Dishonored is fun game; flawed, but fun.
It’s not very often that something new comes along and tries to do something different in this industry. Generally speaking, you see iteration after iteration or games that are playing with similar concepts, play-types, and tropes. So, when Dishonored got announced, you can understand my initial excitement. A game with an original setting, interesting concept, and developer pedigree with games like Deus Ex and Half Life 2 under their belts instantly grabbed my attention. As more of the game was seen in preview coverage, and industry vets like Warren Specter showed excitement, the hype bubble grew. Which, in turn, leads us to today. The game has been released, I have played through it, and I have let it simmer enough to be a bit more objective.
So like I said, Dishonored is a fun game, flawed but fun.
SPOILERS FOR DISHONORED TO FOLLOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
The goal of any great game is to weave the gameplay mechanics and narrative so tightly that the player sees them as one; or more simply, becomes engrossed in the entire experience. Sadly, Dishonored doesn’t achieve that level, but it isn’t for lack of trying.
Dishonored’s story is the weak link in an incredibly well crafted chain. The story is straightforward enough. You are the queen’s protector, the queen is assassinated and the princess kidnapped, and you are blamed for her death by those who conspired for it. It is a simple revenge story that is only made more interesting by the intervention of “The Outsider,” the deity of the world. He feels more like a combination of both God and the Devil, yet seems to err more on observer than active participant in the world. All of this takes place in the city of Dunwall, part of a world that runs on whale oil, to the point that the whales are almost extinct. Yet, as interesting as all of this sounds, the game never goes and deeper with any of it.
Dunwall is one of the most interesting and fleshed out worlds I have traveled in a gamespace, and yet so very little is told about it. Yes, one could read all the books, letters, and background material found in the game, but even then it only feels like we are seeing the tip of the iceberg. Very little time is given to the myriad of interesting characters we meet along the way. We meet “The Outsider,” probably one of the most interesting characters seen in a long time, and we know nothing more about him by the time the game is completed. Even Corvo, the player’s character, is only given very little in character development, and that is in the first five minutes of the game. This may have been in a choice in the game’s development, to keep the world mysterious, yet I feel that it only hurts the experience. This is a world I want to put Skyrim levels of time into, and I am only given the bare minimum. The one exception to all of this is “the heart.” The item, indeed it is a beating heart, will whisper secrets about the world, motivations about the characters, and other interesting tidbits whenever you have it out. For me, it did more to engross me in the world than the narrative proper. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t even necessarily have to use it in the game. All of the world building it helps create can be completely glossed over. That seems to be the best word to describe the issue; “glossed over.” Nothing is fully expanded upon. Yet, if this were the only problem with the narrative side I would be more forgiving.
Pacing in a stealth action game can be difficult. Mainly because the pace is set by the player’s style of gameplay; so the narrative has to do the heavy lifting to convey the needed sense of urgency, etc. Sadly, Dishonored does very little in that department. Corvo’s main objective, from the beginning, is to find the princess and punish those responsible for the queen’s death. So, when I found the princess about three missions in, and killed the mastermind behind it all two thirds of the way through the game, I couldn’t help but feel a little confused. Yes, there is the inevitable twist that propels the last part of the game, but even that felt forced. Two thirds through, I felt like I had completed my mission; that there was nothing else to do. There was no climax, no big moment when I took the Regent down, it felt like everything else I had done previous. The same could be said for the final act, where I should have felt a sense of betrayal and narrative drive, I only sought to see the ending and finish the game; and even that felt empty. Luckily, for all its weakness, Dishonored’s gameplay makes up for these mis-steps in spades.
As mentioned previously, Dishonored is a stealth action game. Though more accurately, should be labeled a stealth and/or action game. Player choice is key in the game’s design and is showcased in the many ways one can complete the different objectives throughout the game. You can go through the entire games without killing a single soul, or be a murderous monster, slaughtering all in your path; and neither break the game. Personally, I tried to stick to a stealthy approach, but when backed into a corner, no one was left alive to tell the tale; and the game did not punish me for doing so. You are given and ability tree early on that you can tailor to your play style. Some of these are more violent in nature; like a devouring pack of rats, while others let you jump higher, walk quieter, and see through walls. Any of these can help you get through the different missions in numerous ways. Where I may blink to the top of a building and come in through the roof, you may possess a rat and go through the ducts on the floor. Where I may cause a distraction to sneak in a building, you might simply set some traps up, and watch the chaos ensue. Dishonored rewards creativity, and it is in those moments that the game truly shines.
I have talked to multiple people who have played through the game at this point, and few of us have similar tales of how we conquered each challenge. In many cases, we each did things that the others didn’t even know were possible. Different power combinations, routes to targets, or even hidden areas of levels were all topics of conversation and made me want to go back and play through this world again. Truthfully, the gameplay is reminiscent of great titles like Thief and the original Deus Ex titles that reward experimentation and give the player multiple paths to their objectives. It is that sort of organic gameplay that causes me to look past the faults of the game, and continue to enjoy it for what it is. Yes, the sneak mechanic lacks any solid way of notifying the player is he is hidden or not, and yes, there are some invisible walls to be found. Yet, it is those moments when I freeze time; jump to a light pole; summon rats to distract the guards, and blink to the roof, that I forget about all of that and just enjoy the experience.
Dishonored is an engaging experience; just not necessarily for the reasons you would expect. I went in thinking that the story and the world would keep me entranced, and I found myself far more enthralled by the mechanics of it. Simply put, the game is worth playing. It is slow to start, but once you start unlocking those abilities, that is when the game truly starts to become something special. Dishonored may have become more sandbox than revenge story for me by the end, but that doesn’t lessen the experience. Revenge may not have solved everything for me, but it sure did let me have a fun time.