I love a good revenge story. Revenge is, by a huge margin, my absolute favorite plot point. All I needed to be interested in the Arkane-developed, Bethesda-published Dishonored is the tagline: “Revenge Solves Everything.” That might not be sound real-world advice, but damn, is it awesome. Dishonored sticks to this mentality with such aggressive tenacity, it almost borders on camp, but it bursts with dark charm for the exact same reason.
Dishonored centers around Corvo Attano (which may be the best video game name ever), bodyguard to the Empress in the troubled city of Dunwall. Every day, Dunwall slips a bit further into chaos as a vicious plague grips the citizens. When the Empress is murdered and her daughter kidnapped, Corvo is framed for the deed and thrown into prison. Months later, he’s broken out by a group of men claiming to be loyal to the late Empress. With the help of the Loyalists, Corvo sets out to kill or dethrone every man and woman responsible for his suffering and that of his loved ones.
The aural and visual package of Dishonored really works to sell the experience. The world is a fantastic blend of dystopian, steampunk, and 17th-century London elements, cohering into an incredibly unique aesthetic. The exaggerated style used for the characters (with elongated jawlines, chins, and large hands), perfectly recalls the feel of what an R-rated Disney movie might look like. This manages to outshine the actual visual fidelity, which is not as crisp-looking as many of this year’s stable of games. Finally, the outstanding voice acting, with distinct unique actors for each of the main characters, is fantastic. In fact, the entirety of the sound design is excellent; ambient sound effects and the sounds of battle are about as immersive as one could hope for.
Dishonored shines in the huge amount of gameplay freedom it offers, and it extends far beyond simply choosing between stealth and aggression. Throughout the game, I learned to train my eyes to watch for every possible option: sneak up behind guards and take them out, distract them with a summoned swarm of rats from the shadows, conduct a full-on assault, or move to the ventilation shafts along the ceiling and avoid them altogether. Any of these, and more, are possible. Coming across a Pylon (a sort of electrified turret), you can move around it, destroy it, or, if you have the materials, hack it to attack enemies.
Even each of the main targets in the game can be taken care of with a variety of means, both lethal and not. Every mission also offers the option to use a nonlethal method of removing a character from power, such as exposing their misdeeds or smuggling them out of the city.
Leapfrogging off of this wealth of choices is the Chaos system, which changes elements of later levels based on past performance. Racking up a high body count, getting detected frequently, or having dead or unconscious bodies discovered will adversely affect the game later on, with consequences like worsening the plague and increasing the opposition force in later levels. Minor elements of the plot seem to change as well based on Corvo’s actions. It’s nothing drastic, but it’s enough to notice.
Dishonored sports one of the most elegant & visceral first-person combat system I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. It’s incredibly easy to parry and counter-attack, or to line up shots with projectile attacks. There’s also a tangible sense of being a part of the surrounding world; that is, Corvo is not merely an avatar standing in a digital space, it really feels like he inhabits his universe. Combat has a heft that you don’t see very often, and melee kills feel effectively brutal.
Besides his omnipresent blade and selection of grenades, mines, and crossbows, Corvo is also granted an array of powers by the mysterious Outsider, a mystical being that watches from the shadows and likes to monologue about Corvo’s actions. Corvo’s bread-and-butter power is Blink, a teleport skill that’s incredibly versatile, used for everything from stealth to quickly dodging around enemies. The powers also include slowing down or stopping time, releasing a swarm of ravenous rats, or possessing small creatures (and later, humans). These powers are unlocked through Runes, which are found around the levels or obtained through completing secondary objectives. Corvo also has access to a number of trinkets called Bone Charms, which grant passive abilities–think something like Call of Duty perks that can be collected and interchanged at any time.
Dishonored is at its best in the small unique moments scattered throughout the missions. For example, when Corvo is tasked with infiltrating a masquerade party, he has to talk to the partygoers to figure out which of the similarly-dressed attendees is his mark. In that same mission, Corvo also has the option to sign the guest ledger on his way out, which doesn’t do much besides add a nice touch to the end of the mission (but it feels awesome).
Sadly, for all of the loading-screen hoopla about how dark the ending can get based on choices, I was disappointed with my outcome. I went full-on lethal for my review playthrough, and the epilogue was not nearly as devastating as I was expecting. On the contrary, I felt plenty of closure. This may have had something to do with the visual design of the epilogue, which plays out with characters frozen in time as the camera moves through them. It looked cool but it was not terribly effective.
While the ending falters, the rest of Dishonored shines. This is a grim, thrilling revenge fable that makes vengeance satisfying, yet at the same time questions the necessity of payback and its resulting ripple effect. Visiting doom on Corvo’s enemies is a dark delight, and the incredible freedom offered in each mission makes the game worth revisiting at least two or three times. The wealth of consequences and changes to the world as a result of any action also make playthroughs unique. It’s not a surprise that the game is so great, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the year’s best.
Dishonored was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. A PlayStation 3 copy was purchased by the editor for the purposes of review.