Stealth games are a hard pill to swallow for some. The slow, methodical gamestyle of stalking guards and taking them out one by one in order to fill up a single broom closet with as many bodies as possible does not appeal to all. Dishonored is an interesting entry in the stealth genre as it plays like a stealth game but at the same time will not require an instant reload should you run into some action along the way. Offering a rich universe and plenty of open levels with branching pathways, this Deus Ex/Thief hybrid shows that an old dog can learn some new tricks.
Dishonored is set in an alternate universe where whale oil has led to many technological advancements creating a sort of oil-punk aesthetic to everything that surrounds you. The action takes place in a fictional city but as far anyone is concerned this is basically England, complete with a Queen and rigid class separation. The player takes on the role of Corvo, the royal protector of the Queen and a master assassin, although not THE Master Assassin, as that position actually exists and along the way you meet to meet the person that fills it. You are framed for the murder of her royal highness and sentenced to death, proclaimed a traitor and official vile scum not worthy of living. As you might have guessed, Corvo makes a daring escape from prison and sets out on a quest of revenge to not only clear his name but also rescue Emily, the daughter of the Empress and next in line to succeed the throne. The twist, and ultimately main element to distinguish Dishonored from other shadow-skulking type games is the mysterious Outsider, a supernatural being that bestows upon Corvo special “magical” abilities. Charged with magic, thirst for revenge and the backing of a small resistance that aims to place Emily on the throne and restore balance and order to the city of Dunwall your story begins.
Dishonored follows a sturdy formula of entering a unique area with the intent to neutralize a specific target and then making your way out. The game plays much like it’s genre contemporaries such as Thief Deadly Shadows or Deus Ex Human Revolution. The streets of Dunwall are patrolled by various guards and as you’re a wanted criminal of the highest magnitude guards will shoot you on sight. This of course leads to plenty of sneaking, and evading of said guards in order to reach your target. While games continue to move away from complex HUD’s it feels as if Dishnored really could have used a bit more information on the screen regarding your state of stealth. There are no shadows to hide in and your primary tool for sneaking is a lean button which lets Corvo lean out what feels like his entire body around a corner while he himself retains the same level of cover. This often leads to somewhat unclear situations of who can see you from where as the line of sight can really vary depending on what guards you encounter. Once you finally do reach your target you will always have the choice of taking them out up close and personal or choose a non-lethal and usually much more satisfying way to end their existence. I won’t spoil what any of these are as they’re always very satisfying and interesting to execute, but I will say they employ a high degree of poetic justice.
Dishonored does a truly admirable job of creating large sandbox arenas in which you are left to your own devices how to go about and get your job done. The levels you traverse are quite large and often very vertical in nature allowing for multiple routes to a single destination. This is where Corvos special abilities come into play. The very first and most useful one you will use throughout the game is Blink, allowing for short range teleportation. Before Dishonored came along it is hard to imagine how come no one has come up with such a simple and elegant mechanic for this ability before. You simply hold the trigger which creates a bright cone on the ground displaying where you will teleport to and letting go will cause you to blink to that location. It is fast, fun and extremely useful. Adding to the usefulness is the fact that if you choose to blink to a ledge for example, the indicator will change to let you know that upon blinking to that location you will vault over the edge instead of falling down the side of the wall. Blink allows for unparalleled freedom of movement, and with the helpful system of climbing over ledges you might just completely forget you ever had a jump button as teleporting is not only quicker and more fun but a safer bet when jumping from pipe to pipe several stories above the ground. Dishonored allows for a level of first person traversal not seen before in similar games. Jumping up to a ledge and holding the jump button with cause Corvo to climb over the edge as opposed to helplessly jumping in front of it. No longer will you ever be mocked by the infuriating first person nemesis, the chest high wall, which your super hero protagonist just cannot jump over. Some of the other powers you attain are the ability to slow down time, possess people and animals or create powerful wind blasts to knock down your foes. Most of these powers are most deadly when combined together to string a deadly dance of death and evasion. For instance, you could freeze time, blink to three enemies, slit the throats of two out of the three and possess the third before time returns back to normal. All powers have the ability to be upgraded to an even more powerful version and this is done by finding runes, which are basically collectibles strewn throughout each “mission” you go on. At the basic level you can only slow down time but guards will still spot you if you cross their path, but at level 2 time is stopped completely. In addition to these primary powers there is a set of passive abilities to upgrade like faster movement, more health or the extremely useful ability to turn bodies to ash when you eliminate enemies in a stealthy manner which I highly recommend. Augmenting this even further are whalebone talismans that you can wear for small bonuses like faster movement while carrying bodies or more mana. With all of these systems in play, by the end of the game you honestly feel like a small demi god rather than a stealthy assassin. All these abilities also serve as means of traversal in the grandiose levels you are meant to infiltrate. You can blink up to catwalks and roofways in order to access an area from the top. You can possess fish or rats to swim or crawl through tiny vents and emerge through the sewers on the other side. You can freeze time and run past enemies without them ever knowing you were there or possess a guard and stroll past all patrols before rounding a corner and dispatching of your host body. If all else fails you can always equip your sword in one hand, pistol in the other, and with the aid of devouring swarms of rats charge through the main doors guns and rats blazing.
Your main tools of the trade are Corvos switchblade sword, a flintlock pistol and a crossbow. There are also grenades and traps you can set but throughout most of the game there is little reason to even bother with those items. You will most often sneak up behind guards and either take them into a headlock or slit their throats. The pistol while usually a one shot kill is loud and slow to reload, often a weapon you might pull out if you’re already engaged with multiple enemies and don’t care to remain incognito. The crossbow on the other hand, especially after a few upgrades can be a very useful tool for pacifying guards from a distance. The strength of Dishonored lies in the fact that once you do raise an alarm you aren’t forced to automatically reload the last save. Unlike traditional stealth games, one guard does not telepathically alert all the other guards in the entire area. You will engage with a small group of enemies in a sword battle which heavily relies on your ability to parry and counter attack for bloody and stylized one hit counter kills. Once said group is dispatched you can carry on and the guards in other areas will be none the wiser. While the old school stealth action fan in me automatically reloaded any time I was spotted, as I assume most fans of the genre will do, I was able to fight that tendency and simply go on with the level a few times and still had a ton of fun. Ironically enough while the developer chose to make head on combat a much more viable reality than typically stealth games allow, the “Chaos” system actively discourages the player from murdering too many people along the way. As you see the city of Dunwall is consumed by a plague that is mainly spread by rats devouring dead bodies and passing on the disease to others. The more people you kill, the more rapidly the plague spreads and in conjunction the darker your game ending will be. While an interesting idea, it is never quite clearly explained and at the end of the day boils down to a very binary state of: kill lots of doods, bad ending; don’t kill doods, good ending.
The presentation of Dishonored is great. All enemies, buildings and devices evoke a very specific steam-punk feeling while leaving just enough elements to keep the game rooted in what seems like victorian times. All faces while not very realistic are stylized in such a way that feels appropriate to the game setting and sets it apart from titles which try too hard to recreate realistic facial features and end up in the dreaded uncanny valley. All the machines and weapons have a very rustic, heavy metal feel to them and they simply look spectacular. Dishonored has a rich backstory which infuriatingly is only experienced by reading the vast number of books and journals you encounter along the way. Personally I am not a fan of stopping in the middle of an exciting base infiltration to all of a sudden read about how the whaling industry came to be so big in the game. All those stories interested me a lot and I ended up reading quite a few entries but I always thought that presenting the backstory in such a way is a terrible waste as I imagine a lot of people won’t even bother and as a result will be left somewhat clueless by the end of the game concerning certain key figures and game elements.
Dishonored is a great game and a solid entry in the stealth genre. The gameplay is fast and fun and while the stealth element could have used a bit more work, as you get used to how far you need to be before someone spots you and what is cover and what isn’t you will forget about the lack of a shadow gem or likewise item. The biggest knock you can find against the overall gameplay is that ironically by introducing all these supernatural powers the game tends to get a bit too easy as early as the halfway mark. You almost feel like you’re playing with cheats on as you hopelessly outmaneuver all your foes, literally running circles around them as you stop time to stab them in the back before they can even reach for their swords. Dishonored is a unique experience, in a brand new world that warrants exploration. The story while full of potential falls flat on it’s face in the grand finale which is a problem we've been seeing a lot of games lately - still the gameplay itself more than makes up for any of those shortcomings. While the next Thief game is still in development, do yourself a favor and try out this alternative take on how stealth games could be played.