Stealthy, flexible experimentation
Whaling fiction, enjoyable stealth, special powers… it’s all here in Dishonored, a new IP developed by Arkane Studios. The game introduces some fresh new stealth mechanics and arms the player with the power of choice. Unlike most games that employ this power, Dishonored actually makes good on the potential and offers up a stunning variety of approaches to mission completion, combat, and traversal. It leaves plenty room for experimentation with its skill set and this results in some fascinating, unique combinations that simply don’t materialize in other games.
The game is set in the dystopian steam-punkish city of Dunwall. It’s a grungy, whaling port-town filled with rundown buildings and grottos but also housing a few opulent structures of the glitzier, elite citizenry. The city is currently infected with a virulent plague carried by rats that swarm the underbelly of the city. The plague essentially turns people into putrescent, lifeless walkers (“weepers”) that trundle the streets aimlessly. There is an overarching, tyrannical leadership structure that employs “overseers” to keep order - they’re basically just overbearing police officers. They enforce curfews and strongly oppose the use of magic. The setting is fleshed out by a plethora of notes and journals that give some context to the world and its culture.
The story has you assume the role of Corvo, protector of the High Empress. After being sent on a mission to research the plague, you’re framed for the murder of the Empress and incarcerated. The Lord Regent assumes power and the Empress’ daughter, Emily, is kidnapped. After breaking free from prison, you discover an underground group of rabble-rousers who want to rescue Emily and destroy the power structure constricting the city. The story is not amazing but it’s successful enough to keep you interested and has some nice twists. What it suffers from most is weak characters. You never really get attached to anyone. The biggest perpetrator, Corvo, is a silent protagonist and thus feels like a missed opportunity. He could have served as a vessel to infuse more interesting and substantive narrative into the game and given you something to actually care about.
Your new group of friends has you traveling around the city, assassinating targets in hopes of dismantling the political power structure and gaining access to the Lord Regent. You travel to each mission via boat and are given a target to assassinate. The mission areas are large, instanced sections of the city that have multiple levels and various side objectives. The game lets you approach the missions however you see fit; in the way you deal with enemies, navigate through the space, and how you actually choose to carry out your objective. You can either be a furtive, non lethal ninja, sticking to the shadows and using subterfuge, or a brazen, murderous fool, plowing through the main streets with your blade and pistol, leaving behind a wake of blood. You can choose a direct, assertive path to take out your main target or you can use a more indirect approach where you may not even be the person getting your hands dirty. The choice is always up to you. This is one aspect where this game truly succeeds. There’s so much variety to how you can approach a mission that it’s hard to imagine people playing it the same way. Yet the spaces where all of this variety take place are small enough that you never get overwhelmed with choosing different paths – it’s a good balance of freedom and constraint.
You’re able to pull off all of this diverse action thanks to the game’s special abilities. These empower you with skills that let you see through walls, possess different forms, and also provide some strong passive traits. The most useful abilities are “Blink” and “Dark Vision.” Blink lets you flash to a point through time and space allowing you to traverse large vertical or horizontal distances while remaining undetected. Aim the reticle at your desired destination, and you will warp there instantly. This will aid you in climbing structures, dashing behind cover, and instantly appearing behind enemies to land quick stealth kills. The dark vision ability lets you see enemies and security systems through walls while also revealing enemy line-of-sight cones. This lets you plan out your attacks while studying enemy movement patterns and crafting an approach to get past various security devices. While this vision works well for the most part, enemies can behave strangely at times, often seeing you when you appear to be clearly hidden. This usually happens when the enemy is on a different level, either above or below you. Blink has its share of foibles as well. It really only behaves oddly when you are trying to climb up onto a ledge. When aimed properly at a ledge, the targeting reticle contains a little arrow to let you know you’ll climb up onto it. Sometimes however, it seems like you are clearly close enough to climb up on the ledge but the reticle will not yield the climbing arrow. Minor criticisms, but annoying nonetheless.
Two other noteworthy abilities are “Posession” (allows you to possess a human or animal form) and “Bend Time.” Possession allows you to control fish, rats, dogs, and once upgraded, human forms. The animal possessions are useful for sneaking around and finding alternate routes through small tunnels or pipes. You’re able to access areas you wouldn’t otherwise be capable of if not for your ephemeral new skin. The human possessions let you pass through security gates or allow you to single out an enemy from a group. Once singled out, you can then exit the possession, leaving you behind the enemy and in a position subdue them. You can even leave a possession and then possess a new form, allowing you to sneak across larger sections undetected. Slowing or stopping time allows for an endless amount of shenanigans. You can stop time and sneak by a group of enemies, or, if you choose, assassinate them all before time resumes – an incredibly satisfying act. You could also use it to do something as crazy as stopping time when an enemy fires a round off, possessing him, and then walking him in front of his own bullet, effectively having him shoot himself. Yeah, it gets crazy
The actual physical combat is pretty straightforward. You can equip a sword in your right hand and either a spell or ranged weapon in the other hand. The melee combat is simple, but executed well. You can sneak up behind enemies and assassinate them, swing with basic and charged attacks, and counter enemy sword attacks to open up parry opportunities.
As the game is meant to be played primarily stealthy, you won’t rely on the combat heavily but it functions very well when you get in a pinch or just don’t feel like sneaking around anymore. There are a couple of minor repercussions for playing more violently as well. The more people you slay, the more weepers roam about the city harassing you. The ending of the game is also different depending on the approach you take. These are the only things that change as a result of your actions and it ends up being a very minor variation.
All of your abilities and weapons can be upgraded using currency and “Runes.” The currency is used to purchase things like ammo, potions, and weapon upgrades while the runes are used to upgrade your abilities. Runes are scattered about each mission location along with “Bone Charms.” Bone charms are little trinkets that grant you small passive bonuses like upgraded health, faster mana regeneration, or faster sprint. You can equip up to six of these and rotate them in and out as you see fit. Helping you find these two items is this odd looking mechanical heart that shows your proximity to these hidden items. Equip this and it will mark the objects on-screen and palpitate faster the closer you get to the item. It’s a bizarre little item but it adds a nice touch and livens up what would normally just be a map marker..
Dishonored succeeds because of its variety and flexibility; giving you a diverse set of tools and letting you run wild with them. The game gives you a great amount of freedom when it comes to combat and mission approach but keeps you efficient by limiting the environments to instanced spaces. While the story and characters might not be the most interesting, the fluid combat and constant experimentation will keep you engaged throughout. The amount of ways you can combine abilities is astonishing and it’s sure to elicit a lot creativity in players. It’s a strong entry as a new IP and will hopefully serve as a strong building block if the studio pursues a sequel.