Revenge tales are tricky things. They typically involve a person driven to unfathomable ends that, were it not for the intrusion of malevolent forces in their lives, would never even be considered. For the story to work, a character must first be sympathetic, his quest for retribution both just and tragic. Arkane StudiosDishonored does so very much right, but is missing some key pieces that leave the experience wanting.

The story starts out so strong, with Corvo returning from abroad on business of the Empire. A terrible rat-borne plague has brought tensions to the breaking point. Entire sections of the once-great city of Dunwall are quarantined with no hope or remedy in sight. Already an outsider from a foreign land, in his role as Lord Protector and bodyguard to the Empress, Corvo is the perfect patsy for an assassination kicking off an escape from prison and an attempt to clear his name.

The hook is that shortly after making his escape, Corvo is visited in the night by a mysterious figure known only as The Outsider. The former bodyguard is granted supernatural powers including an ability to see through walls, move faster than humanly possible and possess animals and, later, humans.

Corvo does a great Pied Piper impression.

To purchase more abilities, you’ll need to use a mechanical heart manufactured by the spiritual benefactor as a beacon to locate carved runes. You’ll also discover bone charms, each which offer a small boost to Corvo’s abilities. A limited number can be equipped at once, so choosing the right assortment for the situation is important. Will you make it harder for guards to shoot you? Perhaps climbing faster is important. It never hurts to have health and spiritual power regenerate quickly.

So much of what this title offers is a dichotomy. The experience is both derivative and unique. The gameplay is at once engaging and frustrating. The world that Arkane has created is rich and detailed, but protagonist Corvo Attano, the inhabitant players are meant to care most about, is flat and terribly uninteresting. I wanted to love him, but frankly, there is nothing there to embrace.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid comparisons between Dishonored and some of the best games of this generation. Not only is Corvo an assassin, but as I mentioned earlier, this is a tale of vengeance. Anyone who has played Assassin’s Creed II will likely be seeking  parallels to Ezio Auditore. Where Ezio had a distinct personality as we watched him mature, all we see of Corvo are brief moments of affection toward the Empress and her daughter. He’s a silent protagonist whom we never see, which is a tragedy. He had so much potential.

This guard never heard him either.

The level design is reminiscent of that found in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The areas through which you’ll travel are enclosed, but open enough to provide multiple paths. Each is a chance to explore the game’s fantastic powers or engage in combat. The former is my preferred way to play, as the stealth aspects seemed more fluid, though not without issue. Unlike Deus Ex, the game keeps you in first person without a good cover mechanic. The Dark Vision power does help keep you aware of enemy movement, but there is no good contextual indicator as to how covered you are.

It seems that Arkane took an important lesson from Eidos‘ biggest error. There are no boss battles in Dishonored. In fact, you can take a purely pacifist approach and not kill a single soul. Furthermore, there is great incentive to leaving the vicious overseers and overzealous guards with a pulse.

Throughout the game, your actions will have an impact on a cumulative Chaos level. More death and carnage leads to a more tumultuous experience. Dead bodies mean more plague rats, which in turn means more weepers (humans mad with the end stages of disease). Saving citizens in distress and opting to spare those who have wronged you will decrease chaos in Dunwall. The assassination targets can all be dealt with in a Princess Bride-esque “to the pain” manner that can either be achieved through direct intervention or by offering a favor to another party. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.

Carve him a new smile.

Dunwall, the city in which the game takes place, bears resemblance to Bioshock’s Rapture. Both are in decline, rich with history and heritage. While the afflictions that plague the two fictional metropolises are vastly different, the sense of grandeur beneath the grime and despair is astounding. Furthermore, the parallels between the bone charms and Bioshock’s gene tonics are obvious.

There is so much that Dishonored does right through its often well-crafted dialog. Prowling through the streets of Dunwall and listening to key characters engage in conversation that yields clues gives the setting texture. Discovering notes and books that provide greater detail on the world and its events adds to the immersion and understanding.  Listening to the announcements over the city’s public address system detail the results of my choices and, more importantly, seeing the impact of those decisions on the city later was engaging. Unfortunately, the city guards who are patrolling seem to have a thinner repertoire of dialog leading to repeated bits across missions. Worse the “conversations” are stilted and unconvincing as two individuals having a real exchange.

The art style is equally hit or miss. I adore the steampunk motif layered over the Victorian architecture and dress. The concept of a city powered by whale oil, tinctures and tonics peddled as panaceas and the rudimentary harnessing of electricity make for a charming and engaging setting. The character designs are unique, and even after hours playing, I’m not sure if I love them or find myself disturbed by them.

Weepers are creepier looking than the average Dunwallian, but not by much.

There characters fit within the world Arkane has created, but there is something inhuman and distant about them. If by intent, it’s a masterful way to create uneasiness and tension. The models are an extension of the 2D art used in sketches and portraits that hang throughout the homes you’ll invade.

The physics are equally confounding. I love that my prowling can be subverted by carelessly tripping over one of the many empty bottles strewn about. Killing is messy, and even if you managed to hide a body well, you aren’t lugging around a bottle of bleach to wipe away the evidence. Guards will become alarmed knowing one of their comrades is down a few pints.

Killing a guard in a wall of light? Less messy.

On the other hand, placing an unconscious or dead body out of sight is far more frustrating than it should be. Too often, dropping a sleeping guard resulted in an inhuman jig as the unfortunate soul was trapped in a wall. Even when not defying the laws of physics, it’s impossible to prop a snoozing watchman against the wall, making most corners unusable. Does any of this ruin the experience? No, but it does further emphasize the need to save frequently, as you’ll occasionally be at the mercy of the engine.

Dishonored absolutely delivers in the areas of presentation with its intriguing world and richly woven backstory. The ideas present in the combat, encapsulated open world approach and freedom of movement give me great hope for where Arkane Studios takes the series next. The drawbacks and stumbles are far outweighed by the enjoyment I felt while prowling the streets of Dunwall. For those hoping to go unnoticed, expect trial and error and a longer play time. The bloodier among you will rapidly see the corpses stacked like so much cord wood… and more rats on your next visit.

There are so many great concepts on display here. The powers are interesting, and the paths through the playgrounds of crumbling Dunwall truly made me think. Unfortunately, the narrative is hollow and the ending (at least on my low chaos playthrough) was horribly anticlimactic and disappointing. A colleague who opted for a bloodier route relayed some of the events of his game’s conclusion leaving me jealous. My reward for stealth and pacifism was an ending as flat as the main character. After feeling nudged toward a quieter approach, I was disappointed to find out that, in terms of satisfying conclusions, I had made the wrong choice.

To come so far only to be left feeling empty tarnished my entire experience. There is room here for a sequel, and I’d be delighted to see one.  Corvo has so much potential, but he was terribly neglected when the story was crafted. This was a good experience, and one that I will remember fondly. I got over my frustration with the end of Halo 2. I forgave Irrational for Bioshock’s final moments. I will get over this and keep my fingers crossed that next time the participatory pieces of the story are as fleshed out as the backdrop. The powers, weapons and clever level design soar. Perhaps next time, Arkane will stick the landing.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Interesting combat with freedom to choose stealth or overt combat…
–      … but it seems like the developer rewards one more than the other.
+ Detailed world that is familiar and strange all at the same time…
–      … but a protagonist that seems to have no personality.
+ Interesting AI that will detect signs of intrusion (like blood)
–     … but the game doesn’t make it easy to hide bodies.
+ Concepts that pull from some of the best games of the generation, improving on many aspects…
–    … but some odd exclusions that make the stealth more hit-or-miss than it should be.
+ Choices wisely have a ripple effect as players progress further
–    … but the non-lethal choices can sometimes feel unsatisfying.
+ A solid sense of artistic style and cohesive design…
–    … but character design is off-putting.

 

7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.

Dishonored was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. It was released on October 9, 2012, at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Personally, I thought Corvo’s silent protagonist character worked towards the idea that the player puts themselves into the character’s shoes ala Gordon Freeman, rather than having the character’s personality take over. I always felt a distinct boundary between myself and Ezio, whereas I really felt like I was Corvo. Perhaps this narrative style doesn’t lend itself well to a revenge story, though. It’s immersion over character development I guess.

    On the idea of hiding bodies, I personally found dumpsters all around, which I assume were included for more effective hiding places. I also utilized the many different ways of body removal via shadow kill or devouring swarm. My point is that the game offers many alternative ways to hide bodies, and it is not as limited as this review seems to imply.

    I do agree with the off-putting character design, though I believe the tension created by their grotesque appearance was purposeful, and definitely effective.

    I do agree with the poor physics though.
    Nice review overall, just a few of your points seemed a little vague as to why the game was a 7.

    • If you shadow kill or devour, it counts as a kill, even if you’ve knocked them out first. Same with tossing them over a bridge or throwing them in water to drown. Good luck finding a dumpster in interior, occupied environments. Shadowy corners *should* work, but you can’t prop an enemy up or force legs to not stick out into sight.

      As for why it’s a 7, I was absolutely clear about that. It’s a good game, not a great one. The storytelling is weak. The plot is predictable. Corvo’s silence was hugely off-putting in a story where the protagonist is supposed to be fleshed out human being.

      As for Gordon Freeman, I find him to be boring and uninspired as a character. The difference is that the story isn’t about Gordon. It’s about the events around him. Dishonored is Corvo’s tale, only Corvo is a straw man. It was a huge mistake that tarnished a good gameplay experience *for me*.

      I recognize that others might not have the same issue with it. I am thrilled for them. However, this is my review that takes into account only my experiences. This was a 7 for me… a good game, and one that has some fantastic ideas, but ultimately falls flat because of a lackluster story and forgettable character.

      I was very specific about all of these things in the review, and even more direct in the Rundown for those that skip to the end.

      • I never said Gordon Freeman was an inspired or interesting character, I only brought up the point that a silent protagonist is used for immersion, rather than story strength. For instance, when was first contacted by the outsider, it was “my” sense of curiosity and excitement, not Corvo’s. I personally found that I “felt” like I was Corvo, which brought me into the world, rather thank feeling like an outsider (no pun intended) to Corvo’s story of revenge. In that way I thought the game succeeded, even if the story suffered a bit.

        Also, I’m sorry if I was a little vague. I didn’t mean that your rundown was unspecific, just that your criticisms of the game didn’t seem, to me, to constitute a 7.

        • I don’t believe that a character’s sense of wonderment and my own as a player are mutually exclusive. The problem with your comparison is that we know absolutely nothing about Gordon Freeman or Jack (from Bioshock) before we are thrust into their shoes.

          It simply isn’t so with Corvo. So much of the focus of the promotion for the game and, in fact, the circumstances in which he finds himself in are about Corvo and not the player. Corvo has a backstory. He has friends, loves, purpose and duty. By creating a history such as this and then leaving it on the boat once the player steps off is simply jarring and disconnected.

          As for my criticisms and the related score, to award it anything greater would be inflation pure and simple. Our 7 is a “good” game. It’s one that is worth a playthrough. It is not one that people should run out and play right now. I was pretty clear about all of that, and it aligns perfectly with our rubric. Perhaps other sites are more generous with their scoring curve.

          Dishonored is a good game, and depending on your own need for a cohesive and compelling narrative to go along with the action (which is by no means perfect either), it may be a great game. For me, it simply didn’t live up to its potential. The ending was absolutely demoralizing and made the effort I put into a clean, stealthy approach feel worthless. If it’s your GOTY (or even a contender), more power to you. It simply isn’t going to be mine (or even make the finalist roster).

          • I can’t really see how they could have properly handled Corvo if he had a fixed personality. Corvo is very much someone who is expressed through the player’s actions.

            My Corvo is a essentially a decent guy, but he isn’t afraid to kill someone in self-defense. Someone else’s Corvo might be a revenge-maddened killing machine who wants to slaughter everyone in his path. Another Corvo might be Captain Boy Scout who refuses to kill and always spares the guards.

            Each of these play styles implies a different personality. Deus Ex handled this problem by making JC Denton monotone and deadpan — he could easily be any of those things. I guess that might have been a solution here, but it’s not exactly a great one. Thief handled it by making the Garret inherently amoral — based on what we know about him, he would be equally likely to ghost a job (cleaner that way) or kill all guards if that’s what he had to do. Whatever got the job done. But Dishonored doesn’t lock you into being an anti-hero, so that doesn’t really work either.

            I guess one solution would have been to record multiple dialogue paths for him and then have it react based on your chaos rating, so there would be a good Corvo, a neutral Corvo, and a bad Corvo — but even that either locks you into one path or creates someone who starts to look like he has multiple personality syndrome if the player changes their playstyle.

            Anyway, I think it’s totally valid to take issue with the problem, but I do think it’s reductive to say that Corvo is supposed to be a fleshed out character. Fleshing him out is very much left to the player. The only constant with Corvo is that he loves Emily.

          • Mass Effect handled character development almost exclusively through dialogue trees. Your options were predetermined by the developers and boiled down into three categories. If they done that in Dishonored it would have been a completely different kind of game.

            I’d also argue that Mass Effect handled Shepard’s developmental options pretty poorly, but that’s probably more down to the writing than the format. Planescape: Torment is a better example because the writing was good enough that your options felt like you were building a real character, not just formatting him to heavy-handed GOOD/NEUTRAL/BAD options.

            Player expression in Dishonored — with a few exceptions — comes organically from what you do in the game.

          • Fair points!

            I guess my biggest gripe is that unlike prior silent protagonists like Gordon Freeman, Jack (Bioshock) and even Garret, we know so much about Corvo’s past that to have that simply stop once the player takes possession felt off to me.

            I get that others might not have that same reaction, and honestly I wish I could have pushed that aside during my play. There are elements I absolutely love about Dishonored. I will likely play it again in advance of the sequel (which seems like a foregone conclusion at this point).

            Just because I didn’t fall madly in love with the game doesn’t mean that I didn’t see the joy in it. For me, that excitement was tempered by a few flaws that tarnished the experience for me more than it did for others.

          • Yeah, I think that’s totally fair. No amount of justification or discussion is going to make a game element work for someone if they aren’t digging it. I just figured I’d toss my own .02 in, because I was totally fine with Corvo.

LEAVE A REPLY