Review: Dishonored

I’ve finished the deliciously violent stealth-em-up game Dishonored.  Below is what I thought of it.  Read on or I will stab you in the neck.  Just kidding.  Not.  It’s spoiler-free, so read this and then buy the game.  Seriously.

It’s great that a game like Dishonored exists.  A neat, lean and taut package of violence to sink your teeth into – it’s like drugs, you wish there was more of it because what is there is so good.  For those that don’t know, Dishonored is a game where you play a disgraced (dishonored, I guess) assassin framed for the murder of the Empress of Dunwall, a fictitious London-like city in a huge spanning empire .  You then go on a murderous revenge-fueled rampage, enacting justice with a blade in your right hand, and a special power or two in your left.  It’s Bioshock with knives instead of guns.  Assassin’s Creed with a better story and gameplay.  Thief but not nearly as cool, but quite worthy of a tribute.  Hitman without the bald guy.  It’s important that I bring up all these other games that came before because Dishonored feels like a natural evolutionary mish-mash of these other stellar titles.  It feels like this is where a next-gen game should reach, building on what made all these previous games so great, and adding a punch or two of its own.

And what makes Dishonored so unique is the world you inhabit.  A very Steampunkian London-like city of the 19th century that you could see was once a regal place of learned men and much societal success, now degraded into squalor, corruption and disease.  One of the things that this game does so well is its immersive narrative-driven gameplay.  Cutscenes exist only as necessary to propel the action forward, to make sure the story is always on the move.  Everything else, all the back story is dished out through exploration and further reading of all the books and audiotapes lying about in this well-crafted world.  Certainly this is not a new method of story-telling, as Bioshock and any Valve game has tread before, but the stories that you uncover are quite gut-punching and heart-wrenching.  For instance, the most common enemy in the game is the lowly guard or soldier.  They tend to not have a very long life span if violence is your thing, and certainly the first time I played, I stabbed my way through as many guards as I could.  But in a subsequent playthrough, I decided to be Batman and not kill a single foe – and this is what is so great about the game, you could quite literally take the high moral ground and not kill anyone, so in one mansion I was raiding, I listened in on a conversation between a housemaid and guard.  In the previous playthrough, I instantly assumed the housemaid was in trouble and stepped in to stab the guy and put the maid to sleep so as not to startle her.  Turns out they were actually a couple having a harmless lover’s quarrel.  Who would’ve thought?  And that’s just a small part of the entire game’s level of intellect, I’ll leave the rest of it for you to uncover.  Dishonored is just as much for the gamer who powers through as if it were Call of Duty though you will die very often if you just go in guns blazing, as it is for the aficionado who wishes to stop, take the time to breathe in the sights and sounds and revel in the utterly exquisite artwork and textures.  Arkane Studios have really put together a whale-oiled masterpiece (pun intended) in terms of looks and design.

But how’s the gameplay?

No one has used this comparison yet, so I am totally trademarking it.  Dishonored is quite literally a 19th century Taken, and you do indeed have a very special set of skills.  The stealth-stabbery is positively delectable, and those who really want to experience the sheer joy of being a sneaky, stone cold killer, only need to stab a few hapless guards in the neck or rip heads off entirely with a well-placed crossbow shot to feel it.  The killing animations are really gruesome and even just watching a swarm of rats tear a body apart can leave you feeling squeamish in the gut.  Then there are the special powers, six of which are active skills and four passive.  Blink is the most essential spell, and they waste no time in equipping you with it.  It lets you traverse anywhere horizontally as well as vertically within reach.  Some of my favorite strategies involved blinking right behind enemies, stabbing them and then blinking back to my hiding spot.  It has allowed me to escape dicey moments with such grace too.  I can’t help but wonder how different the game would be if it were an optional spell, instead of a compulsory one, like the rest.  Others like Dark Vision gives you Batman’s Detective mode, seeing through walls and watching the awareness levels of guards, while Possession lets you take control of animals to sneak past guards, and when upgraded, humans.  My favorite other thing to do is to freeze time with the Bend Time ability and then possess a guard to stand in front of another guard’s gun fire in my direction.  Unfreeze time and watch the poor guy take all the damage.  Seriously, here are your tools, go have fun with them.

Of course, what makes it a more fun game is how you customize your character to suit your personal playstyle.  Runes are the rare skill points that you have to scavenge throughout the game with the help of an omniscient heart.  When you uncover who’s heart it is you hold, you’ll tear up a little.  That’s probably my favorite bit of writing in the whole game.  There’s a lot to uncover and decipher for yourself, only if you want to.  But coming back to the point of customization – you won’t get enough runes to upgrade every single ability, so you really have to decide which ones to get, and there is some thought required to figure out what is good for early and late-game.  My only advice is to upgrade Blink to the max as early as possible because it will really make you a ninja, and ninjas are cool.

The game also gives you multi-pathways to completing a quest.  On a very simple level, this means you can physically approach a kill in  a varied number of ways.  Drop down straight into a target’s balcony via the roofs, enter through a dank sewer, or why not stride through the front door with not a care in the world?  On a more complex level, you can also complete specific quests in certain ways.  The most easiest method obviously is to kill the target dead.  But why not instead switch poison in wine cups?  Or set up a trap where the enemy chasing you runs into a rewired wall of light that literally obliterates them into little pieces.   There are also side quests that function to further plump out the game’s relatively lean 20+ hours playthrough, but also at times helps make your main missions easier to accomplish.

My recommendation to every single person who plays the game is to play it on Very Hard difficulty, and turn off every single marker and User Interface indicator.  All other difficulties don’t give you that right level of tension and risk, while having the objective marker switched on really reduces the game’s potential for exploration and stopping to smell the dirty, stinking, but beautifully crafted “roses” in the world.

My only criticism of the game is that there is no New Game+ that allows you to play again from the start but with all your fully upgraded skills by the end of the first playthrough; and that really is an indicator of how amazing the game is when you’ve fully gotten into stride as a decked out assassin.  Apart from a few unclear mission directions, especially when you turn off all markers, the game rarely lags pace-and-game wise.  The hub that you return to after each mission is so-so to be honest, there is a person you go to to get your shit upgraded, and a few characters to chat to, but really we could’ve done this in a static menu screen – although I get that it offers the respite from the intense action of the actual missions, and is the only proper place to keep the narrative and purpose of the game going.   As for the actual plot, don’t go looking for anything spectacular, it’s really just a cross between Count of Monte Cristo in terms of what it has to say about the effects of revenge on the guilty and innocent, and Taken, in that someone close to you is taken and you have to go pwn those no-do-gooders.  The characters are interesting in their own right, no one is really a standout, but I just find it really weird that a game modeled geographically after England has American-voiced characters.  The writing is good for the little incidental bits and pieces that make this world of Dishonored come alive.

Ultimately though, it’s been awhile since a game has made me think of wanting to repeat the entire  game from scratch, just because I enjoyed the gameplay this much.  And that’s a good thing.  Narrative is always going to have a place in my heart, but a game should be good for its ludic elements.  I just want to see how many different ways I can approach each unique mission, and how far I can push my own capabilities as a sneaky assassin.  Seriously, give the game a go on Very Hard, and once you’ve pulled through an entire level on Ghost (never detected) with no deaths (enemies are either only rendered unconscious or left alone) then you know you’re one step closer to being Liam Neeson.

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