I mustn’t be seen. No one must know I was at The Golden Cat. All trace of my presence should be left behind by nothing but the sleep darts planted in wenches and guards. I snuck and blinked across the ceiling, hidden above the light fixtures, slowly making my way towards the target. Not the targets, however. No, I was not going to see them at all. I was going to electrify some information from some simple sap, information valuable to a fellow named Slackjaw. He’d take care of those Brothers for me, and no one would suspect it was the man in the mask that set their fates in motion.
After demonstrating a stealthy approach of Dishonored to my friend I handed back the controller. He scratched his beard, spun Corvo around and hopped right back into The Golden Cat. He wanted to kill those brothers himself, and the result was a delightful mixture of chaos and the sick, perverse pleasure of watching the face of a despicable man contort into fear and agony.
Dishonored is in no way limitless in the options presented. No game ever is nor will it ever be. Yet it provides enough tools and options that you can go back each time and try a different approach to a simple task. Some of them are built in, such as ducts that can be traversed while possessing a rat. Others can be discovered on your own, as demonstrated by the video below.
Having never played Thief or Deus Ex, the only comparison I can make is to Bioshock. The game is similar in offering you a set of abilities and physical weaponry, though not in the same fashion. You will always have your blade out and ready in your right hand. There is no changing this. Your left hand, however, can change between special powers or secondary weapons such as the crossbow, pistol or traps.
I must confess I do not like this decision. I would much rather the separation of powers and weaponry between the two different hands as presented in Bioshock 2. I can only guess that the designers wanted the player to rely on that blade, to use it as their primary killing tool. The variety of ways you can stab or decapitate a foe further illustrate this emphasis on use of the blade. Yet the game also provides plenty of options for long-range combat as well, and it would be nice to be able to freeze time or blink across a map while sniping with a crossbow without having to constantly access the radial menu.
This is the sort of complaint brought on by looking for something to complain about, though. Is it really that much trouble to access the radial menu? No. Do you really think about how much better it would be to have a crossbow or trap in your right hand instead of the blade? Not at all.
In fact, for some the physical weapons may even be pointless. While it is tough, it is possible to complete Dishonored without so much as stabbing or shooting a single soul. Or, if it is more your preference, you can paint the town red with blood, slaying nearly any living being walking your path.
The people walking around Dishonored often enough feel alive as well. Listening in on a conversation between two NPC’s is rather quite common in video games. This is usually a way to hint at secrets to a player without railroading them along a desired path, allowing them to feel clever and more involved in the world. Yet few have the audacity to then have one character announce “Is this how it’s going to be when we’re married?”
Or even non-scripted conversations. Some of the characters wandering the world are friendly towards each other, asking about playing a game of cards once their shift is over, while others are much more hostile. There are few things as amusing as hearing one thug ask “How’s your sister?” followed by a flippant “Fuck off!” from the man he’s addressing.
The aesthetic and life breathed into Dishonored helps cement it as a great game. You’re not merely navigating a level. You get to see a slew of small details scattered about, giving depth to the city of Dunwall. You can imagine what life is like here, and what it might have been before the plague hit.
Too bad the story isn’t as substantial. They certainly make the attempt. They want you to speak with and learn about the characters you’re surrounded by, to build relationships with them. They also want to adjust the game based on how violent you’ve been, directing the character personalities in response to your actions. Yet the story is still fairly predictable and fails to ever hit that deep, emotional involvement. It’s tough to really care about how Corvo feels, having been framed and wrongly imprisoned. The game relies on you to empathize with the character, to put yourself in their shoes, but it’s tough as the game basically just puts you in that position within the first five minutes.
I know it’s a lot to ask for, but the game basically needed to have you play through at least thirty minutes of calm, establishing a good life, good relationships and even trust before suddenly pulling it all away from you. You know who the villains are at a glance. You know what twists are coming. Without any element of surprise there can be no emotional reaction, which ultimately means no emotional attachment.
You can give Arkane Studios a clap on the back for their efforts, but it just didn’t amount to anything effective. Dishonored exists purely for the wonderful world of Dunwall and the people that populate it, and all the different ways that you can sneak around them or kill them.