You know when you have those games that just grip you and refuse to let you go? The ones where you play and play and play and suddenly it’s 3 in the morning and you’re blearily trying to focus on the screen because you’re this close to beating it, the ones where you let the credits roll out because you’re so in awe of the experience you had, where you immediately hit restart because it was just that damn good? Dishonored is one of those games for me.
Dishonored (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Oct 2012 | Developed: Arkane | Published: Bethesda
Dishonored begins peacefully enough. We are Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to Jessamine Kaldwell, the Empress of the Isles. Corvo returns from a trip abroad, humours the young Princess Emily with a game of hide-and-seek and gives Jessamine the bad news; the capital city of Dunwall is overrun with a plague borne by vicious rats but none of the other Isles have a cure to offer. From nowhere an assassin leaps in, pins Corvo in mid-air with otherworldly magic and kills the Empress before disappearing with the Princess. Left with the Empress’ corpse, Corvo is framed for her murder and hauled off to the impregnable Coldridge Prison. Out in the bay, a lonely whaling ship sails by, a massive leviathan hanging from the frame.
And so begins Corvo’s journey of revenge. Aided by a group of conspirators loyal to the crown and magic bestowed by a sinister black-eyed God called the Outsider, Corvo aims to rescue Princess Emily and to seek retribution against those who framed him and orchestrated the murder of the Empress. As far as plots go, it’s fairly straightforward; the turns the narrative makes are predictable and most of the characters are a little underdeveloped but personally it didn’t bother me. The story is serviceable, providing a decent narrative framework for the events of the game but it certainly won’t win any awards for services to screenplays.
Then again, the story not being amazing certainly doesn’t do a great deal of harm to Dishonored and that’s largely down to its excellent gameplay. Dishonored is largely a stealth game though it allows you to screw the stealth up and fight your way out of scrapes in necessary. If you’re familiar with the Thief franchise it may well seem a bit familiar at times as you sneak and scrabble through the massive open-ended levels, choking hapless guards, peering from cover as you wait for the gap in patrols and hastily stuff everything even vaguely valuable into your pockets. Where it differs is when it comes to Corvo’s supernatural powers; thanks to the Outsider’s blessing Corvo has access to a range of abilities that can completely shift (and often, break) the dynamic of the game.
The signature power is Blink, which allows Corvo to teleport short distances; in a game built around open-ended levels with tons of verticality, this quickly becomes the game’s star. With it, a keen player can explore every inch up and down of Dunwall’s grimy streets and claustrophobic alleys, and Arkane have done their best to ensure there’s always some rewards waiting for the diligent explorer to nab. The other powers range from the practical (such as being able to see guards through walls, or improved running and jumping skills) to the expensive, flashy combat skills, like being able to summon a swarm of rats or to possess enemies. Perhaps my favourite is Bend Time, allowing Corvo to first slow, then stop, time, allowing the quick player to chart long-ranging escapes or to set up elaborate traps and diversions. They are all a little broken but pleasingly Dishonored revels in it, providing the player with plenty of enemies to play with and practically drowns you in mana potions to let you keep on dicking about.
Tied into all this is the game’s Chaos system. Essentially a morality metre, the Chaos system fluctuates according to Corvo’s actions and changes the city accordingly. In Low Chaos, the city is guarded and suffering but in High Chaos rat swarms really do plague the levels and where once guards patrolled you might instead come across a host of disease-ridden weepers who spew their plague-and-blood flecked vomit as you inevitably beat a hasty retreat. Unlike other morality mechanic the Chaos system doesn’t lock off powers or too many narrative elements behind specific alignments; even a Low Chaos player can kill enemies – just not too many. This allows the game to accommodate a level of role-playing; Corvo can certainly be played as a ruthless maniac or a total pacifist but equally the game has the scope for more nuanced approaches, such as avoiding using any occult powers or only assassinating the core targets but otherwise remaining at Low Chaos. As much as binary morality mechanics are a bit rubbish and trite, Arkane at least put the effort into building a satisfying system.
Whether it’s in High or Low Chaos, Dunwall looks incredible. The character models have an exaggerated, almost political-cartoon quality that fits the themes of the narrative brilliantly. The city has the same dramatic sense of style in its design; Dunwall is based on a particularly dark and miserable idea of Victorian London, laced with a steampunk aesthetic. The streets are narrow, dim-lit and twisty as the houses loom over, towering high above while in other districts vast and decadent mansions squat apart from the rest of the squalid city. Often levels are built around centrepiece buildings that demand your attention, whether that’s the jagged steel of Kaldwin’s Bridge, the opulent Boyle Mansion or the grey stone behemoth of the Imperial Palace and snaked around them are the vile, stunted alleyways through which you make your approach. Above all else, the city has character; it’s a vicious and malicious creature and yet once the player masters the myriad ways to get around, it becomes like a home as you settle into another new area and immediately cast about and scan the multitude of paths that open up before you.
The soundtrack is equally arresting. Composer Daniel Licht (now sadly passed on, though not before scoring this, the expandalone DLC and the sequel) opted for a tense and macabre ambience, dominated by drawn-out strings, lengthy high effects that edge towards piercing and heavily reverberating acoustic guitars. It’s supremely unsettling, creating a constant feeling of being on edge and accompanies the gameplay impeccably. Additionally the trailer was scored using an especially eerie version of the traditional song “Drunken Sailor”, rewritten as “Drunken Whaler” to fit with the game and sung by children, giving it a ghostly and unnerving effect, which is included in the soundtrack and is definitely worth a listen. Really, the entire soundtrack is worth a spin, so here you go.
Dishonored is one of those games I can always come back to. Since first playing it in 2013 I have returned to it time and time again and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s got a sense of the unknown about it; though the levels and narrative are set, every time you play it you come away with a different story to tell brought about through the unscripted and open-ended gameplay. It’s that quality that elevates Dishonored for me. The unpredictability, the outstanding replayability and the sense of freedom sold me from the moment I first played the game. It’s something that few other games in my collection have matched, and even fewer in such a compelling manner. I’ve enjoyed plenty other open-ended games and I continue to love the Dishonored sequels but it’s always to this one that I return, ready for another playthrough.
7/7 – TOP TIER.As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.