A murder, a conspiracy, a plague: the first glimpses of Dishonored are the workings of a traditional mystery, but there’s a catch – the protagonist has supernatural powers granted to him by an eerie figure that approached him in a dream.
Now that the hook has been set, let’s talk about the game. Dishonored is a creative take on the trope of the murder mystery, with the addition of several unique elements. The game’s setting is clearly based in London during the Black Plague, but it takes liberties with the world by adding in the supernatural, an Empire led (briefly) by a woman (implying thus that suffrage has already occurred), and an understated version of steampunk that may be one of the few classy takes on the genre.
Clearly, the world has had a lot of thought put into it. Arkane Studios did their research on multiple eras, one of which I studied heavily in college, and it shows in the little details they’ve put into the game. They’ve borrowed parts of different cultures throughout history and put them together to construct a realistic world that envelops you throughout your time as Corvo, the protagonist.
Who is Corvo now, really? Well, he’s a bodyguard-turned-assassin who, after witnessing the murder of the Empress and the abduction of her daughter, the Heiress, is framed with the crimes and must flee to solve a conspiracy that threatens to topple the country.
From thereon out, the story becomes (pleasantly) complicated, with twists and turns a-plenty to keep you pressing on to find the truth. I won’t say much more here, since spoiling the story in this case would really ruin the game for you, but I found the story itself to be more than satisfactory.
Even better, Dishonored is a highly re-playable game. You can choose three ways to play Corvo: you can be stealthy, to the point of doing a 100% non-lethal run (and yes, that does include bosses, who do not meet their demise in a cut scene if you don’t kill them in-game); you can be a force of brutal chaos and destroy everyone in your path; or you can go somewhere in-between.
For my first playthrough, I decided to do a mixed bag with a larger focus on stealth, although I wasn’t opposed to killing when the occasion called for it. In general, I would sneak passed enemies and simply knock-out those that got in my way; at one point, I found a creative way around a boss by simply planting evidence in his house to prove to him my obvious superiority. That’s the beauty of gameplay in Dishonored – the player has so many meaningful choices in the game in regards to how they play Corvo. Arkane Studios won’t hold your hand in this one, nor will it hold you back.
If anything is going to sell you on Dishonored, it should be, in addition to your freedom in the game, the gameplay itself. Arkane Studios is known for creating games with fabulous gameplay, but Dishonored is a cut above the rest with its intuitive controls. Moving Corvo about the world (and slicing/dicing its occupants, if you should so desire) is remarkably smooth, to the point where it almost feels like second nature.
In addition, you get to do some things that are, to put it simply, fun as hell. Steampunk parkour? Check. Sneaking past a hoard of guards and their Dali-esque robot friends? Check. Assassinating like a boss? Check. Dishonored brings out the part of gaming that is just plain fun; even if it had a terrible story (it doesn’t), players would be entertained by the gameplay alone.
As far as graphics go, it’s a mixed bag depending on which version you have. For this review, I was playing the game on the Xbox 360. If you’re itching to play Dishonored, I would recommend getting it on the PC or PlayStation 3; while I enjoy my Xbox 360, I felt that the graphics were greatly hindered on this console. The water still looked impressive, even so, and the artistic style of the game – which is somewhat exaggerated and cartoony at times, but by and large realistic – came through just fine. However, textures did not look nearly as good as what I had seen in other screenshots and videos online. The PC version is, at present, on its way to me, and hopefully it will live up to the aforementioned media.
The voice acting is more than adequate. Some of the names are rather big in the film industry, such as Lena Headey from Game of Thrones and Chloe Moretz from Kickass. It’s interesting to hear their voices as characters in a game, but they fit well into the setting and do a good job. Even the less noticeable characters are well-voiced; for example, there’s a bountiful amount of enemy chatter in the game that feels smooth and natural. People talk about their daily duties, hawk their wares, and generally just go about their days while you spend your time mired in a conspiracy. The effect is that the world feels more alive and less, well, Mary-Sueish. NPCs have their own lives and aren’t constantly talking about your character or stories related to him, although as a controversial and public figure, you do come up every now and then.
However, the dialogue can at times be stilted. I found a few lines were uncomfortably worded, or sounded like things that a person would never say. Often, when this happened, I was reminded of “purple prose”; some average Joes spoke so broadly and hypothetically that I wondered if they were really a part of a conversation or just quoting something they’d read once. Thankfully, though, the frustrating elements of dialogue were few and far between.
Another flaw would be the abrupt presentation of zombies. Dishonored takes place in the midst of a plague that is clearly based off of the Black Death: rats swarm the city, spreading disease while eating the corpses of the dead (and sometimes, even the not-vertically-prone). This, I enjoyed. It’s an element that isn’t often explored in games, but the undead are definitely overused at this point. Eventually, victims will begin to bleed from their eyes and go rabid, at which point they’ll attack you as you roam the streets. Apologies for sounding harsh, but it literally felt like someone left a bullet point on the board and said, “Hey, you know what? Let’s put zombies in there. Zombies sell!”
There was so much more that could have been done with the plague. The Bubonic Plague was horrifying in its own right: blistering pustules ruptured the skin of the afflicted, gangrene ate away at their extremities, and more – oftentimes, victims would suffer from seizures and muscle cramps on top of a constant fever (which, as I can say from experience, can cause you to hallucinate if you temperature gets high enough). Arkane Studios could have just stuck to the plague and placed dying NPCs out in the streets, or shown us the corpses as they were collected and shoveled off out of sight. Of course, there’s also the plague doctors; their masks are alien and frightening, and their presence in the game would have had a great atmospheric affect.
Despite this, I loved the hell out of this game. You’ve got a wonderful stealth mechanic, the ability to kill (or not kill) people in very creative ways, a unique environment, and best of all, a real sense of choice and the weight of consequences. You can also choose when you want to do each mission, adding to the sense of freedom. These factors truly made me contemplate what I did, why I did it, and whether or not it would ruin or make my day in the future.
Next time, I’m going to become the Empire’s worst nightmare and see how it affects my ending. One of Dishonored‘s mechanics is its Chaos system, which is affected by every decision you make as you progress through the game and complete missions. If you choose to kill more people, your Chaos rating will go up, resulting in a worsened state for the city overall due to the abundance of corpses. If you choose to go the non-lethal route, the opposite will occur; the disease is repressed and actually shows signs of fading in the end.
In summary, Dishonored is one of those rare games that comes along and completely blows you away. It has a few flaws, but the game is, to put it simply, fun – and in the end, isn’t that what really matters? Pick up a copy and see for yourself – you won’t be disappointed.