Okay, sorry for the less-than-timely review here folks. I generally try and get these things done as close to the release date as I can, seeing as how I buy them on launch day like everyone else. I’m a bit late to the party this time, but hopefully I can provide a second opinion.
Dishonored is set in a fictional world that was clearly inspired by the industrial revolution era British Empire. The entire game takes place in the port city of Dunwall, the capital of the Empire of Isles, the ruling power. This city is very much like 1800s London, if the technological fantasies of the time had come true. Alongside the tall tenement buildings, claustrophobic, filthy, cobbled streets and lethal-looking, polluted pools of water are fantastic, clunky, gear-grinding and downright surreal works of technology. It’s kind of a steampunk setting… sort of. Most of the inventions and gadgets are at least partially constructed from wood and leather with brass rivets.
The thing is, all of these fantastic devices are powered by electricity generated using whale oil as a power source. That’s right, whale oil. There are usually canisters of the stuff stacked around and there’s a huge whaling industry discussed in-depth in the many books you can read. So, what would you call that? There’s no actual steam power involved. Whale oil-punk… maybe? Anyway, if you’re a fan of the steampunk sub-genre, like the works of Jules Verne or Jonathan Green’s Pax Britannia series, or classic Victorian science fiction, you’ll probably find the setting highly enjoyable. I know I did. I also liked the cloak-and-daggers, political-intrigue direction the story takes. It’s rare to find a game world this well thought-out and realised, and it doesn’t take much imagination on your part to become fully immersed in it.
Players take on the role of Corvo, the royal bodyguard to the Empress of Isles, as he returns from a diplomatic mission to beg aid from his empress’ allies in treating a deadly plague that has broken out in their country. It’s a pretty nasty plague that turns people into wailing, moaning zombies called “weepers” that bleed from every orifice and attack everyone they see before dying a twitching, oozing death in a gutter somewhere. Lovely. Corvo meets the empress and her daughter to deliver the responses of the other sovereign nations. It’s clearly not good news, but the empress doesn’t have time to dwell on it long because invisible assassins suddenly reveal themselves, stab her and kidnap her daughter. Corvo manages to take a few down, but is unable to save either of them – and to make matters worse, he’s accused of being a conspirator by the royal spymaster.
He’s bunged up in a cell and learns what’s really going on. He’s the fall-guy in a political plot by the spymaster and some high-ranking religious officials to seize control of the Empire. That’s not a spoiler, by the way, you learn that right away as the spymaster twirls his moustache while divulging his whole plot to you through your prison bars – not the smartest thing to do. Luckily for Corvo, he’s sprung from jail by an underground resistance movement organised by loyalists who want to see the kidnapped princess rescued and put on the throne, where she belongs.
Maybe it’s just me, but I found this opening to be particularly riveting. In the short time it takes, we get a great sense of Corvo’s relationship with the empress and her daughter – which is clearly more than professional. The princess also looks up to Corvo like a father figure, and bounds up to greet him excitedly when he returns from the diplomatic mission – so when this horrible stuff goes down right in front of you, it’s both frustrating and maddening. It just got personal and you’ll want to do unspeakable things to the conspirators.
The game proper begins once Corvo arrives at the loyalist headquarters, a pub located in an evacuated, plague-stricken part of the city. From here, you’re sent on several missions to get rid of prominent characters standing in the way of the resistance’s plan to restore the princess to the throne. Before embarking on each mission, you can wander around the pub and its surrounding areas looking for hidden items, talking to people who might have quests for you to do, and speaking to the engineer who sells you upgrades for your weapons and gadgets.
Each mission takes place in a different part of the city, of which there are several, like the streets of the city, a noble family’s mansion, a gang hideout, and a huge, mechanical bridge spanning a river. You’ll have to return to each of these places once or twice over the course of the game, and what really sets this game apart from many others is that your actions on your previous visits will have a tangible effect on the place the next time you visit. For instance, if you went in gung-ho and caused too much chaos and killed too many people, they’ll be ready for you next time, with added guards, security turrets and other nasty things. Killing too many people also has the nasty side effect of attracting plague rats – which I’ll get into later.
If you decide to be stealthy and eliminate targets via non-lethal means, without causing too much havoc, security will be much lighter on your next visit and the plague rat population won’t have increased. Even the main targets can be eliminated by non-lethal means. The lethal means are pretty straightforward – get close enough, kill them, get out; but the non-lethal methods are more involved and puzzle-like, requiring you to say, brand an arch-inquistor as a heretic so that he’ll be banished, or convince a rich heiress to run away with her lover so that you don’t have to murder her.
To accomplish his missions, Corvo has access to an assortment of different weapons and gadgets. His trusty folding sword is always an option – always a lethal option, and he can get a crossbow, a pistol, potions and a selection of grenades. These weapons and gadgets are accessed via a standard radial menu, and you can assign your four most-used items to the d-pad. They can be upgraded by spending money found hidden on the bodies of enemies or found by exploring the environments, and the projectile weapons can be loaded with different types of ammo, like explosive rounds for the pistol and sleep darts for the crossbow.
But that’s not all Corvo has at his disposal. Shortly after being sprung from jail, he’s contacted in his dreams by a being known as The Outsider, who is apparently the game world’s version of Satan. Anyway, this charming fellow offers Corvo the ability to use his damnable magic. The first spell you get, Blink, is one of the most useful spells in any game. In fact, if you look online, a lot of players think it makes the game a bit too easy… and, well, it’s difficult to say otherwise. I’ve certainly encountered a few situations that would have been way harder if I didn’t have the Blink spell. It allow you to telepot a short distance (upgradeable to twice the distance) instantly. Any stealth game fan can probably imagine how useful that would be.
Apart from that, there are other interesting spells, including the ability to possess animals and humans, a Star Wars-like force push ability, and my personal favourite, the ability to summon a swarm of plague rats to devour an enemy. Each of these spells can be learned and upgraded by finding Outsider talismans hidden in the levels. In addition to this, you can also find and equip scrimshaw-like magical items known as “bone charms”, carved from the bones left over in the whaling industry. You can equip several of these magical fetishes to grant you useful passive benefits, such as health regeneration, mana regeneration, faster running with weapons drawn, increased melee damage and quieter movement to name a few.
Whether you like to use magic from afar, sneak up and knife people in the back, or engage your foes in open combat with pistols and grenades is entirely up to you. There are many different approaches to each situation, and each stage is full of different routes and hidden areas littered with items and flavour text to read. The enemies are pretty manageable at first, but if you force them to, they’ll call in tougher reinforcements, like armoured guys on stilts armed with flaming arrows and soldiers who walk around with crank-able music boxes (that make the most horrible sound I’ve ever heard) that nullify your ability to use magic.
Hopefully, Dishonored will turn out to be one of those sleeper hits that succeeds on its reputation alone, because it really deserves it – especially since I don’t think anyone was expecting anything too grand from it. The game world is well-developed and appealing, and the interesting gameplay can be expanded upon and improved if it does well enough to warrant a sequel. The only real drawbacks I found in the game are its length – it’s about half the length I’d like it to be – and it has some balance issues, most notably the cheap and easily abused Blink spell.
It’s a cliche, sure enough, but if you’re looking for a game that you’ll remember long after you’ve finished it, Dishonored is up there with the best of them.