“Revenge solves everything,” goes the tagline of Arkane Studios’ Dishonored, but the game isn’t really about vengeance. On a superficial level, it makes sense. Your character, a skilled bodyguard turned assassin named Corvo Attano, is framed for the murder of the beloved Empress and the kidnapping of her daughter Emily. Breaking out of prison six months later, Corvo joins up with a loyalist group working in secret to overthrow the corrupt regime that’s taken over the plague-infested city of Dunwall. It’s natural he’d want some payback.
But as the story of this first-person stealth game develops, you sense that revenge might not be the dominant theme. Instead, Dishonored is about loyalty: loyalty to country, to honor, to friends. In inhabiting Corvo’s many roles—as Emily’s Lord Protector, as revolutionary, as assassin—the player is encouraged to explore that theme from a variety of angles, both by shaping the plot through his actions and by reacting to its multiple twists.
If all that sounds a bit heady for a game where you stab dozens of dudes in the neck, well, it is. But the genius of Dishonored is how subtly its fiction and mechanics work together to draw the player into its world.
Despite its squalor, Dishonored’s world is a fun one to inhabit. Dunwall, like Rapture in BioShock, is a ruined city built on the fortunes of a magical substance (in this case, whale oil instead of ADAM). Like BioShock, Dishonored also contains some fascinating environmental storytelling via the placement of objects, bodies, audiograph logs and books. “Steampunk” is probably the best word to describe the setting, but Dishonored avoids falling into the trap of many works in this genre by not overloading the player with fantasy technology and mythology. Both are present, allowing for the use of nifty gadgets and magical powers. But throughout the well-paced (and surprisingly coherent) plot, the game’s writers consistently keep the focus on character, lending the experience the universality needed to resonate with players of all kinds.
To say much more about the story and character development would spoil the joy of discovery. But Arkane’s approach to narrative design does include at least one interesting experiment. Your decisions shape the story, which is nothing new. But what’s neat is how that operates on a micro level, too: it’s not just conversation-wheel choices or “Press A to spare this person” moments that influence future levels, but also how many enemies you kill rather than knock out or avoid. The game doesn’t make explicit exactly how your “Chaos” rating, viewed at the end of each mission, works. But keeping it low by avoiding killing does ultimately lead to a happier ending. More interestingly, it also determines how many enemies will be in the next level. Kill a lot of guys, and you’ll have to face more of them in the next level.
Dishonored bills itself as built for players who like killing enemies and those who don’t, and it succeeds remarkably well on both fronts. The variety of weapons and powers allows for both styles of play, and it’s satisfying to pursue either course, or both. But what endeared me most to the game is the subtle ways it rewards you for not killing. Throughout the campaign, you’ll be tasked with assassinating key targets to take down the evil empire. Yet for each, exploring the level fully—either physically, by seeking alternatives within the space itself, or through conversation with NPCs—presents a nonlethal alternative. In most cases, other characters will reward you with supplies or cash for choosing this path, but just as rewarding are the alternative story branches nonlethal solutions create. In fact, I felt more like a badass when I didn’t kill enemies, when I snuck past them or knocked them out silently. Of course, blasting dudes with explosive bullets or summoning a piranha-like swarm of rats to devour them alive feels great too.
One reason it often feels better to adopt a nonlethal approach, though, is that the level design is brilliantly open. In every mission there are multiple ways to accomplish your objective, all of which feel viable—unlike other games where alternatives exist but the designers clearly prefer you take one particular path. Creative use of Corvo’s powers is constantly encouraged. To get past a locked door, for example, you could possess a rat and travel through a tiny duct. Or you could teleport (“blink”) up to a pipe overhead. Or you could stop time, sneak up behind a guard, and pickpocket the key. (Be careful, though—the artificial intelligence is actually intelligent.) Dishonored is a master class on level design, particularly in how to allow for satisfying vertical movement. Only Rocksteady’s Batman games are Dishonored’s recent peers on this front, although it’s more clearly a successor to the Thief series.
My quibbles with Dishonored are few and minor, but worth mentioning. Feedback is key in stealth games, and even more so when you’re in first-person perspective. Most of the situational awareness feedback in Dishonored is well-implemented and beautifully linked to the fiction—e.g., guards constantly coughing during this time of plague, or the magic power that lets you see enemies and objects through walls. But I do wish there were better feedback telling you when you’re fully in cover, like the screen turning blue in Riddick games. Some mechanics, like adrenaline, are not clearly explained, and combat can feel a bit floaty, like in Fallout 3. The art style, while wonderfully detailed in the environments, feels strange when applied to the character models, who have the small heads and giant hands common in Unreal Engine games. And while I encountered a number of glitches where my victims’ bodies would become embedded in walls or have seizures in mid-air, these were more funny than irritating.
The most memorable moment in Dishonored, though, was when I encountered a guard and a maid playfully bickering in Dr. Galvani’s house. Spying on them from the floor below, I overheard them joke about their impending wedding. Suddenly my mission plan changed radically: no matter what, these two random NPCs had to be left alive. There had been enough suffering and death in this blighted city. And as I adjusted my route to avoid them, I began to think about the rest of the guards throughout Dunwall. What if they were just as human as these two? For a game with so many ways to kill, it’s remarkable that Dishonored gives you so many reasons not to.
Dishonored was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version. It is also available for PC and the PlayStation 3.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.