Behind the lifeless body of open-world games stands Dishonored. It’s linear and mission-based, so I wouldn’t blame you for assuming its depth is minimal, but this stealth action outing from Arkane Studios challenges Bethesda’s most beloved franchise in its detail and expanse. It’s set in the huge city of Dunwall, and each of its nine missions doesn’t just facilitate extra-objective exploration, but actively encourages and rewards it. There’s so much to do, and there’s a constant sense that something is happening in the city – whether you’re there to see it or not.
The prologue hurls you head-long into the main plot: returning from a trip abroad to seek foreign assistance with Dunwall’s infestation of plague-ridden rats, you helplessly witness super-powered assassins kill the Empress and kidnap her young heir, Emily. You’re framed for the crime and thrown into prison, only to be broken out by a group called the Loyalists, who rebel against the kakistocratic Lord Regent and seek to re-install Emily. Now, you’re no longer Royal Protector Corvo Attano, but Loyalist Assassin, taking out targets to fulfil their agenda.
The almost cel-shaded visual style may surprise players at first, but it works very well. The sort of dry humour that punctuates the game’s casual violence and wacky characters will no doubt resound well with fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and its similar city of Ankh-Morpork, while the graphics and gameplay are a perfect blend of Wind Waker and Assassin’s Creed. The visuals aren’t the most technically advanced, suffering from texture lag and framerate dips in places, but the art style more than compensates there, as does the stellar lighting; crepuscular rays peeking from behind buildings at dawn is gorgeous. The anachronisms typical of the steampunk style and the genius of designs like the Tallboy are also very appreciable.
There’s clear inspiration drawn from early England in Dunwall, too: globes scattered around the city display a clear effigy of the British Isles, and both the state of dress and manner of references to “the Empire” seem clear comparisons to the British one. There’s also a distinct culture arising from the city’s position as a large whaling port; whale oil is used for absolutely everything, to the extent that tanks of whale oil are used as the primary source of electricity for alarms and electrified gates. Removing or replacing these tanks are key to most of the game’s puzzles, of which there are admittedly few.
Throughout most of the game, markers appear directing the player, which takes away much of the potential challenge; Dishonored is as guilty of player hand-holding as any other major title this generation. Fortunately, though, the deep menu screens allow each and every sort of UI element to be toggled to your personal preference, and players also find freedom in how they decide to reach goals. As a stealth action game, your playstyle will define how you circumvent patrolling guards, whether it be by storming ahead and killing them, or sneaking past, or possessing one, or crawling through sewers – there are many options.
These alternative routes through sections of the city are called “Pathways”, and their number is astonishing. Take, for instance, a mission in which you have to crash a fancy masquerade. You can assault the man at the gate, or you can hang around a group of guests until one of them drops their invitation, at which point you can pick it up and use it to join the party. Alternatively, you could climb up an adjacent tower and jump into the party building’s window, then rappel down a chain and walk to the foyer. The chain-climbing controls are a little awkward, but each solution is as valid as the one before.
If you do happen to attract the attention of a guard, you can either hide long enough for them to dismiss the movement as rats or something else, or you can run away until they give up. Using Blink is also really useful when confronted by guards: you can teleport behind them and then assassinate them, or choke them into unconsciousness. Of course, if you’re planning a play-through with no detections, you’re going to find yourself saving and loading quite often – in which case, the absence of a quick-save function is almost as annoying as the buggy pause button, which occasionally blurs the screen but leaves the action unpaused for around ten seconds before the menu appears.
The detailed setting is unmistakably one of the greatest things about the game; so much care has clearly gone into creating the city from the ground up, and it feels incredibly organic. When I say there’s a constant sense of something happening, I mean it: on my way to an objective marker, a young girl mentioned that her tutor was taking a bath. “The game can’t possibly be that detailed,” I mused as I took a quick detour to the servants’ quarters, where I discovered an engineer spying through the keyhole of the young lady’s bathroom. I confronted him and he panicked, claimed he was working on “a new sort of lock”, then ran off. It was total coincidence I was even there.
Another example might be the catchy tune I constantly hear guards whistling or humming; sneaking around a guard’s room, I found a note with the very lyrics to the melody I’d heard. This is just one of the many notes, books, and “audiographs” (essentially the steampunk version of the ubiquitous “audio log”) that lie around, ranging from explanatory to hilarious. If you hang around one place, you can also eavesdrop on entire conversations, which are hugely immersing, particularly with the excellent voice talent. On the flip side, hearing “shall we gather for whiskey and cigars tonight?” every few minutes from guards took me out of the game.
Don’t get me wrong: Dishonored is still very much a narrative-driven game, but players have more to do than simply complete the main objective and return to the Loyalists at the Hounds Pit bar; there are alternative ways to accomplish every task and constant side-quests and unlisted objectives. You can rescue a store-owner from a pair of thugs and then purchase from him later, for example. There are also runs and bone charms to collect, which demand a great deal of creativity; these are integral to the supernatural element of the game. The former is used to purchase or upgrade Powers and Enhancements, while the latter is equipped to apply certain effects to the game world.
These Powers and Enhancements vary in their usefulness, but do make missions slightly more varied if you utilise them all. There are only five Powers in the game: Dark Vision, which allows you to see in the dark and visualise enemies’ line of sight; Blink, which is a short teleport; Possession, which is self-explanatory; Bend Time, which slows down or freezes time; Devouring Storm, which summons a swarm of man-eating rats; and Windblast, which is simply a high-powered blast of wind. Of these, only Blink is truly indispensable – it’s possible to beat the game without ever using the others (and you’ll get a Trophy for accomplishing that).
As a predominantly stealth-oriented game, combat isn’t a focus, but it’s still executed exceptionally well. You constantly dual-wield, with a retractable sword in your right hand, and any number of things held in the left hand; holding down L2 and twirling the analogue stick instantly switches to another weapon or Power using the Quick-access wheel, so it’s slick to switch from crossbow to Blink or vice versa. Unfortunately, the wheel doesn’t lock to options as well as you’d like, so it’s easy to mess up and select the wrong weapon (or none at all) in the heat of battle. Similarly annoying is the constant re-arrangement of the wheel when you unlock a new Power or pick up a new weapon. Projectiles are fairly easy to handle, as there’s a large degree of auto-aim, but low health means storming through dozens of foes isn’t a piece of cake (and besides, swordplay is much more fun).
Notable, of course, is the freedom to play through the entire game without killing a single character: this non-lethal approach takes a little longer, especially when you have to run around and find ways around assassinating your target, but is rewarded with a happier ending. This is Dishonored’s take on the usual multiple ending system: you’re given a “chaos rating” based on how many people you kill and what decisions you make, and that reflects whether your ending will be positive or negative. Not only that, but your chaos rating affects the entire city: more chaos means more rats, and more violent plague-ridden peasants called “Weepers”.
I generally lean towards playing an upstanding character and shoot towards a positive ending, but Dishonored spins this a little differently than games like Fallout: being bad is actually easier than being good, but characters like Emily humanise protagonist Corvo to the extent that it feels a moral atrocity to be exceptionally corrupt. It’s impressive that Dishonored manages to both grant the player a huge amount of freedom and accomplish quality character development. I’ve never cared much for characters in The Elder Scrolls, but Dishonored forces me to grow attached to little Emily, the boatman Samuel, and even one of the Hound Pits’ maids.
The only truly underdeveloped and mysterious character in the game is the Outsider. He is the apparition that grants Corvo these supernatural powers early in the game, as well as a device called the Heart, which leads the player towards runes and bone charms. Loading screens describe him as “a figure out of myth, neither good or evil”, and he only reappears as the voice of cynicism when you visit his Shrines, commenting on your actions and decisions. While many side characters have their own self-contained stories reconciled (Granny Rags’ especially well), we end the game knowing little more about the Outsider, which is a little disappointing.
Nevertheless, Dishonored remains a truly remarkable example of how well the open-world and linear styles of storytelling can be married; in terms of bridging games like Skyrim and The Witcher 2, it’s a watershed, and one I hope isn’t under-appreciated. While my first play-through only ate around fifteen hours of my time, there’s definitely enough content here for at least twenty hours, and potentially more if you play through in a non-lethal fashion. That doesn’t beat The Elder Scrolls just yet, but an original IP is always a gamble for publishers, and I congratulate Bethesda and Arkane for managing to get this one out in such a great shape. I want to play more games like Dishonored in future, sure – but I also want to play more of Dishonored itself. I don’t imagine I’ll be alone in that.