Reverse a coup d’etat and exact vengeance.
PC Release: October 9, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Before my spring gaming budget ground to a halt, I ducked into a grimy Gamestop to buy a title I hadn’t played yet but by all rights should’ve pre-ordered, based on the concept alone. Ooh goody! A stealth action game? Set in a STEAMPUNK land??? My money could not have exited my hand faster. I came away from this game with a new understanding of stealth and pacing, but was it worth the money?
As I was quick to point out with insufferable giddyness, Dishonored is a stealth game, set in the Victorian and Steampunk-esque city of Dunwall.
Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the Empress of the Isles, returns home from a long journey just in time for some Dementors in gas masks to slay his beloved monarch. Corvo, that is, you, is framed for her murder. The Empress’s young daughter Emily is kidnapped to add some insult to injury.
Corvo is incarcerated for the crime, but breaks out with the help of a small resistance faction fighting against the conspirators now in power. Though once a bodyguard, Corvo dons the mask and blade of an assassin.
The rebels help Corvo aplenty, but he also receives aid from The Outsider, an enigmatic spirit creature that at least looks human. He bestows upon Corvo his Mark, granting Corvo dark powers that will help him in his quest.
Dishonored is a linear progression of open-world missions. Corvo’s cohorts drop him off in a given district of Dunwell, from whence he is free to sneak or slash his way to the target. The plot to topple the Empress was executed by high-ranking officials, so Corvo has to avoid guards and enlist help to make it in and out alive. In addition to his blades, guns and crossbow, Corvo’s powers allow him to teleport, silence his movements and even disintegrate someone with his mere gaze.
The game’s story is influenced by how you act on missions, in a way that’s quite obvious when you think about it. The more guards and policemen Corvo kills, the more chaotic the city gets, darkening the ultimate ending. One of my rebel buddies remarked that guards don’t “just appear out of thin air”, which I think pokes fun at similar games, like Assassin’s Creed, in which endless legions of guards can descend upon you. Subtle, Arkane. I like it. Luckily, you can non-lethally subdue guards if you’re like me and need the sunshine ending for your self-esteem.
As always, Corvo’s missions are more complicated then sneak in, slice, sneak out. Dunwall is being ravaged by the Rat Plague, a rodent-borne disease that turns its sufferers into shuffling freaks not unlike zombies. Corvo is occasionally beset by hungry rat swarms and bloody-faced biters, and finding the source of the disease becomes as much a priority as his quest for vengeance. The infected, called Weepers, add a mild element of horror to some of the missions.
Gameplay in Dishonored is a simple, refined affair. Corvo can sprint or sneak through areas, though the latter is much more effective. You can perform backstabs and heart-rippers upon guards with your knife, not to mention headshots and kills with bear trap grenades (you read that right).
Corvo grows more powerful by finding the Outsider’s whale bone charms. Each charm is good for a point in Corvo’s skills menu, where players can upgrade his powers and abilities. Corvo has a magical, disgusting device to help him find charms and upgrades. It’s a human heart. Yep.
Dishonored rewards stealth, though I’m not sure this mechanic was meant to be so severe. Open fights against the guards are clunky, adding a technical impetus to avoid them. The game is also slightly broken in that you can beat the whole thing just putting your skill points into the teleportation and see-through-walls abilities, as I did. The fancier powers were certainly sexy but I never needed them. Additionally, I occasionally sneaked past guards who were full-on looking at me but weren’t alerted even if I was right in front of them. I hope Arkane Studios breaks out some bug-spray (phnarr, phnarr).
Dishonored‘s story is reasonably good. Characters evolve and perspectives change as Corvo cuts his way about Dunwall. As with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, your allies will chip in but each has his or her own private agenda in sync with the greater mission. Each level has its own mini-narrative, with Corvo having to adapt to new situations and developments during each assassination. The world is filled out with numerous backstory data sources, including books and letters.
And now it’s time for the Complaint Bucket to lurch greasily into the pale morning sun. Though Dishonored‘s narrative is interesting, the character most significantly underdone is Corvo himself; he is a silent protagonist. It’s difficult if not impossible to mesh a silent character with a previous life and reputation. He does “speak” in text conversations with other characters, but these are silent dialogue choices. As with Dead Space, I feel like an opportunity was missed to add another perspective to the game, and the most important perspective at that.
The game also has a rather gaping plot hole, which I will preface with a MINOR SPOILER ALERT, if you don’t like it skip down to The Artwork. I played ’till the end of Dishonored, and found that, confusingly, the Outsider didn’t want anything in return for giving me magical powers. It was (dump) “here you go, buddy! Go have fun!”
Really? A character this enigmatic and complex just gave out superpowers for no apparent reason? The character’s ultimate motive is never explained. I could see this being an attempt to make him more mysterious, but all it did for me was leave a vacuous pit where more satisfying conclusion could have gone. Not one hint was dropped, just convenient magic. Even if Arkane is doing more extrapolation in a sequel, I’m not impressed. Why the Outsider would care about mortal plights and Corvo in particular is never touched upon.
As I mentioned, Dishonored is set in a steampunk-fantasy setting. Technically it’s actually electropunk, but I’m willing to lie if it will draw more attention to the steampunk genre, a seriously underrated area of sci-fi.
The city of Dunwall is the capital of an island empire, and it’s a weird blend of upstanding estates and run-down districts. The rat plague has chewed some areas out of existence, giving them a postapocalyptic air. Dunwall was inspired by Victorian London, so you’ll see similarly narrow alleyways, giant, colorful advertisements, and disgusting industrial areas.
Even the city’s ritziest areas carry a strong air of gloom. The rat plague’s presence is made known in stern police warnings and piles of corpses. Corvo can’t get sick, but he also can’t unsee the devastation the disease has wrought. Heavy city patrols and hushed conversations from the citizens add another layer of bleh. On an unrelated note, totalitarianism is not the answer.
The music sounds like what dead people orchestrate, and I don’t mean that in terms of talent. It adds quite beautifully to the cold, diseased atmosphere the game carries. The strings accompanying flashes of wealth and fanfare are underscored by a forbidding tone. Even your returns to base are musically melancholy. Though the outright lack of energy in many areas made the game a bit stiff, it certainly helped add to the oppression in the game’s atmosphere.
I don’t want to give the impression that the game’s art is ugly. I mean, it is ugly, but it has an undercurrent of refinement to it, like a gargoyle. I can’t say the same for the people. The character models in this game are weird; the people have tiny eyes, huge noses and extremely thin hairlines, much more so than natural. This may have been a deliberate attempt to add more harshness to the game world, but it came off a little too stylized to me.
Dishonored is the smoothest stealth game I’ve yet played, though my friends tell me to give Thief a try. The narrative isn’t super-powerful, but the game’s setting and technology is a refreshing change of pace. Too many are the fantasy games featuring dwarves, dragons and thinly-disguised elves (oh, I’m sorry “fae”, not elves). Adding industry to magic is a formula that Arkane managed to turn into a win, and it’s a win I liked to win. Ahem. STEAMPUNK FOREVER! So yeah, if that plus gruesomely satisfying kills appeals to you, get the game or give the demo a try.
There are several pieces of downloadable content that have been released for Dishonored over the years. These include several weapons packs, and a time trial course of levels challenging players to traverse maps in a given amount of time, usually with a requisite number of slit throats along the way. Two story-driven DLCs, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, follow the exploits of Daud, the assassin who murdered the empress.
DLC that follows the perspective of an antagonist is interesting, though usually too short. Daud’s two-part journey sees him face off not only against the imperial government, but against various crime bosses and even insurgents within his own faction. The story’s driving force is Daud being asked by the Outsider to investigate the name “Delilah” and while the narrative isn’t that interesting, fans of the main game will appreciate more opportunities to shoot and stab people.
Though Dishonored‘s gameplay returns better and more refined than ever in Daud’s chronicles, the narrative suffers much more significantly than that of Corvo Attano. For one thing, Daud is weirdly hung up about killing the empress, which is unbecoming of a cold-hearted assassin who’s been butchering people for decades. The remorse was probably put into the story to make players sympathize with the character, but the attempt is grossly overt, to say the least.
Additionally, the DLC’s claims that Daud uses all-new powers is a misnomer. Daud’s powers are actually combinations of Corvo’s powers from Dishonored‘s main story. For example, Corvo’s abilities to teleport and slow time have now been worked together into a single ability, which, while fun, is not technically a “new” power. In addition to the standard slayings of fat old aristocrats, the DLC also offers up Dishonored‘s take on witchcraft, and a tour of rural eras, a first for the series.
Despite their significantly weaker plot, Daud’s chapters are an excellent addition to the main Dishonored game and are as worthy of a try as Corvo’s main adventure. This steampunk stealth adventure is a novelty in today’s offering of Triple-A titles, and players will find the changes in themes and scenery refreshing, even if the premise is a bit rote. Both the game and the DLC are available separately or bundled together; get it all and give it a go.
You can buy Dishonored here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.