These days it’s almost refreshing it is to see a major new video game without a large number at the end of it. Thanks to Bethesda Softworks we have a new IP from Arkane Studios (Dark Messiah), a studio who once worked on an unreleased Half-Life installment called Return to Ravenholm. It feels like they finally got their chance at something similar with Dishonored, a game that meshes the dark and ruined world of a Half-Life or Bioshock with the stealth right out of Thief. It’s just amusing that the first original game we get in a while is such a mash-up of others.
In Dishonored you play Corvo Attano, a bodyguard for the royal empress in a strange world that’s half dystopian future and half steampunk fantasy. Her kingdom of Dunhill is an industrial city that is fueled by the whaling industry, quite literally. Whale fat has been harnessed as a great and mysterious source of power, fueling strange mechanical objects such as “Walls of Light” that blast trespassers into ashes. Forget Steampunk, this is Whalepunk.
Dunhill was a place of prosperity, of industry as well as arts and technology, but recently it’s all started falling apart. A plague has descended on the city via hordes of rats, leaving the government to seal away entire neighborhoods in a fruitless attempt to stop it. Filth and death are strewn around the streets and rich people throw lavish parties with the protection of the latest in technology while people starve to death in the street, or endure even worse fates.
As the game starts Corvo returns from a trip for aid from neighboring islands with bad news, but his day’s about to get much worse. As he meets up with the Empress she is attacked by assassins, and despite his skills they overwhelm him and beat him into submission as well. Framed for her murder and on his way to be executed, Corvo is instead given supernatural powers from an otherworldly figure and forms an alliance with a group of revolutionaries who give him a nifty mechanical skull mask to hide his identity. Corvo's role in their uprising, as former Royal Protector and general killer extraordinaire, is to murder all the people who have taken over. It’s a way of getting revenge and making the city a better place all at once. Win-win.
Besides being framed Corvo has a more personal vendetta with this, as it’s hinted that the Empress was in love with Corvo, and her daughter (the true heir) whom Corvo adored has been kidnapped. So the man is in no mood to fuck around, and arms himself as well as any duel-wielding videogame character should. His right hand’s his sword hand but the left can and will hold a variety of weapons, from crossbows and pistols to grenades and booby traps. Gifted with a power called Dark Vision that lets him see through the world around him, Corvo will gain more supernatural powers that can be purchased with relics that are found scattered around the world that change the game to suit your preferred playstyle. Want to stick to the shadows and stay silent? There are powers that soften your footsteps, let you teleport, or that turn bodies to ash when you’ve killed them unawares. Prefer a more direct approach? Gain a power that lets you summon hordes of rats to swarm your opponents, or brutal finishing moves for your sword. Stronger powers let you possess creatures or even stop time.
If you’re going to play the game stealthily - which, let’s face it, is the only real way to play through it - then you’re going to have to use Corvo’s Dark Vision power. For a time this bleeds all the color out of the world and lets you see enemies and items through walls, highlighted in yellow or green respectively. Enemy eyes glow ominously with yellow fire and show you where their field of vision lies, the better for you to sneak up behind them. It’s such a massively useful mode that you’ll spend most of the game utilizing it to travel around and see where to go next. There are two big issues with that. First is that it means that for the majority of the game you’ll be seeing it in this dull, washed out look, complete with muted sound effects. Second is that the power takes up your left hand, which means you’ll constantly be switching between it and your other weapons. If anything it should have had its own button since it’s obviously the most useful power in the game, but you can’t help but feel that some of the beautiful environments and moments in the game are lessened by seeing it through this ugly vision mode.
The game also suffers from the usual good/bad karma system, here called Chaos. Kill enemies and you’ll end a level with High Chaos. Knock them out and keep them in locations safe from prying eyes (and feasting rats) and you’ll end up with Low Chaos. Every major assassination in the game can be completed in a way that leaves them alive - sometimes not so thankful that they’re alive, but alive nonetheless. Luckily the system is a hidden mechanic but expect plenty of the usual laughably black and white decisions. WILL YOU KILL EVERYONE WITHIN A MILE RADIUS OR KNOCK THEM ALL OUT? You decide, you binary bastard.
Flaws like this keep it from being a classic on par with any of the games it so obviously loves, but it still manages to be an incredible stealth game. Sneak towards a table and you’ll crawl under it automatically, jump towards a ledge and hit a button and you’ll hurdle up and perch on top of it. It’s a rarity, a decent first person platformer. The controls are so damn intuitive that sneaking around choking out guards and dumping them in trash bins is always thrilling. If it ever gets old taking them out one by one, well, just try possessing a rat and sneaking through a vent. Or take to the rooftops and bypass everything. Or rewire the defenses to attack your enemies. Or just go running up to people and stab them in the face.
It’s certainly possible enough to just plow through a level killing everyone if you have enough ammo - to test it out I managed to get through one level in about a half hour, leaving a trail of bolt-strewn bodies in my wake - but you’ll miss everything that makes the game special. It’s thrilling to the end, although you’’ll have seen most of what the game has to offer by the midpoint. There still are a few memorable experiences thrown your way, like rescuing a character from a whorehouse, or when your bemasked character goes to a masquerade ball and has to identify a guest there. It feels odd to mingle with people on your best behavior after skulking in the shadows for so long, and it makes for a standout level.
The game is broken up into nine separate levels which can take quite a while if you try to sneak around, find all the clues and complete all the side missions. Some of the most fun can be had from finding those runes and bone charms, powerful amulets that have been banned by the religious Overseers that run the city. Locating the objects isn’t hard since you have an item (a clockwork heart that talks to you) that will show their exact distance to you, but they’re generally in tricky areas that require some thinking to get to. With all of your powers and the way the controls work simply travelling and climbing around the environment is a joy.
Between each level you’ll take a trip back to the safehouse at a local pub to rest and check up on the cast of characters in the game, which is relatively small. There’s really only a handful of people to interact with, and despite the attempt to make it feel as if you’re trying to save an entire city the game feels very small and streamlined. As popularized in games like Bioshock (a clear influence on Dishonored’s game style and story) you’ll find books and audio logs that help fill the world out. Everyone in Dunhill seems to write in a diary or dictate their notes to a recorder, giving you a stronger look at people’s inner thoughts, uninspired though they may be. The cast list is impressive, with everyone from Susan Sarandon, Carrie Fischer, Brad Dourif and Michael Madsen lending voices, but the script is less so, as a predictable story unfolds its way towards a lackluster ending.
As far as replay value, the vast majority of the achievements involve getting through each level without killing anyone or being detected, giving further credence to the thought that the game simply shouldn’t be attempted as an action title. Clearing it without being detected once is an enormous challenge that requires lots of saving after every encounter and reloading often, but it’s something you’ll likely want to try anyway just because there’s so many ways to try it.
Dishonored tries to emulate many games at once and does a mostly successful job of it, offering up unparalleled stealth action for the more patient gamer. It’s no modern classic but it’s a great, original game, and there’s not much more you can ask for these days.