This review was originally published as a user review on Game Informer.
With a bold new IP in hand among a slew of renowned AAA franchises, Arkane Studios has set out to make a name for themselves with Dishonored. Even though they have little to their name, their intriguing vision has had gamers excited for months to see the city of Dunwall through the eyes of Corvo Attano: an unstoppable assassin on a request for revenge after he’s blamed for the death of the empress he protected. The way he enacts that revenge is all up to you. Will you mercifully spare your enemies with stealthy precision…or will you plow through your foes using the cruelest of methods? However, the real question here is if Dishonored is even able to pull off its mission to stand on its own as a unique experience. Is this game a bumbling mess of good ideas or a triumphant birth of a new franchise that hits the target dead on the center?
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date (US): 10/9/12
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Metacritic Score Average: 89%
Dishonored is very interesting in that it has two, main different styles of gameplay. You could blaze through every level with weapons and powers in full array or discretely avoid/take out all of your enemies. At your primary disposal are mystical powers such as Possession, Blink, and Bend Time and a weapon arsenal consisting of a crossbow, sword, and pistol. Combined, these powers and weapons give you multiple ways to approach any situation and can all be upgraded by finding special objects and currency throughout the game, respectively. Since there are many unique ways to use these things that can result in several outcomes and rewards, the gameplay doesn’t get old for quite a while. It surprisingly comes together as a balanced and rewarding experience that’s worth coming back to more than once. For example, one mission required me to progress to a certain point, but I could accomplish this by either dispatching all the guards (violently or quietly), safely climbing the rooftops, sneaking by the guards through the gate they’re patrolling (which reduces time that would be spent climbing), or turning their own weapons against them. These diverse options are overwhelming at first (and there are even more), but upon analyzing and experimenting with them, it eventually solidified my playing style. I took on a “Batman” kind of approach, which means I chose to master the art of stealth without killing any of my opponents (even the main targets!). This resulted in a lot of trial and error, yet was still a fulfilling experience. Therefore, even though the level design is linear, the amount of freedom in Dishonored to approach missions is great indeed. I can’t wait to return to Dunwall once more and switch everything around.
The enemies (AI) are also quite clever, which notice your slight mistakes and respond swiftly to deliver death to you. They even can tell if a guard has “left” his post or if something is amiss. Never once did my enemies noticeably glitch up or act in a strange way; the AI is smart, cunning, and realistic for the most part. Taking out these guys is a breeze as well. With a well laid-out control scheme, it’s easy and manageable to lean from corners while using a weapon, quickly teleport while falling, or switch between powers in a jiffy. However, the controls are a bit unresponsive at times and feel a little hard to master. I’ve tried to take out enemies from behind and had strange times when I had to be unnecessarily accurate, or moments when teleporting to a specific spot doesn’t work correctly and I fall to my unexpected demise. However, these are only little gripes when it comes to the excellence of the gameplay. It’s an exciting experience that complements both stealth and action in a way no game has done before, which is why it doesn’t get old for quite a while. It surprisingly comes together as a balanced and rewarding experience that’s worth coming back to more than once. For example, one mission required me to progress to a certain point, but I could accomplish this by either dispatching all the guards (violently or quietly), safely climbing the rooftops, sneaking by the guards through the gate they’re patrolling (which reduces time that would be spent climbing), or turning their own weapons against them. These diverse options are overwhelming at first (and there are even more), but upon analyzing and experimenting with them, it eventually solidified my playing style. I took on a “Batman” kind of approach, which means I chose to master the art of stealth without killing any of my opponents (even the main targets!). This resulted in a lot of trial and error, yet was still a fulfilling experience. Therefore, even though the level design is linear, the amount of freedom in Dishonored to approach missions is great indeed. I can’t wait to return to Dunwall once more and switch everything around.
Dunwall is a city in constant decay. Disease runs rampant, buildings are abandoned, streets are littered with debris of all sorts, and people are dying or losing their minds. I would imagine the sounds of a desolate world of hopelessness and emptiness, and believe this is captured well in Dishonored. Although the sound effects don’t necessarily stand out, the squeaking and pitter patter of rats, echoing of wind throughout vacant areas, creaking of floorboards, and splashing of dirty puddles add a layer of realism and depth to the world. The same applies to the sounds of combat: the whoosh of a crossbow bolt, the “chunk” of a stab, and the otherworldly sounds and incantations of mystical powers make you feel as if you are in the boots of Corvo.
The music of the game further fleshes out the desperate and corrupt aura of Dunwall. The primary instruments (the zither and deep strings) truly bring out the depressing atmosphere in ways the sound effects, dialogue, or visuals could not do on their own. When you hear quiet musical notes intentionally played distorted or out of tune and somber choirs sing in minor, it brings the suffering of Dunwall to the forefront. Daniel Licht (the composer) nailed the tone of Dishonored.
I was surprised by the amount of lines and work that went into the voice acting, especially since the normal NPCs have more dialogue than in an average game. The cast also has some unexpected Hollywood actors and actresses like Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, and Carrie Fisher. These people and the rest of the cast bring out their respective characters to make them stand out, which is always a great thing to see. However, I do have a major complaint about Corvo Attano’s voice. The problem is that…well, he has no voice because he’s a silent protagonist. While this does work for some heroes, it made some scenes really awkward and unfitting without any dialogue from him, especially since everyone else talks so much. I really hope this is reversed in a potential sequel to Dishonored. Another problem I had was that several lines for the guards are annoyingly repeated in every mission. It made me wonder why they created so little dialogue for them, especially since they’re the characters you’re around the most. It seems a bit lazy, but this does not detract much from my overall opinion. The sound effects, music, and voice acting bring the experience of travelling through Dunwall memorable, unique, and to life (so to speak).
The graphics are nothing short of impressive. Instead of taking on a photorealistic approach like most AAA titles, Dishonored could be described as a living painting. Although it looks realistic in some aspects, the primary goal is to present everything as resembling the characteristics of a work of art. Brush strokes and deep lines are visible in characters’ models and environments; the flash of a gun being fired is an explosion of bright yellow/orange lines; paintings within the game have the same reflection of light off of them as they do in real life, which reveals all the bumps and strokes on the canvas. At first, all of this is hard to get used to because some of the textures look awful up close. However, I believe this was purposed and really emphasizes the painting style. I have come to like this creative style of graphics.
In turn, this greatly enhances the fantastic vision of Victor Antonov (the art director of Half-Life 2). It’s no secret his previous work is stunning, and that’s no exception for Dishonored. The Steampunk/Victorian influence to the architecture, dress, equipment, and environments of Dunwall is simply captivating. Imagining the city in its full glory is staggering, which makes the destruction over everything all the more effective in eliciting the game’s dark tone. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite parts of Dishonored. Definitely my top pick for most creative art direction this year.
Perhaps the weakest link of Dishonored is the story, but it’s by no means a bad one. A lot of critics say it’s too simplistic, the characters are uninteresting, and the ending is weak compared to the gravity of the story. Some of these statements are true to a point, but most of them are hyperbole compared to the story’s strengths. For example, the depth of it is seen in the plentiful books and letters spread throughout Dunwall. They contain small tidbits of information about the land, historical events, famous objects, and diaries of main or side characters. This really brings the amount of passion poured into the story by Arkane Studios to light, which reminds me of the mind staggering breadth of content in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As for the main story, it’s slightly predictable and simple in concept. However, there are some great plot twists and it’s paced well. It’s certainly not a mindbender or crafted around a unique plot, but that’s not the point. It’s the creativity of the world itself that makes the story entertaining. And I haven’t mentioned the characters, which I found to be very interesting and diverse due to their personalities. So, is the story alone an instant classic? No, but the universe it’s based on is extremely awesome. I’m all up for exploring new lands, going into the past, or taking the reigns of a new character in future titles. The possibilities are limitless. Arkane Studios has a goldmine to build on.
Instead of being pressured to include some sort of multiplayer or co-op, Arkane Studios stuck with the single-player experience and threw in some DLC challenge maps on the side for replay value. Most would think that it’s already lowered if this is the case, but this isn’t true. Since everything was put on the table for the campaign, it offers a significant amount of replayability. Depending on how you decide to progress through your first playthrough, you’re going to have new side missions, other ways to complete missions, and different outcomes on a second go-around. Normally these kinds of promising reasons to return to a single-player game are not enough to draw me back in, but I actually desire to return to Dishonored. Overall, this easily wraps up to around 20-30 hours of gameplay, which means one time through the game would take around 10-15 hours. However, I discourage this and recommend prolonging your time with Dishonored. However, even if one playthrough is enough for you, the price of admission is certainly justifiable either way.
In the Game Informer cover story for Dishonored, the game is described as aiming to be “an immersive, visceral experience that lets players experiment and be creative in affecting the world around them.” After playing the game myself, it’s safe to say that it has hit this goal. The solid, rewarding, and diverse gameplay adds plenty of fun replay value; the sound as a whole enhances the atmosphere and feeling behind the city of Dunwall; the unique visuals are superb in being set apart from most games due to excellent art direction; and finally, the story serves as a good motivator for revenge, is deep with content, and has a cast of intriguing characters. So, Dishonored is not only a successful endeavor for Arkane Studios. It’s an accomplishment in breaking the norm with style; a testament to the fact that strong passion, creativity, and vision for something different will normally result in grand success. It’s certainly an awesome experience for a new IP and will remain one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2012.