the outcome of the game. The decision to leave someone alive or dead could have unintended consequences down the line as well and, in a subversive twist, most of the non-lethal story options end with an outcome that’s worse than death for your target. Still, if you want to “save” the city, stealth is the way to go.
The problem is that the stealth isn’t precise; it’s hard to tell where and when a guard will see you, and the game warns you to save often. I found myself saving, and then going back to that quick-save, with some regularity as I tried to find the best path around a single character. It can be frustrating, and this gives the game a staccato rhythm through some of the heavier sneaking sections as you load, experiment, get caught, re-load, get past a character, save, and continue on.
The game’s best mission takes place in a costume ball where you’re allowed to walk openly next to the guests and solve the mystery of finding your target and figuring out a way to eliminate her without raising an alarm. Most of the scenarios in the game allow for multiple paths, and the costume ball mission will actually adjust a few variables to keep the suspense high during subsequent playthroughs. The game doesn’t seem to give a shit if you find a way to “break” a mission with a clever combination of powers, and it’s fun to find a clever way around a character or through a densely populated room.
During one or two missions I lucked into my target, and was able to take them out with a simple knife attack, no theatrics needed. There are no boss battles to be found, thank goodness; even the most powerful characters in the game are just people vying for control. Their human bodies are just as frail as the peasants dying of the plague outside, and it’s refreshing to be able to kill them with simple attacks. There is always the temptation to make politically powerful enemies in games physically powerful with powered armor, psychic abilities, or other such bullshit, but the team at Arkane wisely avoided those cliches.
I reached out to a few other reviewers after I had beaten the game and made my notes, and we shared tales of how we took care of each target, and told the fun stories that pop up organically when you play a game this open. There has been some noise about people beating the game in under 5 hours, and it’s probably possible to do so, but my first run through the game clocked in at over 10 hours and there are alternate paths, secrets, lore, and even characters I have yet to see or meet. I’m looking forward to playing again and going down the dark path; as I only killed six or seven people in my first run through the game.
It’s fun to share your solutions to the game’s puzzles with your friends and other players. “You can do that?” I found myself saying to people sharing their stories about a clever use of weapons or abilities, before scrambling back to the game to try it myself.
Sadly, you can’t play through a second time with all your powers and abilities unlocked from your first game, which is an odd omission. This is the sort of game that was made for game plus modes.
Summing it up
It’s refreshing to a see a new single-player game in a brand new world with no tacked-on multiplayer or social features. Dishonored is a well-designed game in the vein of Deus Ex and Thief and, while some of the stealth mechanics felt unsatisfyingly squishy and imprecise, the game is filled with interesting characters and situations.
Pay attention to the scientists who create your items, and the simple man who ferries you from hit to hit. Notice that the lower characters get in terms of status the better they tend to be in their actions. There’s an interesting world here, even if it’s cluttered with ideas and concepts. The more you read in the game, and the more you listen to that vile pumping heart, the more you’ll understand.
I wish success wasn’t so dependent on quick-saving, and I wish that sneaking wasn’t based on systems that can feel arbitrary, but Dishonored gets two things right for everything it gets wrong. Fans of the Deus Ex series are going to be very happy with Dishonored, and players will be sharing their stories and interesting moments on forums and Twitter for weeks after release.