Tempering choice with narration is a tricky road in the gaming world. In many cases, developers must cater to one side more than the other in order to achieve the primary goals they set out to achieve–complete story, emotional weight, and satisfying gameplay are often the cited excuses for swaying one way more than the other. Rarely does a game manage to walk between both worlds carefully and with poise, while at the same time delivering an original world that can draw the player into. Dishonored is a game of many features, and nearly all of them work together in a dark harmony to create a fascinating and wholly excellent game.
On the surface, Dishonored is a tale of revenge. Corvo Attano, a bodyguard for a future empress, is framed for murder and is ultimately forced to become an assassin, driven by executing those who are truly to blame and exonerating himself. With the infusion of choice, however, the story delves into deeper territory about the morals of revenge versus mercy. Do corrupt men of power truly deserve death? What purpose does it serve to deal death to those responsible, and would it prevent someone else from succumbing to the same fate? As you play through Dishonored’s nine-mission story, you are given the freedom to kill, or spare, your targets as you please, which affects the ending you receive. Killing more soldiers and civilians encourages a plague to spread through the city, leading to more rats and feral civilians called “weepers”. The choices you make have tangible consequences and really deepen the emotional weight of each mission.
The city of Dunwall is almost a bigger character than the people you meet along the way as well. Combining Victorian-era architecture with a sort of steam-punk industrialization feel to it, Dunwall is a city of unbridled creativity. As you skulk through the alleys and abandoned houses, you can sense the many secrets echoing in the hallways. Various letters and texts reveal a city suffering from disease and corruption, while across the way another ship brings in a fresh supply of whale oil. The artistry rings a bit like Bioshock, relying on more painted tones as opposed to polygons and graphics. The overall atmosphere is generally dark, but Arkane Studios did well to infuse as much color when possible, particularly in one mission when you infiltrate a high-society party.
As an assassin, the tools of the trade are the key in dealing out justice. Much like the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Corvo has access to an assortment of arms like a pistol and crossbow, but it is his array of supernatural powers where the concept of choice truly shines in Dishonored. As Corvo progresses, he gains access to special abilities that can are completely flexible to your play style. Blink allows you to teleport short distances, which can help traverse rooftops or get you closer to a patrolling enemy. Possession can help you sneak by enemy barricades by taking over a rat’s body and crawling through the vents, or at its maximum level allows you to possess soldiers. If an encampment proves too fortified, one can possess a soldier to dismantle the barricade entirely, or use him to kill nearby guards. Again, the choice is entirely yours. Every ability and upgrade has offensive and defensive bonuses, and how you choose to use them helps you have full control over every element of the mission.
The people of Dunwall are a vulnerable lot, and hearing their plights and ambitions helps you get a deeper sense of what it is they want to achieve. It may simply be revenge for Corvo (again, if you choose), but for others it is about freeing the city from chaos and corruption, and ensuring a safer future. The tale is intriguing and has some predictable twists and turns, but it is more than enough to help bind the missions together into a cohesive whole. The story does, at times, leave something to be desired as certain sub-plots are not fully explored. The latter part of the game introduces a group of enemies that are as well-trained as Corvo, yet they never get their own moment in the spotlight. It’s a bit disappointing to face such a challenge and not find out where they came from or why, but it’s a minor grievance and can be easily overlooked.
While the game play and graphics remain quite smooth, there are a few hiccups you’ll encounter along the way. There are a few invisible walls that might hinder your progress climbing certain towers or rooftops, and the climbing aspect itself is a little tricky. The majority of it relies on using the Blink ability, but judging the distance and making sure you reach a ledge might require a few attempts in some tricky spots. For those that enjoy sneaking up on your enemies for a silent kill or to choke them out, it should be noted that the process can be a bit tempermental, causing Corvo to block instead of grab. The various characters also tend to have that trademark lifeless look in their eyes such as in the Fallout games or Oblivion and Skyrim.
Built to showcase an intricate web of choice and consequence, Dishonored is a fabulously detailed world rife with corruption, violence and an everlasting intrigue. By putting the concept of choice fully in the hands of the player, Corvo’s story of revenge can turn into one of many outcomes on the spectrum between hope and despair. Melding genres and blending science and fantasy elements, Dishonored is a refreshing game that can be enjoyed multiple times over and is one of 2012’s finest titles.
See you in the next level,