This article was written by guest writer Matthew Barkey.
Dishonored has been on our radar for a while now. The uncanny look of the strange improvised-mecha Tallboys caught my attention back when they were first shown off. I wasn’t sure how good it would turn out to be, but it looked promising.
And never fear, the game delivered a fantastic experience. Dishonored is officially a stealth assassination game, but there’s plenty of room for alternate methods.
I’ll preface this section with a note that I’m not the most graphics-oriented gamer. But Dishonored should please people with more discerning tastes. It features an extremely stylized aesthetic, much more so than other titles like Assassin’s Creed or Deus Ex, and is technically attractive as any other modern video game.
The color palette uses large amounts of the ‘earthy’ tones some of us decry as the brown menace, but they fit the run-down, plague-ridden nature of the setting’s city of Dunwall (literally “brown wall”), and the game is willing to use more than just shades of brown. The ‘whale-punk’ aesthetic is an unusual decision, and one I wholeheartedly approve. Dunwall’s ecletic mixture of imposing military fortification, Yankee-style factories, and Fallout-esque jury-rigged construction are all well-used and help to make Dishonored feel very much its own beast.
There is, however, one exception in an otherwise great look. The character design of the mysterious Outsider, the supernatural being who bestows his magic upon the protagonist Corvo Attano, is not what I would have chosen. His emo-kid appearance doesn’t seem to fit with his Lovecraftian nature. Maybe that was intentional, but for me it was annoying.
Again, no complaints here. Technically, sound quality is all fine, and the audio cues are used well. Overheard conversations can give hints and tips, and I never had trouble making them out. The voice acting is generally acceptable, though some characters are definitely better acted than others. Almost everyone has the usual American accent, which is slightly weird given the Britain-analogue nature of the setting – but the game’s Yankee whaling aesthetic makes it less distracting than one might think.
The gameplay. Oh, the gameplay. This is where Dishonored truly shines. At core, the game is a first-person stealth affair, tossed with with a bit of platforming. This all works smoothly and intuitively. I’ve never missed a jump because I couldn’t see my legs, a common issue in first-person platforming. The parkour is fast and simple, yet thoroughly satisfying. It’s a fun and intuitive affair getting Corvo where you want him.
Beyond movement, Corvo has two active equipment slots. His right hand holds a sword, while his left can be rapidly switched between various options: pistol, crossbow, grenade, spells, and more. Combat is fast paced and lethal; without spells, Corvo may have trouble if he’s outnumbered. It is, however, almost never essential, and an overmatched or pacifistic player can almost always escape a fight.
Stealth is well-implemented. Guards, of course, react to both visual and audio clues, and if they hear something or catch a glimpse the will investigate, moving and looking around before losing interest. Outside in the explorable areas—each mission drops you off at an explorable place, leaving you to find a path to you target—stealth often means elevation. The detailed streets of Dunwall are full of ledges and external air vents perfect for Corvo to jump, climb, or teleport to; unlike, say, Human Revolution’s massive ducts, none of these look out of place.
Did I say teleport? Oh yes, Corvo can teleport, one of several magical talents he acquires over the game. For a small amount of mana, he can instantly move a short distance. This is done in a press-release process: holding the button down allows you to target your destination; release to move. The mechanics allow you to teleport to the edge of a ledge and immediately climb up; the indicator changes when Corvo will perform this. This is not limited to specific ledges like another game might. If you can stand there and its within range, you can blink-climb it.
The other spells include abilities to slow and, if upgraded, stopping time briefly and, one of my favorites, physically entering the body of an animal or person to take control for a little while. Animals allow you to fit through small openings, and of course controlling a guard allows you to move past a checkpoint or escape a fight. Or, even, pilot him into a corner and pop out—you appear behind the unfortunate soul—to choke him out without being noticed!
Between your spells, sword, and equipment, Dishonored presents plenty of lethal options for the aspiring assassin. But, rest assured pacifists, it’s entirely possible to go through the game without killing. That includes your assassination targets—each target has an alternate method for elimination, which you will have to discover in the zone. (Of course, the alternate means of elimination are no less cruel or final.) Exploration is a key part of Dishonored; if you just go straight for the objective, you’ll be missing a lot of content,
And on the subject of killing, Dishonored gives it some consequence with its “Chaos” system, which measures how much disruption you’re causing in the plague-ridden and dangerously unstable setting. In effect, this keeps track of your body count, though some other actions will also cause (or negate) Chaos. Go on a murderous rampage and you’ll be judged as “high” Chaos. Support systems collapse in your wake, other characters’ reactions to you change accordingly with your taste for blood, and the plot becomes considerably darker.
But this doesn’t require total pacifism to avoid a bleak tale. The game offers a reasonably generous threshold of victims to stay under the “high” Chaos mark, so you can kill a few guards and your target and be fine.
Dishonored feels almost as if it was written by two teams. The environmental conversations– overheard guards, thugs in the middle of a robbery, etcetera—are well done and interesting. This really gives the world a “lived-in”, organic quality that is not at all mirrored by the stilted main plot. Dialogue with important characters almost entirely consists of Corvo standing still while various characters lecture exposition in his direction. It’s generally not intolerable—though the Outsider’s monologues and his shrines are on the irritating side—and serves the game well enough, but it’s not optimal. Still, the plot isn’t the point of Dishonored, the gameplay is; I can’t begrudge it too much
The best parts of Dishonored are almost more what they hint at about the setting, which feels much larger than the game’s narrative. Scattered books and pictures and audiorecordings mention parts of the outside world and Dunwall itself the player never sees. Despite spending all my time in a single city, Dishonored felt like a full world.
Value is a tricky question. You can rush right through Dishonored’s story in 8-10 hours, but you will miss a surprising amount of content. Each mission takes place in multiple large areas, with sidequests, powerups, and simple story elements scattered about.
So if you take your time and explore Dunwall, Dishonored is absolutely worth your time.
Review Score: 8.7