Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was criminally underrated when it first landed in 2006. Paris-based Arkane Studios released it to a mixed mainstream reception, but to me, it was the best immersive-sim you could play at the time. In a genre that counts landmark titles such as Deus Ex and System Shock amongst its ranks, that’s no small claim to make, and some massive boots for Dishonored to fill as a follow-up. And fill them, it most certainly does. Then it uses those boots to land on an unsuspecting street-thug, eviscerate him, and carry their wearer into the shadows of Dunwall’s murky alleys. Dishonored is awesome in ways that few games have achieved. It’s a game not only about action, but possibility and creativity, and as a result is utterly unique, and demands to be played.
Casting the player as Corvo Attano, Royal Bodyguard in the Pandyssian capital of Dunwall, Corvo has just returned home after investigating possible cures for a plague that has begun ravaging the city. The shit hits the proverbial fan, and Corvo is framed for the death of his Empress as well as the kidnapping of her daughter. Imprisoned for six months, we rejoin Corvo days away from his execution when he’s approached by an eldritch God who sounds like he’s been huffing from a vat of ether in his downtime. Named “The Outsider,” he draws you into his spectral realm and offers you supernatural powers along with a chance for you to exact your revenge. He tells you he doesn’t care how you do it, only to expect consequences for your actions, then politely buggers off. The game starts properly when you’re handed a key along with a sword from unknown benefactors and are set loose upon the prison to trip the light phantasma.
It is at this point that Dishonored takes the wind out of its story’s sails; making its narrative mechanics along with their relationship to gameplay decisions openly transparent to the player, stating that they may choose to kill or spare the lives of those who get in their way. It extrapolates further to tell you that lethality will bring chaos into the later stages of the game and that the ending won’t be so dire if you choose to be a bit nicer. This sort of transparency undermines the stakes of the plot in Dishonored but doesn’t feel like a missed opportunity considering the flexibility the plot needs to take to account for how bloodthirsty or considerate the player may be. What does disappoint is the dull dialogue and writing of the cast you meet on your quest for revenge, amounting to a sense of narrative impotence in the slower moments when Corvo isn’t strangling or stabbing people. Strangely, most of these characters are voiced by recognisable Hollywood actors, but you won’t give a hoot about who they’re playing. As disappointing as the characters may be, Dishonored does an excellent job of world-building through its lore and environmental storytelling.
Much like Thief, paganistic worship practised by the under-classes clashing against the dogmatic technocracy and puritanism of the militant Overseers, class warfare and social unrest are the heart of Dunwall’s troubled cultural climate. These themes are expressed through books you’ll read passing through dishevelled slums, as well as dialogue between yourself and those that NPCs will have with each other. You’ll witness stories of plight and hopelessness against the backdrop of a plague-ridden city as you stalk the streets; guards and thugs quibble and gossip over their troubles, hopes, and fears. Worse still, you’ll see them subject others to indignities and violence, all the while the police state frantically clamps down ever more boldly with issues of curfew and restrictions through Orwellian loudspeaker messages. It’d be almost unbearably bleak, were it not for the hope and defiance of those under the gun in Dunwall, in spite of it all. This nuanced portrayal of a world facing its demise is one of the biggest draws of Dishonored – making for not only a world that feels lived in but one I wanted to save if I could. By the end of my first, low-chaos (the ‘good’ scenario) playthrough, Dunwall had become a nightmare of death and decay. My second, high-chaos run somehow managed to be much worse. Where glimmers of hope once stood in the form of small groups of survivors occupying safe havens, now were infested with plague-spreading weepers and a sea of rats. My cohorts too treated me with disdain where once they praised my actions. There is enough difference in the two endings I experienced to justify a second playthrough for story’s sake, but both were primarily bittersweet and somewhat defeatist. You might be a tad depressed by the end, regardless of the choices you’d have made.
The city of Dunwall is both alien and familiar, mechanical and cold, like a Doré painting re-imagined under the influence of laudanum and wormwood. The 17th British architectural allusions along with the presence of rat plague is a warped yet recognisable setting. Subverting this further is the abundance of black steel mechanisms, gates, vehicles and weapons that bear the same phantasmagorical traits that made Half-Life 2’s City 17 so memorable. Character design is comparatively warped and skewed towards exaggerated features to create distinct silhouettes, which are easily identifiable at a distance. Guards are broad shouldered brutes with large hands and apish gaits, replete with uniforms and spiked helmets not unlike those worn by German officers in the first world war. Aristocrats are spindly, weak-chinned and tall while women are, well, women. These stylised yet unnerving visuals give a sense of grounding amidst an uneasy wonder at times. It isn’t all gutters and derelict buildings, either – levels run the gamut of settings from sewers and industrial districts, to the heights of wealth and power in ornately decorated baroque mansions, often within the space of a single mission. It is a four-year-old game, though, with textures now seeming rather muddy and the lighting rather dampened by today’s standards, but dammit if it isn’t still strikingly idiosyncratic.
Whether its themes make your blood boil or merely simmer, Dishonored lets you fight how you see fit. From the moment of being first set loose from the prison, I vowed to take a victimless approach and ghost my way through, only occasionally rendering unsuspecting blaggards unconscious. This required a perverse, almost saintly patience on my part, but produced tension in the way that pure-stealth titles like Splinter Cell and Thief did in droves. Patience not just for the sake of planning, but because kills in Dishonored are so swift and viciously satisfying that resisting the urge to lay waste to everything had me itching like a junkie on dole day. Moreover, the tantalisingly flexible variations of execution that the combination of Dishonored’s powers, equipment, and a players’ inventiveness offers is utterly palpable from moment to moment; will you stalk from above, choosing which target to take first in a planned, surgical strike? Or will you skulk below, gathering information from idle-guards prattling about rumours and whingeing about their lords? Or do you decide to go full-tilt and take them head on, downing mana and health potions as you kill frantically with every tool at your disposal? Treasures, supplies, blueprints for gear upgrades as well as runes and charms are decorated about the levels like death-magic candies, continually urging the player to explore and savour their time before executing their plan. It’s this constant level of choice between where you explore, and how to use equipment at every moment that makes Dishonored consistently enticing to play. Alas, while you do engage in conversations with NPCs in the infrequent side-missions, your choices of response are always binary. There are no persuasion or intimidation skills for you to use here – your role is that of a vengeful Tesla-punk supernatural assassin, not some sunshades-at-night wearing cyborg-sleuth who’s bitter about having overly useful prosthetics.
On the topic of upgrades, options are quite limited for the first third of the game. Once available, powers are purchased through your journal and are paid for with the previously mentioned runes – magic items that are scattered about each mission. Carved out of whalebone, they audibly hiss whenever the player is nearby, but you won’t have to rely solely on your hearing to find them. From the outset, Corvo is equipped with a rather gruesome mechanical heart, which beats when pointed in the general direction of a magic item. Once a power is bought, it can then be upgraded to a second, more powerful version at the cost of more runes, and supplementing powers are bone charms, which like runes need to be found with the heart mentioned above. Like perks in a multiplayer shooter, charms offer buffs like larger mana/health pools, modifying basic abilities for faster clambering and higher jumping and more. One even lets Corvo eat white plague rats like 17th-century gutter-snipe hor’s ‘d oeuvre for a small mana charge. The constant drive the player is given to seeking out rewards keeps the pace of Dishonored cracking along a steady rate, and helps guide them through Arkane’s morbid little world rather than have them wholly focussed on their targets. Items of interest are located in difficult to reach places, so it helps that Corvo is a rather nimble chap indeed, able mantle most things or conversely can crouch and hide under desks, beds and tables as well as slide smoothly into hiding spaces if running at full pace. He becomes an absolute ninja when these are used in combination with Blink.
Blink is a teleportation ability that instantly flings the player to a marker controlled by their aim – simply point and launch yourself, and you’re there. The sensation of using blink is intoxicating, sound warps into pitch and tempo once you’ve ripped through space-time, along with your vision. Not merely a tool for hunting down upgrades, Blink is a tactical wunderkind. Playing nice? Spy a patrol, Blink behind a guard, knock them out, then blink back to the darkness to hide their snoring body. Alternatively, choose an angle, above behind or even in front if they’re unaware, and slit their throat. By the end of the game, I had realised I could use it to make daring escapes by teleporting several stories downwards to street level when caught, or onto moving vehicles to bypass foes. More than any other ability in the game, I found myself relying on Blink as it was the most versatile, which is perhaps a downside as Corvo’s other abilities are just as impressive, and even more so when used in combination.
‘Dark Vision’ allowed me to see enemies and items through walls, letting me keep tabs on nearby patrols. Enemies and objects were only illuminated to a limited distance, so as not to give the player so much power as to discourage exploration. ‘Possession’ is exactly what it reads like, but you can possess people as well as fish and rats, allowing for even more routes of infiltration. Lastly, ‘bend time’ is perhaps the most powerful ability in the game. Initially, it merely slows time, and as such you can still be spotted and therefore alert enemies to your presence. Its second form stops time completely, yet every action you take carries through once time resumes. Stopping time and running through heavily patrolled areas with my sleep dart-equipped crossbow, I would fire as I moved along and knocked out a handful of guards simultaneously once time had resumed. Moments like these feel immensely powerful and keep urging player experimentation. The AI is sharp, too – they will see you at a distance, fan-out during their investigation of noises or movement, and will see you at a fair distance as well as hear the smaller sounds you’ll invariably make whilst sneaking about. The ease of which mistakes can be made, then make stealth a regularly heart-racing affair.
How ever great a perfectly executed non-lethal plan may feel, nothing beats giving into your blood-lust. Sword fights are tense and scrappy, with your opponents capable of parrying and dodging your attacks as well as giving you a boot in the chest if you get too sloppy with your attacks. You’ll lock swords and have frantically tap the attack button to overpower them, ending with a gory flourish. Or you can sneak up from behind and knife them in the neck, which takes a fraction of the time required to render them unconscious. You can even use your foes to break your fall from heights where even blink can’t be used to escape. Moreover, most of Corvo’s arsenal is tuned toward a lethal approach. With two out of three crossbow munitions being lethal, along with a pistol, grenades, spring razors and rewiring tools for turning deadly traps and security tech on your enemies, the game leans heavily on the side of dealing death with your equipment. It never ceases to satisfy, though, and only encourages you to experiment with your choice of tools/powers. A fun tactic was to stalk a trio of guards, drop-assassinate one to get their attention, bring up the selection wheel (which slows the pace of the game to a complete crawl, without pausing it entirely), select freeze-time and wait for the second a guard would fire. As soon as the shot cracked from the barrel, I would freeze time then switch to possession and claim the guard who had just let off the shot. Then, I would walk him around in front of his bullet, dispossess him, then reposition myself and unfreeze time. As he crumpled, I would fling his confused corpse into his even more perplexed companions with a gust of my Windblast ability, taking them all out in one fell swoop. These moments of planning and power driven reaction are nigh-on endless within Dishonored – it’s up to you to create them, and once you start it’s hard to stop.
I’m not one for replaying single-player campaigns these days (as I’m old and losing my mind), but Dishonored is an excellent exception. I’m interested to see just how intelligent the AI is on hard difficulty on my third play-through, and just how creative I can get with my destructiveness. This is a game for tinkerers and those who like action games of any kind, and while visually it may be a little long in the tooth, it still is a must play. You owe it to yourself to enjoy this game.
Spoiler Warning: my review of The Knife of Dunwall contains spoiler-y information about the plot of Dishonored.
Running in parallel to the plot of the original game, The Knife of Dunwall sees players embodying the ashtray-fumed vocal chords of Daud, master of the eponymous city’s guild of assassin’s. Haunted by the death of the Empress by his hand, Daud is visited by The Outsider and offered a riddled warning; his time is running out, and he need only seek a name – ‘Delilah.’ The story suffers from a smaller scope, and neither expands or deepens players understanding of the events that unfold in the base game in any unexpected ways. It ends once the plot thickens, and some real drama manages to emerge.
The gameplay design, too, suffers from this smaller scope. Daud’s abilities are so scaled back compared to Corvo’s, and it almost risks feeling impotent in comparison. So as not merely to make Daud seem like a re-skinned version of Corvo, it would seem, some of the base game’s abilities have been amalgamated into singular powers. The heart and Dark Vision combine to form ‘Void Gaze’ – letting the player keep track of runes/charms as well as enemies. Daud can also summon assassins to his aid – along with ‘Pull’ (telekinesis), are the sole new abilities added to the game’s arsenal. The assassins are a bit overpowered – with the inbuilt ‘arcane bond’ ability, they can be buffed, and when fully powered-up they can pretty much play the game for you.
Perhaps the most discordant change from playing the main game is how Blink now works, and more importantly how it feels. Daud’s version of Blink allows him to freeze time if he isn’t moving, which in turn leads to some (often literally) more escalated platforming puzzles throughout the game’s levels, and this change is welcome. It just doesn’t feel as pleasing to use in terms of sound or visual impact.
Compounding this sensory niggle is the fact that a significant chunk of K.o.D feels recycled. Many textures are used wholesale from the base game, and many of the bone charms are renamed versions from the original and its DLC packs. Even then it’s but a portion of the original set, and Daud can only equip six in total.
That’s not to say there’s nothing new here: there’s one new enemy, the whale-house butcher. They’re incontestable up close, so stealth or gadgets are necessary for dealing with them. There’s new equipment, too – explosive bolts and non-lethal mines – as well as ‘favours,’ modifiers bought in the pre-mission store that offer cool surprises and are worth the investment.
The levels however, whilst sizeable are still significantly smaller than the main game, and as a result make K.o.D harmfully brief, and worse still the ending strikes as soon as things start to get interesting. All of these rather minor niggles mean that K.o.D is still a great game, even on its own, but overall this expansion feels like a weaker sibling to the original.
Spoiler Warning: my review of The Brigmore Witches contains spoiler-y information about the plot of Dishonored.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches would have been better as a single, massive release. Picking up shortly after the events of the fist episode, Brigmore starts off more in a more nuanced and determined fashion than its predecessor. Daud and his cabal of Assassins are putting their plan to hunt down Delilah into motion, all the while Daud himself is coming to grips with his fear of reprisal at the hands of Corvo. Brigmore’s story starts strong and keeps up its momentum throughout. It also gives into player’s expectations with fewer, larger and longer levels as well as retooled abilities that make Daud feel more distinct, combining to form a game that not only feels like a drastic improvement on its predecessors but the best entry in the entire Definitive Edition.
The first area refreshingly wastes little time in introducing the player to its new game-play mechanics; after picking up your runes and crossbow, you’ll come across a new ‘corrupted’ bone charm. These items offer potent new attributes but with significant trade-offs for the player’s consideration. Some of these downsides can be offset by equipping regular charms, while some cannot – what eventuates is an extra layer of depth to playstyle customisation that only makes experimentation more satisfying. Blink now feels better due to the reinstatement of a suitable ‘whooshing’ noise – my inner child immediately quit whining at my first dash. More significantly, the agility skill allows Daud to make even larger leaps than Corvo, adding to Dishonored’s already unmatched vertical exploration mechanics and making Daud feel more distinct from his forebear.
Pre-mission favors make a welcome return, and make dramatic differences here; the very first level can have you infiltrating Coldridge prison, but this time you can be dressed as an Overseer and walk right through to your destination unimpeded. You can choose to ignore it, as always, but you won’t. It’s just too cool to pass up. You might be wishing you’d invested in more favors come the final level of the game, as infiltrating Brigmore Manor is by far the most difficult, but also most fun and aesthetically pleasing mission of the entire series. The enemies you’ll encounter come equipped with magic, are hyper-aloof and have a tendency to teleport, making stealth trickier and combat more of a challenge making for a satisfying and fitting end for this part of the series.
Like Challenge Rooms in the Batman Arkham games, Dunwall City Trials puts players through a series of challenges based on stealth, combat or platforming approaches with distinct sets of abilities and equipment to provide experienced Dishonored players with a severe test of their skills. As far as arcade modes, go, this one pretty damned good and shows just how flexible and fluid Dishonored’s can be, moment to moment, by breaking it up into several distinct parts.
My favourite combat trial is the wave-based, almost horde-like mode that continually brings on new enemies, dropping powers and items for collection in between rounds for those who manage to survive. Stealth sections are perhaps the most cognitively challenging, as the ponderous luxury of being able to plan your assaults now comes under the pressure of a timer, along with randomised scenarios and targets. The challenges based around blink, however, are the best. I’ve no doubt new challengers will reach for them first out of preference. Dunwall City Trials is a solid addition, and perhaps the best way to enjoy Dishonored’s brand of experimental gameplay in short but intense bursts.
Dishonored and its expansions are some of the finest examples of stealth-action gaming that you can find. It is lean, fast and wholly distinct from its ancestors as well as its competition. If you like games where you can sneak around, or just want to lay waste to things in a world that have gone to custard; Dishonored’s Definitive Edition has you covered. It will make you want to strive for that perfect ghosting run or find continuously more sophisticated and creative ways of wiping your foes from the face of the earth with its unique palette of abilities and equipment. The story might depress you a tad, but you’ll be back to find ways to bend the game to your will soon enough. You simply must play this.