Stealth games are often hit or miss. In my opinion, the best stealth experiences are the ones that give you more options than you could possibly want to dispose of your enemies, which leads to some particularly crafty and devious play — something right up a ninja or assassin junkie’s alley. It’s why Tenchu has always been one of my favorite franchises of all time — diversity is key.
Dishonored seeks to mix things up with something a bit different – psychic powers, swords, all draped over a kinda-sorta-steampunk veneer. Surprisingly, it mostly works. Mostly.
As Foghorn Leghorn would say, “what’s the hook? What’s the gimmick, son?!” For Dishonored, that’s easy: psychic powers. Corvo, the game’s lead, is framed for regicide and must clear his name in any way he sees fit: whether that’s by peaceful takedowns or bloody stealth kills.
The story is fairly simplistic, but the joy you’re going to get from playing isn’t necessarily from the narrative framework — it’s how you choose to play along with it. Although the game has some ham-fisted “consequence” mechanics (such as slight ending changes — all thirty seconds of them — and hokey consequences like “more zombies on the street” the more you kill), you can actually approach missions in a multi-facted manner, and it works.
For instance, for every mission in the entire game, you can go in guns/swords blazing, or you can sneak in without killing a soul — or anything inbetween. A number of missions involve poison, or if you’re the old fashioned type, you can just cut them where they stand, or duel them.
Often times you can poison key foes, make their deaths look like an accident, or cause an all out war: it’s your choice.Missions are so open that there’s no real “failure” option. Just like Demon’s or Dark Souls, sometimes you can just slice up a key NPC right then and there and not have to worry about it breaking your game. So despite some Fable-like shallow “consequences”, the actual gameplay is what matters most, and you truly can do just about everything.
If you’re really into visuals, the console version is probably going to be a disappointment. If you’re playing on 360, you’re going to really want to install the game — lest it looks like a fairly dated original Xbox title. Even then, after the install, it still doesn’t look very impressive, with tons of visible screen tearing and draw distance issues.
To be clear, the game is mission based. It is not open world. Each mission will have a ranking screen, displaying your statistics and items collected, and so forth. In that sense, it lends itself very well to replayability and completionists, which I’ll explain a bit more later.
Outside of blinking (which I recommend getting to level II immediately), Corvo’s moveset feels fairly limited at first. You can use a few offensive abilities, possess creatures or humans, summon rats, and that’s about it. Although there is potential there with setting traps and using tranq darts, you’re more often than not strapped for cash, and can’t actually buy or find ammo/upgrades.
Eventually (in what feels a bit late actually), the game opens up and you start to gel more with your abilities, using them in tandem with items, just like Batman: Arkham Asylum/City. Whether you have the patience to wait or not is entirely up to you.
In fact, you basically have to go out of your way to get runes (level up items), bone charms (accessories that grant bonuses), and money/loot. Thankfully, grabbing runes and charms is heavily alleviated with a special item called “The Heart”, which shows every secret on-screen in a neat radar-like fashion, complete with distance trackers and everything. But frustratingly, you have to always have to have The Heart equipped and taking up an active hand to see where anything is — which leads me to my next issue — the ability controls.
Outside of holding LB (L1) to select an ability or item from the wheel, you can use the direction pad to quick-map four abilities at a time — that’s it. Your sword is always in your right hand, and abilities and all tools are always in your left — no negotiating. My playstyle is conducive to using blink and the crossbow interchangeably nearly every few seconds — among other abilities and items.
Sadly, this setup is not as user friendly or as fun as I would have liked. I have to constantly press the dpad to switch to another item or skill mid-blink, which gets annoying very fast, and slows down the what would otherwise be fairly frenetic gameplay. Why isn’t there an option to have blinking on the left trigger and anything else you want on the right? Or a dedicated button for blinking?
After my first playthrough (which took around 6 hours), I felt a bit underwhelmed. As in I literally thought to myself — that was it? But then after going through a few more times, I realized how fun taking different paths could be. It’s one thing for developers to say “the game offers a ton of choices”, but it’s another thing to actually experience it. Plus, there’s a number of optional ancillary objectives to wet your whistle should you choose to seek them out.
If you buy into it (and I was kind of in the middle), there’s a lot to do here, and it never once falls into the trappings that Bioshock did a few times (particularly in reference to the hokey final boss) – in short, Dishonored never comprises itself when presenting you with a playground to play in, which is a very good thing.
If 6-12 hours isn’t enough for you to justify a purchase, provided that you’re not a fan of replaying things or tracking down every last trinket, there’s also DLC on the way (at least, the main menu indicates this) — which, given the mission-based format and replayability of the game, will lend itself very well to Dishonored.
At the end of the day, Dishonored doesn’t change the face of the first person or stealth genre, but it contains some fairly neat concepts and presents them in a very playable manner. If you’re not into replaying things over and over, you may want to wait for a price-cut, but if you have an open mind, I can’t see you not liking Dishonored.
This review is based on a physical copy of Dishonored for the Xbox 360.