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.