In a time when it seems mainstream stealth games have sunken into the shadows to await the opportune moment to strike once again, action-adventure games have brandished the stealth mantel to mostly disastrous effects. Dishonored, Bethesda Softworks’ 2012 foray into the field, attempts to reestablish the genre in the public’s collective conscious, while also broadening the horizon of what stealth can be in the modern era. It does and it doesn’t.
Dishonored begins typically enough: you, Corvo Attano, the royal bodyguard to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, are framed for murder and kidnapping when the empress is assassinated and her daughter disappears. Immediately, you’re thrust into prison, into a narrative of intrigue, greed, skullduggery, and foul play. This all happens within the first minutes of the game, and by far, it, alongside your prison escape, are the most harrowingly enjoyable moments within Dishonored’s tale.
Nonetheless, no matter how gorgeous Dunwall, Dishonored’s industrialized locale that’s as infused with rich steam-punk undertones as it is beauty, vision, and detail, seems to be on the outside, deep in its bowels it is a dank, disappointing place that never truly lives up to the potential it sets-up in its opening hours. Politics and lust, nationalism and misplaced duty play key roles in the events of the plagued world around you, a world in which swarms of rats devour dead bodies and spread sickness like fish spawn. Allies backstab allies, those allies backstab enemies that have replaced dead allies, and your allies become enemies, and enemies allies. It’s all very Game of Thrones, except on a much smaller, less intriguing stage that tarries far too long on the unimportant and dwells far too little on the essential. It seems to terribly misunderstand its own ends and even, at points, the means it would use to get there.
Over my sixteen hours in Dunwall, I never really felt compelled to care about any of the happenings around me. The narrative wants, tries, and desperately pleads for you to care about it, its characters, its plot, its diegesis, but it takes so many erroneous steps out of bounds, and lurks far too much in its own shadow that, by its midpoint, it really becomes a chore to even remotely connect with most of its goings-ons. It’s biggest problem, at least narratively, stems from its over reliance on exposition, its innate want to force the player to see the bigger picture that isn’t always necessarily important to the immediate set of events. Dishonored far too often tells the player what’s been happening or will happen, when it should be showing them, bringing them along for the ride, letting them be of and inside the action. Players don’t want to hear about this awesome thing that’s happening over there, they want to be there, in the thick of it all, saving or losing it.
After moments such as these, I continually find myself wanting to purposefully skip audiographs, Dishonored’s version of the obligatory audio log, the well written, yet completely distracting diegetic books that expound upon backstory and the overarching world, and the well designed and acted, yet poorly sculpted and implemented, narrative cinematics. It’s hard to care about characters that feel like nothing more than caricatures; none of them are fleshed out enough to differentiate them from each other. Sadly, so many have the same motive: seizure of the open throne. Even Corvo, the protagonist, suffers from FPS syndrome, or the syndrome of the lifeless drone that simple fetches from hither to yawn, speechless and only developed through exposition or ludonarrative, but even at the latter, he’s still ferociously underdeveloped as the game progresses.
And the narrative itself does little to pique the interest of the player the further it drones on. It doesn’t raise any answers, but countless enigmatic questions. After sixteen hours, I’m still not completely sure what it’s all about, what it’s trying to tell me. Perseverance, perhaps? Is it loss of innocence? Even at its conclusion, Dishonored doesn’t even know what it is itself. In its striving to be chic, novel, and full of player agency, the ending is predictable and telegraphed, and in fact, is so convoluted it feels as if the player had no hand in its crafting at all. And one of it’s best scenes, it’s midpoint, tries to astound and surprise, but through the out-of-character diversion of an actually good character –Samuel, the Boatman – it’s telegraphed, and the player knows something is awry almost immediately. Any tension or mystery is zapped right out.
Consequently, by the end of each narrative experience, cutscene, or expository break, the narrative itself has done so little to grasp my attention, and more detrimentally, has done more to incense and aggravate me with its loopholes, missed opportunities, and utter lack of respect for my gaming acumen, that I just want to be done with the story. I want to get to the good stuff, the gameplay.
Disappointingly, I unearthed similar feelings there, too.
What Metal Gear Solid and, more importantly, Thief, as Dishonored shares many similarities to the seminal game, did and still do for the stealth genre, Dishonored miserably fails. For a game so predicated on covert gameplay, on strategy, on hiding in the shadows, waiting for the opportune moment to spring upon your prey, on progressing through levels without alerting enemies or killing anyone, it’s laughably inept when it comes to allowing the player to do these things. For a game so predicated on stealth, why can’t I hide in the shadows? Why, every time, am I discovered and forced into combat? In fact, I shouldn’t be, and that’s the most frustrating part about it all; I’m supposed to be an assassin – well, a bodyguard turned assassin – but I can’t do assassin-y things. Nothing is more unsatisfying and discouraging than lurking in the shadows and being discovered by the first Joe that comes across you because the mechanic that’s supposed to hide you doesn’t work quite right.
A wide array of weapons lies at Corvo’s disposal, all of which have specific and instanced uses, but only one of which is absolutely necessary and irreplaceable: Corvo’s knife. His handgun, a protracted, handheld blunderbuss, is essentially useless throughout most of the game if you’re going for a stealth run; employing it ushers forth a deafening report that is often inaccurate and invariably summons enemies to your location in overwhelming force. Even if you’re going for combat, welcoming it, the gun shouldn’t be your first choice of defense. But Corvo also brandishes grenades, spring traps, a crossbow with regular, explosive, and sleeping darts, the latter of which often come in handy in a sticky, stealthy situation; it’s a blast knocking enemies out from a distance with the sleeping darts, then creeping past their snoring bodies into a compound’s shadow.
While sometimes fickle, Corvo can rewire electrical obstacles to create new pathways through levels, or remove power sources to incapacitate autonomous sentry posts and other such impediments that often grace the strata of every level. The mechanic for sneaking up on guards works here and there. Nothing’s more frustrating than sneaking up on a guard and blocking instead of killing, then having him end your life. Nothing’s more invigorating that sneaking up on a guard and killing him first blow. It’s also vexing that carrying items such as bottles, which you can throw as distractions, doesn’t use the similar animations of carrying weapons and wielding powers; items just float metaphysically in space. When a game promises so much player agency through immersion, it’s anachronistic and jarring when things like this happen continually.
Another interesting mechanic comes in the unique leveling system of bone charms and runes. Scattered throughout each of Dishonored’s nine levels are finely hidden and placed runes and bones shards. These runes can be used to upgrade powers such as those aforementioned; each power requires a specific number of runes to upgrade it from its base value to its secondary value, of which it imbues the power with more, well, power. However, the bone charms are much more nuanced and complicated. Each charm found carries with it a specific attributable quality that enhances Corvo’s core traits. Charms can them be initially equipped in six slots, but that number grows to ten as the game progresses. This allows the player to mix and match these attribute bonuses for unique and fun effects. For instance, I often equipped charms with such enhancements as Spirited, Water of Life, and Tough Skin, each which respectively gives potions more mana, recharges health from drinking from water faucets, and increases your max health. The Heart of a Living Thing, a disembodied heart given to you by the Outsider in your first dream sequence, is your echo locator in this instance; it’s all kind of macabre, but fitting in the dismal world of plague and death that surrounds it.
And a quick note on mission variety: over Dishonored’s nine missions, while at first intriguing, their theme quickly ran its course, became repetitive. There are only so many assassinations you can do in a row before you long for something more. There are only so many fetch quests – of which there are many – before that becomes tiresome. Many times I would visit a location on a quest, retrieve and item, and return it only to find I had to return to the same location for something else entirely on the next mission. A bit more variety would have been appreciated.
Aesthetically, Dishonored is a sometimes beautiful game with breathtaking vistas and equally spectacular sewers, dungeons, and streets full of gleaming puddles, grand lighting, and often superbly envisioned architecture that leaves the player awe inspired. Dishonored’s attention to aesthetical and artistically motivated detail within its diegesis is impeccable and commending. Playing on the PC version, which, by comparison to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 versions, far out-lusters its console brethren, I found myself stopping, staring off into the vast, oceanic distance, watching the gulls float overhead, and soldiers patrol the catwalks, bridges, and byways of the city. Everything about the PC version is crisper, more detailed; Dishonored completely takes advantage of modern PC design. However, when pushed to the max, there are moments of lag, several long loading screens between large narrative events, and occasional screen tearing in large areas. This is expected in a game constructed to run on both PC and console, but disheartening nonetheless. It’s nothing detrimental, though.