Under the murk of a veiled moon, I slipped through the gloom of Dunwall city and darted into a back alley. I made quick work of the pipes and ledges that lead me to the top of a factory billowing thick, black smoke from its spires. After rapidly Blinking from the clattering rooftop to a crooked sign to an overworked lamppost, before leaping up to a balcony and sidling up to a grand windowed doorway, I spotted my target through the spotless glass: A vulgar oaf of a man, lurching about in his room. A feared man, but not respected.
I silently pushed the door open and crept into the bright, kitschly decorated boudoir, blade clutched and ready in my right hand, ready to conjure up some magical mischief with my left. The boor had a female companion, a kind-hearted girl forced into unfortunate circumstances, but she was of no consequence: I was hunting a monster.
I moved soundlessly, unseen, towards the so-called aristocrat but suddenly, without warning, the girl slumped to her knees shrilling “Help!” at the top of her lungs, startling my target. Before I knew it, half a dozen soldiers had streamed into the room flashing blades of their own, brandishing pistols and barrelling towards me with furious intent. In the panic, my mischievous left hand fumbled and my sword skills momentarily escaped my grasp. I was dead in seconds.
“Welp, that’s Dishonored,” I shrugged, and loaded the mission again. And that really is Dishonored. Or my experience of it.
The world of Dunwall, the capital city of an empire, is wonderfully detailed and obviously lovingly created, brought to life by artists and designers who have crafted a virtual space that’s realistic in its sights and could have easily existed a century ago. There is history in every cobblestone street, a story in every dilapidated room, attention paid to every building and thought injected into every vista.
Naturally, Dunwall has been realised under the influence of science fiction and the grip of the supernatural. The world is one of steampunk technology and religious rites, with ‘heretical’ and cult-like undertones adding to the extraordinary mood of the place – Dunwall is bathed in an oppressive atmosphere I’ve only felt a handful of times in a game before. There’s a heaviness in the air that lets up on only very few occasions, no doubt helped along by the desaturated colours and the almost constant cover of darkness.
At the centre of the story of a city gripped by a mysterious rat-carried plague is you, Corvo Attano, the supernatural assassin. Once the trusted bodyguard of the Empress herself, you have been framed for the murder of the woman you were sworn to protect. With the help of an underground collective, your task is to try to clear your name while ousting the temporary leadership, all to make way for a new era for the Empire and to put your once-influential and newfound friends in key positions of power.
The story of Dishonored is very politically-charged and driven along by incredibly well-realised characters. Not only are all of the main players instantly recognisable with their own unique physical features, but their motivations and backstories are made very clear, especially if you go looking for them. Notes, books and conversations slowly fill in blanks in the game’s narrative and flesh out the personalities of the people you meet, while a real, magical beating heart will tell you more about their tragic pasts – I said it was a supernatural game!
To carry out your mission and further the ambitions of the resistance group, you’ll need to master the use of stealth, using your ability to sneak through rooms and streets unnoticed to reach your objectives, which is almost always a human target that you’ll need to eliminate through crafty means, or simply by slaying them. Dishonored allows players the chance to move through the game without killing a single person – even your main targets can escape death – but you’ll most likely need to make use of your more offensive skills, too.
Well, I did, in any case. With an assassin’s blade handy, and a crossbow, a pistol, grenades and traps at hand, I more often than not had to fall back on combat manoeuvres to get out of hazardous situations. Dishonored gives you all of the tools you’ll need for stealth, like peeking around corners and through keyholes (before entering doors), the ability to sneak, choke out your enemies from behind (instead of killing them), and the chance to drop on foes from a height for an instant kill, but the action can escalate very quickly if you make a mistake… or the game thinks you’ve made a mistake.
At times, the enemy AI in Dishonored inexplicably discovered my presence, and other times the controls didn’t quite react exactly as I expected them to, alerting my prey in the process. Then, once surrounding by a throng of hostile guards it always felt as though I was brute-forcing my way through combat – with a hack-hack here and a hack-hack there, I made it through fights by downing as many health potions as I could before skulking off into the darkness to try again, or to simply complete a mission by chance.
Of course, I’m leaving out one of the chief gameplay elements of Dishonored: The ‘supernatural’ part. Corvo has been branded with the ability to use magical skills, like instantly teleporting short distances to make environment traversal a breeze, or slowing down (and stopping) time for brief moments. Seeing enemies and objects through walls, summoning a swarm of ravenous rats, forcing enemies back with a blast of wind and possessing animals (and humans) are just some of the abilities that set the stealth and combat of Dishonored apart from other titles.
There were moments in Dishonored that were outright sublime for me. Successfully sneaking through an abandoned manor house with guards at every corner (with the intensity that comes with acting on observed patrol patterns and removing – sleeping – bodies to continue on your path) before snatching up a key item or silently slaying your quarry, is enormously rewarding. Conversely, concentrating for long enough to survive a sword fight, while parrying, blasting enemies away and slowing down time at just the right moment is incredible in Dishonored.
It’s when I was forced to make use of both approaches that the experience fell down for me. It felt like I was breaking Dishonored – doing things that I wasn’t meant to do – when I switched up my approach mid-mission or was required to raise my profile to smash a few heads before disappearing again. The game gives you all of the tools you’ll need for swift changes in gameplay direction with a smart access wheel to bring up weapons and abilities and it’s always clearly communicated to you if you’ve been spotted or not, but for me, there was always an uneasiness about how I was playing. As though I was doing it all wrong.
Combined with a stop-start story-telling device that unfortunately breaks up the pace of the game and waters down the feeling of being in an open, freely explorable world (that is bizarrely devoid of human life, even taking the plague into account), Dishonored became a bit of a challenge to play. It’s when I leant all the way into either play style – full stealth or full combat – that I had the most fun with the game. Dunwall city’s adopted slogan of ‘The boldest measures are the safest’ became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for me.
While predictable, the story of Dishonored drew me through the game and the chance to discover more interesting characters and tour through more of the extraordinarily crafted city invested me in this wonderfully realised world like few titles have ever managed. Those sublime gameplay moments where everything ‘clicked’ were also key motivators to continue the journey of Corvo, but going through entire sessions where my own enjoyment of the game was coloured by uncertainty irked me.
Dishonored has worked incredible magic on the stealth-action genre of games and Arkane has answered more than a few questions that other developers have been struggling with, with regards to story motivation and feedback as well as stealth gameplay in general, and the world and characters are deceptive in their intention to intrigue you, resulting in one of the most believable play spaces I’ve ever seen. For stealth fans, and even those mildly interested in the genre, this is a must-play, but if you enjoy your action and adventure games a little more free-flowing and your story a little more lightweight, Dishonored isn’t for you.