Dishonored doesn’t have much time for modern video game conventions. Arkane Studios’ delectable steam-punk romp does away with unnecessary multiplayer components, multi-million dollar set-pieces and tutorial missions that last almost as long as the campaign itself. At times, its complete disregard for expected standards can be to its discredit – but, once you master the title’s steep learning curve, it becomes its greatest asset too. Dishonored wants you to think.
Cause and effect is inscribed into every inch of the experience’s design. Will you slope through the shadowy underbelly of fictional seafaring city Dunwall unnoticed, or declare your presence to the capital’s crooked royal guard with a clattering musket missile and a cavalcade of supernatural strikes? The choice is yours, but should you settle for the latter, you’ll be forced to pay the price as the city slumps into chaos at the expense of your branded back-hand.
Much like the gameplay itself, protagonist Corvo is a blank canvas. Framed for the murder of the empress you were sworn to protect, the bulk of the campaign sees you carrying out missions for a small resistance group imaginatively entitled the Loyalists. It’s through the command of this coalition that you’ll embark on the title’s obsessively constructed missions – usually with the intent of silencing the many accomplices of Lord Regent, the antagonist responsible for your unenviable predicament.
Dishonored is not a sandbox game in the modern sense of the word, but it is beautifully open-ended. Missions take place in open environments that may appear bigger than they actually are at first. But it’s not the size of these locations that’s important – it’s the many intricacies they hide.
No two playthroughs of Dishonored will ever be the same. There may be similarities in action and outcome, but the way you happen upon these solutions is so incredibly free-form that everyone will have a different experience. You might opt to reach your targets from the rooftops, or sneak through the network of underground sewers and tunnels below. Alternatively, you might carefully slip by your adversaries using shadows and barriers, or decide to confront them head on. Every campaign will have a different tale to tell, and it’s that creativity that makes the title such a treat to play.
You’ll need to overcome a challenging learning curve first, though. Modern video games have taught us to simply follow the waypoints and watch the cut-scenes waiting at the end, but Dishonored is just not that type of experience. As such, it can take a while to get used to its unique pacing and structure. We spent the first couple of missions unsure of how we wanted to approach them, and that left us feeling pretty overwhelmed. But once we’d made a decision – a deadly assassin, in case you were wondering – the entire experience slotted together like Corvo’s luxuriously crafted clockwork mask.
Finding your comfort zone is one thing, but the real joy comes from returning to previous missions to learn how they could have played out differently. Typically, you’re given a non-lethal and lethal option for each of the core quests – but there are side-missions to participate in too. For example, in one early stage you might opt to assassinate two of Lord Regent’s most loyal followers in cold blood, or earn the favour of a local brewer who’s willing to dispose of them without taking their lives. Adopt the latter route and you’ll not only earn favour with the relations of the wrongdoers, but you’ll also significantly lessen the impact on your Chaos meter – which is essentially the game’s ambiguous morality bar.
The meter is kept hidden during momentary gameplay – reserved for a status screen at the end of each mission – to ensure your decisions aren’t impacted by the pure mechanics. Contrast it to Mass Effect’s offensively obvious alternative, and there’s a lot more mystery surrounding Corvo’s character development.
That doesn’t mean your actions go unnoticed, though. Should you choose to play as a bloodthirsty tyrant, you’ll witness subtle changes occurring within the city of Dunwall. Residents will begin to abandon their houses, the rat infestation that’s terrorising the town will increase, and the population of partially plagued humans – known as Weepers – will gradually outstrip the non-infected. Approach the game in the opposite direction, however, and the reverse will occur.
There are a handful of power-ups to unlock. Unsurprisingly, these play into the overall sandbox style of the gameplay – augmenting you with powerful melee attacks and crowd control options, as well as the ability to see through walls and possess animals. Taking control of rats allows you to discover new routes within the city, and if there aren’t any rodents available, you can simply summon your own with one of the game’s other skills. Upgrades are unlocked by collecting runes, which are scattered around the world.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on decision making means that Dishonored’s plot is pushed into the background, and there’s not really much impetus to invest in it. That said, the universe and setting is the title’s true main character. Troubled by political strife and trapped in a neo-historical era, the blend of outrageous Tesla-esque contraptions and Victorian fashion makes Dunwall an incredible destination to inhabit. It’s such a shame that much of the back-story and fiction is concealed within the hundreds of novels and notes that occupy the city’s walls.
One mission in particular hints what Dishonored could have achieved if it allowed a little more time for plot development. Concealed by your bronze vizard at an upper-brow mask party, you’re able to communicate openly with the shindig’s high-flyers amidst an abundance of fireworks, food and cider. It’s easily the best quest in the game.
The art direction throughout is utterly sublime, lending an innovative feel to the overall experience. PlayStation 3 owners soured by Bethesda’s shoddy handiwork on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim should not be troubled either; Dishonored takes advantage of Epic’s reliable Unreal technology to impressive effect. In fact, unlike so many other games that adopt the middleware, it’s difficult to tell it’s using the engine at all. Textures are clean, and there’s an overall softness to the image that aids the artistic effect.
Lighting is perhaps the game’s greatest visual asset though, with strong use of bloom and shadow employed to create striking contrasts. Long, foreboding silhouettes give everything in the game a towering look, and that’s accentuated by the verticality of the overall design.
Meanwhile, sound is understated and used to convey tension. Sharp orchestral stabs and twinkling tones forewarn nearing danger, while energetic melodies score chases and pulsating combat scenes. It’s a simplistic soundtrack, but it’s brilliant in its discreet nature – and it’s particularly effective when you’re skulking through the shadows, because it adds anxiety to every single footstep.
Dishonored probably could have done a little more with its narrative – but that shouldn’t detract from its otherwise incredible achievements. The ability to elect different play styles is not merely a bullet-point here; it’s the purpose of the entire game. And while you might not fall in love with the title immediately, allow Dunwall’s rat-infested suburbs to crawl beneath your skin, and you’ll eventually succumb to its charms like a plague.