REVIEW: Dishonored

Take equal parts Deus Ex and Thief, toss in a bit of Jules Verne, dip the whole thing in an oil painting and glaze lightly with gamma correction and you’ve got a recipe for Dishonored. And yes, it is just as delicious as it sounds.

Dishonored is the fourth game from developer Arkane Studios, who’s previous venture had been a helping hand with the rather astonishingly mediocre legacy project Bioshock 2. That game left a rather sour taste in my mouth after the brilliance of the first, as it essentially recycled the good elements of the original, while simultaneously accentuating the poor elements and drenching the whole thing in simplistic, boring level design. Therefore, my initial interest in Dishonored was pretty much nil. The first run of trailers didn’t do a whole lot to impress me and the whole thing came off as just some kind of first-person cash-in on the popularity of Assassin’s Creed. Later trailers also failed to capture my interest, as the ones I saw were basically just a collection of grisly murders with no context or implied narrative behind them. And then the tagline of “Revenge Solves Everything” only served to make me even less interested. While I’m not opposed to violence in media, I generally don’t care much for it being flaunted as the only or most important aspect of a game.

However, this turned out not to be the case at all. I don’t know who handled the advertising for this game, but their decision to go with a positioning strategy that emphasized stabbing people in the neck instead of some of the other elements of this game is really too bad. On a whim, I decided to check out some of the developer interviews to see if there was something I was missing. Sure enough, I realized that there was a lot more to this game than the ad campaigns were letting on. Headed by the founder of Arkane Studios and one of the developers for the original Deus Ex, the two-man leading team make it well known that they draw influence from classic stealth games like Thief, and want to see your actions carry weight like they do in the Deus Exgames. In showing off a level from the game and the variety of ways in which you can covertly (or not) accomplish an objective, I realized that this was definitely something I wanted to play.

Dishonored is set in the fictional city of Dunwall, which is heavily based on 18th century London in terms of aesthetics. The architecture and layout is an excellent representation of the sprawling, dirty urban centers that characterized the Industrial Revolution and goes a long way toward making Dunwall feel like a real place. This being a fictional world, however, Dunwall draws from Steampunk aesthetics and technology to give it added flair. The Steampunk technologies are powered by a kind of specially processed blubber which is provided by Dunwall’s burgeoning whaling industry, which serves as the major driving force in the economy. It’s a fairly well thought-out setting and in a lot of ways the city of Dunwall is a more intriguing character than any of the people you’ll meet in the game. Of course, it helps when you get the visual design director for Half-Life 2’s City 17 to design your fictional world.

Wait, haven’t we seen walls like that before?
Ah, right.


Now, as a number of you know, there is a very big difference between art design and graphics. Some games, like (insert nearly any military shooter ever) have astounding graphics but absolutely terrible art design. Every environment is a blocky, industrial-themed corridor drenched in slightly varying shades of grey and brown that’s boring to look at and completely forgettable. Compare this to a game like Bioshock, which has somewhat unimpressive, waxy-looking textures but so many vibrant colors and unique environments that you don’t care: the game looks great despite having not having the most up to date bump-mapping or whatever.

Dishonored falls on an odd spot on the continuum as it tries to blur the line between art and graphics, similar to how cartoony or cell-shaded games do, but it does so rather more subtly. As an example, here’s a shot of the inside of a pub from the game:


Notice how the textures are a bit blurry, especially in the windows. Exposed brickwork beneath the plaster of the walls and other bits of minutiae have this same kind of “smeared” look to them that at first glance, I mistook for being of low quality. But when you look closer, you realize that this effect is very intentional. Here is a picture hanging on the wall in one of the upstairs rooms of that same pub:


And this is Le Moulin de la Galette, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, painted in 1876.
Notice any similarities? While the effect is subtle, the textures in Dishonored are designed to look like oil paintings, which serves to further emphasize the late 18th century feel of the game. When many other games are shooting for photorealism, Dishonored instead settled on a distinct art style that complemented its setting and ran with it. It’s similar to the way Mass Effect used a film grain to emulate 1970s-80s science fiction, but far more involved and interesting, at least from my perception.
Although sometimes textures are just legitimately bad.

In terms of plot, Dishonored is a fairly simple tale. You play as Corvo Attano, Lord Protector (Chief Bodyguard) for the Empress of Dunwall. The game begins with you returning from a long journey to neighboring cities, trying to find a cure for a plague that has devastated the populace of Dunwall. You report to the Empress that no cure has been found, and that the plague will likely continue to grow and take over larger and larger sections of the city. Things quickly go from bad to worse as assassins suddenly storm the palace, immobilize you, and make an Empress-kebab out of your charge. For added fun, they also kidnap the Empress’ daughter, Emily, the sole heir to the throne, and the living witnesses then frame you for the murder. You are tossed in prison for six months, awaiting execution, and only manage to escape with the help of a small group of conspirators who seek to put Emily back in power. These few individuals help you identify the people who framed you and set you on a path that, depending on your outlook, is characterized either by revenge or a desire to right the wrong done to Dunwall’s ruling family.

In addition to several more martial weapons like knife, crossbow, and pistol, Corvo is further aided by a set of mystical abilities, granted to him by a mysterious entity known only as “The Outsider”. This god-like being, after bestowing his mark on you in a dream sequence, will occasionally speak to you when you collect runes from shrines devoted to him, providing commentary just vague enough to not really respond to your choices in the game so far, and offers pseudo-intellectual judgment on your theoretical actions that you can’t refute due to Corvo being a silent protagonist. I’ll be honest: The Outsider was a distracting and clumsy device that really only served to provide you with the gameplay mechanics of magic. While occasional references to him are made by other characters and graffiti in the environment, the fact that he’s made you the equivalent of a wizard in an otherwise almost completely magic-free world is never really addressed. Using your abilities in front of NPCs results in a surprised exclamation, but nothing more, which fails to reinforce the idea that your newfound skills are all that unique.
He also kinda reminds me of slightly-creepier Elijah Wood.
As weak as the justification behind your powers may be, the powers themselves are thankfully quite entertaining. By finding runes within the game world, you can purchase new abilities or upgrade your existing ones, building your supernatural arsenal to aid you either in combat or in stealth. While the abilities are few in number, each one is incredibly useful in gameplay, when implemented correctly. One ability allows you to track your enemies’ movements through walls, another lets you toss people through the air with a powerful blast of wind, and still another summons a small swarm of rats that can attack enemies or consume corpses, leaving no evidence of your presence behind. My favorite was the simple, mandatory starting power called Blink, which lets you dash rapidly over long distances. I used this ability almost constantly to scale buildings, dart behind cover, and to suddenly appear behind unsuspecting guards for a takedown.

Using this power to stay out of sight was the obvious choice for me because at its core, Dishonored is a stealth game. Sticking to the shadows helps you avoid detection, making too much noise will draw attention, and getting spotted generally means that a large complement of armed guards will be rushing toward you in a matter of seconds. In the event that you do cause a bit of a commotion and need to fight your way out, Dishonored is actually a passable first person action game. Swordplay is largely based on a block/riposte kind of rhythm, and you can use your pistol or crossbow to add some ranged combat into the mix. Taking on a group of guards can be frantic and fun, but I generally found myself loading from my last quicksave when spotted as I felt like I hadn’t really achieved my goal: to remain undetected throughout the level. Obviously your aspirations may differ, and you may want nothing more than to kamikaze your way through every checkpoint leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. And while that’s fine, I would ultimately suggest that if that’s what you’re looking to do, you look for it in a different game. The developers don’t bring up Thief as a reference repeatedly for nothing: it’s a stealth game, and it’s at its best when played as such.

Stealth in plain sight is actually quite possible in at least one instance.

Stealth also provides you with a lot more options. If you choose to charge in, sword in hand, and slaughter everyone, then the only choice you have in doing so is which room full of people to murder first. If you opt for a more subtle approach, however, you have a great many more avenues to accomplish your goal. You can simply do what I usually did and blink up to adjacent rooftops and look for an open window to your target, or you can pickpocket a key off a guard and open the back door. You can possess a rat or a fish and sneak in through an opening in a sewer grate, or you can possess one of the guards and stroll in unopposed. Additionally, once inside you can carry out other means of neutralizing your target; sure, you can just stab them to death, or you can be a bit more creative with your revenge. Throughout the mission, you can overhear bits of conversation or find certain documents or NPCs that will give you another option: leave your target alive, but remove them from the equation by sending them far away or discrediting them in the eyes of their peers. The first time I realized what I could do to my target instead of simply killing him, I may have actually had a brief moment of maniacal laughter. Well, more like a dark chuckle, but you get my point. It’s more darkly satisfying than it probably should be, but darn if it isn’t an interesting option to have available.

These kinds of choices are what characterize the plot and themes of Dishonored. While the visual style of the game is generally full of some pretty decent color contrast, the thematic style is most decidedly grey. The aforementioned “kill your target or get rid of them in some other way” isn’t the good/bad choice that you might think. While we generally think in terms of “killing always = worst possible outcome” some of the things you do to your targets are hardly what you would call a mercy. One in particular actually left me with a very uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and as I watched my target sail away, never to be heard from again, I suddenly regretted my decision. Murder is bad enough, but there are things that are just as, if not more morally questionable.

Killing your allies, for instance, is apparently frowned upon.

Choices like these, and the world of dishonored as a whole, aren’t exactly what I would call “ambiguous”, because you’re quite sure of the outcome either way: it’s just that both outcomes equally suck. This kind of all-encompassing darkness characterizes Dunwall and the overall tone of Dishonored. Everywhere you look, corruption runs rampant, plague victims wander the streets while the dead ones are deposited in mass graves, and even the good guys are rather unpleasant people at times. Dunwall is the essence of a crapsack world, and the imperfect setting demands imperfect “solutions” from the player.

Or at least that would seem to be the only conclusion the audience can reach on their own. The game itself, however, doesn’t seem to always stick to this premise quick as diligently. We do see some good in the game, of course, as a constantly depressing game would be… well, depressing. The problem comes from the ending. I killed very few people over the course of my game, choosing instead to knock guards unconscious and otherwise neutralize my primary targets. Apparently, that warranted the “warm fuzzy” ending, and the closing cinematic is narrated by The Outsider, apparently lauding me for “holding back” and choosing a lighter path. I would disagree with this assertion. There is nothing light about still killing about a dozen guards, two noblemen, and then subjecting my remaining targets to things like slavery, exile, or other things that I genuinely don’t want to contemplate too much. Dishonored is not a cheery, uplifting game, and to imply otherwise in the closing narration seemed forced and disingenuous.

But like I said, the story is not really the central focus of Dishonored. The plot is simple and has been done before and better in other stories and other mediums. The characters are dull and forgettable, with somewhat transparent and directionless motivations, which is a shame considering that the voice cast includes the likes of Carrie Fisher and Lena Headey, among others. Even the final resolution feels like a rather sudden anticlimax which, combined with some of the morally questionable things you’ve done up to that point, will likely leave you feeling unfulfilled and maybe even a little bit slimy. No, the real stars of the show are the diverse mechanics of the game, set against the rich backdrop of a city in turmoil. It’s been two days since I finished the game, yet I’m already forgetting most of the major plot points. What I haven’t forgotten is teleporting from chandelier to chandelier in a heavily-patrolled hallway on my way to assassinate my target. What I haven’t forgotten is stumbling across a patrolling guard while carrying his unconscious friend over my shoulder, then throwing the body at him in a panic while I desperately cut him down with my sword before he could alert anyone else. What I haven’t forgotten was just how much fun playing the game was.

I don’t really have anything applicable to say here, I just thought this was
a really cool shot.


Dishonored has a few weak spots and stumbles a bit with its narrative, but this doesn’t stop it from being a darn good game. Good stealth games are generally few and far between these days, and Human Revolution was the last one I played that truly wowed me. While I wouldn’t say Dishonored has outshone that game, it’s certainly worth a look if you’re a fan of the older, slower days of stealth games.

I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do with a drunken whaler, though.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Dishonored”

  1. I’m surprised to read that Human Revolution wowed you; it ended up being a disappointment to me. Despite having different paths through each mission it felt rather linear, the boss battles pigeon-holed you into head-to-head firefights, and the story started out strong only to fizzle out with one of the weakest endings I can remember. With Hitman Absolution on the horizon, I kind of expect that Dishonored is probably going to be a ‘rental only’ game. I suppose I’m a bit pessimistic, but a number of highly anticipated games haven’t live up to my expectations recently, and they left me feeling like I’d bought a too-short, incomplete game (Deus Ex: Human Revolution wasn’t the only one). So these days I follow some advice I got from one of my coworkers at DISH and I don’t buy a game until after I’ve rented it and had a chance to log some hours on it. It’s saved me a good deal of money in the past six-seven months. So Dishonored is already in my Blockbuster @Home queue, and I’ll get to play it soon without the risk of dropping sixty bucks on it.

  2. I agree with you on every point. That said, I still had a blast with DE:HR because it tried to be a game that wasn't just about action but rather ideas. It fell flat in a number of places but the transhumanist themes combined with the almost Blade Runner-like atmosphere really endears it to me. I'm a sucker for games with style and unique atmosphere and Human Revolution had it in spades.

    There's a lot of similarities between it and Dishonored, just replace cyberpunk with steampunk. I'd say this is one of those “if you didn't like x, you probably won't like y either” scenarios, so rental is probably a good call. You can polish the thing off in about 20 hours being fairly thorough anyway.

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