Dishonored – Final Review

Dishonored is characterized by robust world-building, its lore rich and well-developed. At the core of this setting is the city of Dunwall, the crowing jewel and the heart of a far flung, once prosperous, empire; prosperity has partially departed, owing to the introduction and domination of an invasive plague, bringing with it devastation, tarnishing somewhat Dunwall’s inherent graces, inherent majesty. As object, then, the city is mixture of decadence and decay, decadence observable in the very architecture, exceedingly elaborate, at times imposing, at times inviting, though always beautiful, not fully departing from reality but instead enhancing it, exaggerating it. Decay, meanwhile, stems from the mentioned plague, brought to the city by rats, who are now a constant fixture of the city streets, spreading their disease, disrupting the stability of Dunwall’s citizens, replacing them with unadulterated pain, suffering. Dunwall, though, is not exactly dystrophic, for some degree of hopefulness remains – in the future, perhaps, the plague and its spreaders will be vanquished, and Dunwall can begin again to thrive in earnest, to improve as city, the vast empires also seeing benefits; dreary pessimism does not fully dominate, even as logic says it ought to – in the present moment is only death, but Dunwall is seemingly a place of great resiliency, its citizens combatting the plague in their own meagre way, namely by relying upon competing elixirs which delay – though do not eliminate – the plague’s baser effects. These tonics, though, are in short supply, making them heavily desired; oppressed, ailing citizens will act in any fashion to obtain these substances, and consequently further violence erupts, man turning on man, woman turning on woman. But when considering these objects, reassurances arise: if these objects exist, is a true, lasting, more widespread cure not obtainable, and fast? Thoughts like these bring peace to sweet Dunwall, that rich environment with seeming centuries of development and progress; the sense of place is palpable. This lore is communicated further, meanwhile, through clever environmental storytelling and discoverable documents liberally distributed throughout the various maps, furthering the intrigue characterizing all the lands of the empires; Dunwall, so beautiful, is but one small part of a far larger whole.

The explorable environments themselves are frequently beautiful and dazzling, most striking being their apparent largeness; in the urban, well-developed sections of the city, massive buildings tower upwards towards the heavens, literally dwarfing Corvo – the protagonist – casting over him a long shadow. Furthering this sense of massiveness is an expansive draw distance, additional buildings discernible a fair distance away, separated by still bodies of water, aquatic locomotion being central to exploration in Dunwall, that city of many rivers. With this largeness, the game strikes a rather interesting, unique balance, incorporating design philosophies of linearity and the more open-ended; central objectives can be tackled in mostly any order, while, crucially, great opportunities for exploration are present: rather than exclusively walking in one straight direction, exploration is incentivized, is frequently well-rewarded; the existence of this incentivization means considerable time will be lavished on exploration, and the player is accordingly placed into a position to partake of its awe-inspiring nature, its arresting beauty – and occasional darkness. Heightening further the joys of this exploration is the ample verticality; peering down at a street countless feet below, precariously positioned on some pedestal or other, is exhilarating, and the overall sense of motion and speed is a masterful achievement; if movement were clunky or unresponsive, the joys of this exploration would be lessened; but not so, player empowerment making exploration a seamless, intuitive endeavor, one which is inviting though still complex.  

Also, lighting is perfectly executed, a great many structures adopting an almost sunbaked aesthetic; a building of red brick stands vibrant and beautiful while in direct path of the sun’s rays. And just as soon as there is brightness there is shadow, a rather robust day / night cycle being in place. Whereas that former state is characterized by relative gaiety, the latter state is of a more melancholic, atmospheric sort, as overall visibility and draw distance is cut down considerably; darkness overtakes all, save when the bright blue moon shines overhead, majestic. The end result of this vacillation is a continued sense of environmental diversity and perpetual freshness. But whether speaking of day or night, Dunwall’s design is abounding in creativity, not necessarily whimsicality but certainly imagination. The boldest displays of creativity, though, arise whenever interior environments are navigated, fortunately a frequent occurrence, the balancing of interior and exterior being flawless. Many such interior environments instantly spring to mind, among them a brothel, the Golden Cat, emblematic of this creative greatness and ambition. By its very nature it is claustrophobic, in that its various corridors contrast greatly with the immediately surrounding environs, largely lavish gardens. The area generally is abounding in atmosphere, characterized by opulence, extravagant objects scattered to and fro, while wealthy patrons are happily pleasured by the brothel workers, escaping from the woes of the street even for the briefest of moments, enjoying the benefits and securities their wealth has brought them. Something similar could be said of another compelling interior environment: the Boyle manor. As a structure, it is sprawling, likely being thousands of square feet, boasting gardens of grandeur which rival or even surpass those found surrounding the Golden Cat. The façade is Gothic and towering, quite intimidating despite its inherent gracefulness. While massive and extravagant, this environment’s greatest success is attributable to its lived-in status; each of the three Boyle sisters has their own bedroom and private space, while cellars for kitchen staff and servants rest far below, pointing towards stratification. Each room is slightly personalized, and is accordingly believable. The repeated displays of opulence – like the staggering glass ceilings or the incalculably valuable objects scattered about liberally – further this environments richness, evoking its own distinct atmosphere. On the one hand there are the Boyle sisters and the Golden Cat patrons; on the other hand are the suffering massiveness, constantly crawled over by festering rats; in this instance, Dunwall is fallen.   

The game’s central narrative is wonderfully straightforward, engaging the player from the first, resulting in a heightened sense of focus, the evocation of great player agency; in these opening moments, the ruling monarch of Dunwall and her empires – Jessamine – is slaughtered, and her assassination is blamed upon Corvo Attano, dearest companion of Jessamine and her daughter, Emily, he serving as bodyguard and protector for a considerable span of time. When considering this fact, any believability in his culpability for her murder is instantly destroyed. But, the world being a fickle one, still he is thrust into prison, spending a fair bit of time behind bars, being regular subject of torture and brandings. After some time is spent in this state, assistance arises, a ragtag organization providing Corvo with the tools needed to make his escape; they have faith him, are sure of his innocence, and so they provide their assistance, a monumental act, in that their efforts enable escape – and the wreaking of more massive, lasting changes, Corvo being at the heart of them all, he being a figure characterized by strength and stolidity, likable even as he never speaks. Escaped from his cell, Corvo encounters an old boatman, Samuel, who serves as Corvo’s primarily method of transportation, and after their initial meeting Corvo is ferried over to an isolated – though still beautiful – pub, which serves as a hub world of sorts, and which houses the resistance, those who arranged for his escape. This opening half hour is very engrossing; so many games take hours to open up, to offer greater enjoyment; Dishonored evokes enjoyment almost from the first. But condensing down this impressive, winding narrative for brevity’s sake, at the center of it all is Lady Emily, the late empress’s daughter, who thus has a rightful claim to the throne – rescuing her, establishing her place on that throne, is thus of a paramount importance, in that it will seemingly lead to a cessation of conflict and turbulence, herald of a new era of peace and prosperity – much hopefulness is attached to young Emily. In efforts to this end, Corvo disembarks, travelling to the Golden Cat, having the knowledge that the brothel was her prison. The narrative is then characterized by many strengths and compelling encounters, as when the High Overseer is combatted, or when the Lord Regent is displaced, or when a genius scientist is recruited – on and on go narrative successes, the narrative ultimately becoming a revenge-tale, Corvo forced to combat and punish those who betray him in the narrative’s latter half, perceived allies in actuality becoming foes. But, expectantly and plainly, good triumphs over evil, and this predictability does cut down somewhat on potential narrative resonances – the twist is not as impactful as the developers might have liked, because its resolution is uninspired. Still, even with this straightforwardness, narrative successes are many, in that many compelling characters are met along the way, who truly flesh out the world – Piero the scientist, Sokolov the scientist; Granny Rags, an enigmatic, ritualistic old woman; the bootlegger and thug Slackjaw; the Boyle sisters; kind, compassionate Samuel; sweet, innocent Emily: all of these characters, so unique and frequently profound, truly elevate the narrative, injecting it with life and character, their existence portraying Dunwall as a diverse place, peopled by realistic, curious peoples.

Dishonored’s greatest triumphs rest in the realm of gameplay, which is of considerable death and profundity, all the while remaining intuitive – total freedom is invested in the player, and player choice is accordingly immense. While exploration is a key pillar of this overall gameplay, the two central pillars are stealth and louder, more bombastic approaches; the player can adopt either of these approaches, or can wed them together organically, reacting on the fly as any given situation mandates. Even with this freedom, though, stealth is perhaps more enjoyable than open combat, though this is not to say such combat is outright unenjoyable – a vast variety of offensive weaponry is provided the player, an arsenal which gradually expands as the narrative progresses onwards, featuring such objects as pistols and crossbows alongside more devastating weapons like grenades or, eventually, sticky grenades, each of these items opening up new opportunities in combat, while certain of these offensive weapons also play a pivotal role in stealth: the crossbow, which fires with great rapidity, is completely silent, and can even fire sleep darts if the player is striving for a nonlethal run. All of these weapons are upgradeable, too, rate of fire increasable, accuracy and maximum rage also increasable. But still stealth reigns supreme, and it is within this realm of stealth where the game shows its greatest originality; stealth is honed to perfection, features like the mentioned verticality enhancing the inherent joys of stealth. Each individual choice matters, too, in that choosing life or death has repercussions, manifest in the game’s chaos level. Cling to stealth and incapacitate opponents and the city does not erode further into disaster; kill with reckless abandon and the rats will swell in size, become more numerous, spreading the plague all the quicker. Naturally, brightness is superior to dark, and thus darkness likely appeals only to role-players. Notably, though, lighter, purer approaches to decision making are often more complex and involved than bold, loud approaches, in that additional steps are required – the player can simply plunge their blade through the central target and walk away, or they can participate in an elaborate sequence of events, achieving a similar end. The complexities of non-lethality only make more triumphant completion of this approach.

While the weaponry is central to the overall experience, the game’s greatest gameplay novelties stem from the various purchaseable abilities, which are even more crucial to gameplay success, some of them altering the game in fundamental ways, increasing player flexibility and empowerment. Cleverly, meanwhile, the existence of these powers is incorporated into the narrative, they being intimately connected to an enigmatic figure known only as the Outsider, described in the loading screens as being “a figure or myth, neither good nor evil.” His visual design is neither threatening nor imposing, clinging to cliched Gothic aesthetics, but his voice acting is very well executed, even as his precise speech is characterized by crypticness; he is likable, and, seeing the potential resting within Corvo, he bestows upon him his mark, which endows him with these various supernatural abilities, his mark having physical manifestation on Crovo’s hand, his image being a strange rune. His decision to select Corvo exerts considerable influences, the first obtainable ability, blink, enhancing mobility options considerably, being a breath of fresh air to stealth games which are unduly grounded or more plodding in terms of movement and overall movement speed; here is another display of player empowerment. The ability allows for considerable horizontal motion, while also enabling vertical locomotion, though at a reduced distance. As ability, it also permits great hastiness of evasion – if Corvo should be detected, and should the detector be judged a tangible threat, blink can be employed to elude the detector before combat can erupt outright. Similarly, the player can dash towards an unsuspecting enemy and plunge a blade into that foe; it is difficult to overstate the greatness of this power, truly innovative in construction, being of such novelty as to make more observable the basicness characterizing movement in so many other games, particularly those in the stealth genre. The Outsider, then, is indirectly responsible for Corvo’s successes as assassin or savior, pointing towards the overwhelming power of the Outsider.  

Some efforts at balance are wisely in place, though, in that blink – and the litany of other purchasable abilities – are directly connected to a mana system, which only partially refills; sufficient mana is always available to cast blink, but if resource management is neglected then access to the other, oftentimes more powerful, abilities are inaccessible. In theory, this would result in a clever survival horror flourish, as the player is forced to take stock of their mana potions, potions with a limited carrying capacity of ten. In actuality, resource management is rarely a valid concern, and this abundance is almost paradoxical in nature – with the abundance of these objects, the player is permitted to experiment, to rely upon the powers purchased by the discoverable runes. This is good, compelling. But the instances where mana potions are in short supply – or more notably when they are completely absent – are abounding in special tension, exhilarating, though frustratingly opportunities for this exhilaration are exceedingly rare the survival horror elements, while seemingly included, are minimized. Were resource management more emphasized, that commanding, wonderful tension would only grow more commonplace, heightening joys of gameplay. But it is not to be: even while playing on the very hard difficulty level, the end result is a pervasive power fantasy, Corvo’s inherent strengths and cunning only amplified by the Outsider’s intervention, though still some fragility remains – Corvo is not exactly superhuman, even while capable of executing deft feats of murder, magic, or evasion.

While blink is central to these feats, other compelling, empowering abilities must also be mentioned here, perhaps most notable being bend time, an ability which at its first level merely slows time, while when upgraded time completely stands still, albeit for a shorter duration. This power permits great acts of creativity, though oftentimes feeling overpowered, again reflecting the game’s struggles with balance. Something similar could be said of the possession power, which first permits Corvo to inhabitant the body first of an animal, then eventually the body of a human. Despite these abilities potential over-empowerment, they result in great enjoyability: shooting or stabbing vulnerable opponents while time is stopped, then promptly ending the ability and seeing the entire opposition literally collapse upon time’s resumption: it is immensely satisfying. Many other abilities are highly situational, or useful only with certain builds – a stealth player has no need of powers which increase health or the acquisition of combat-enhancing adrenaline. Still, with powers like bend time, possession, and other passives like those which reduce fall damage or increase movement speed, the late game can be rather detached from the early game, and very profound progression systems exist here, even without the forced inclusion of experience points or any other role-playing elements which games of today include seemingly out of expectation; here is a refusal to that approach, a bold, admirable refusal which enhances gameplay innovation by still clinging to some vestiges of simplicity, straightforwardness. Randomized bone charms, equipable objects dispersed throughout the game world and also featuring passive effects, enable additional character customization, while their presence further incentivizes exploration, one of the game’s greatest triumphs.                 

As an experience, Dishonored is nearly flawless, boasting unparalleled player freedom, this freedom anchored by mechanics which are foundationally sound, even excellent – stealth is very fair, enemies behaving realistically, reacting to sounds and other indicators though never veering towards the cheapness characterizing AI in so many other stealth games, AI which has the tendency to corrupt and tarnish the entire experience. It is within stealth, then, that gameplay most excels, and yet, with total player freedom, stealth can be ignored or rejected outright, the player rushing in towards a crowded group of foes, pistol raised, sword gleaming, charging onward to tear limb from limb. While slower, more methodical approaches are subjectively preferable, again this freedom must be commended; many avenues for enjoyment are present. The overall sense of replayability present here is staggering, in that the player can start a new campaign with different intentions, purchasing different abilities which do in turn result in differing experiences: spare foes or slaughter them; embrace the dark or the light; wield the sword or keep it sheathed – everything is possible here, and the very nature of these design decisions almost encourages challenge runs – complete the game without ever being detected, for instance, or kill no one. These objectives may never appeal to the common player, but their existence is telling, reflective of Arkane’s great ambitions – here is a game which seeks to advance the stealth and action genres. Not only do they realize these advancements, but they achieve further successes in their efforts at world-building: Dunwall is a massive achievement with its diversity and massiveness, almost Victorian in construction though a distorted Victorianism, one characterized by creativity and progress – and terrible devastation, the rat plague horrific, demoralizing for NPC and player alike. Very few are the offenses or failings committed here, the only object deserving of some criticism being the narrative, which receives a considerable injection of life when the great betrayal transpires, but the succeeding events after this betrayal are painfully dull and predictable, while the entire narrative ends very anticlimactically. Still, to use a cliched expression, for Dishonored the journey is absolutely of greater importance than the destination, and the journey is a winding one, one punctuated by repeated successes. Most critically, though, is the originality on display here, and Dishonored, with all its ambitions and originalities, stands alone, a masterful fusion of genre, expertly steeped in place and atmosphere.

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