One of the most obvious signs of a great game is choice. This can manifest in several different ways, though it usually means stories that branch based on your choices (ala The Witcher 2) or give you several options for how to tackle challenges in gameplay (ala Fallout). Dishonored does a bit of each and is bettered for it, being surprisingly fun to play, but choice isn’t what makes this a great game.
I have a theory about games that include supplementary stories, the basic idea being that games with small stories hidden within are infinitely better than games without them; Planescape, The Longest Journey, and even Jade Cocoon all serve as examples of games made better because of the little stories found throughout. While those games’ stories are more developed and obvious than what you’ll find in Dishonored, there are many to be found in the books and audio recordings that you’ll find scattered throughout the world. Even more interestingly, there are pieces of information hidden throughout the game that combine to provide a more complete, rich understanding of the world and that go beyond what the books and audio recordings are capable of.
This is mostly possible due to to “The Heart,” a magical item that you receive early on. The Heart shows you where runes and bone charms (items for upgrading) are whenever you have it equipped, but this isn’t its most important role. What makes it unique is that it comments on whatever it’s pointed at and seems to possess a surprising amount of knowledge about everything and everyone. This doesn’t work on random NPCs, but for named characters you’ll discover all kinds of little secrets by using it over and over again; while the main story supporting the game is actually quite weak, the descriptions and secrets you discover by using the heart on important characters help flesh out both them and the world around you, making the game a much more fulfilling experience than it would have been otherwise. Much has been made of the gameplay and assassination aspects of the game, sadly overlooking just how amazing and innovative The Heart manages to be. It injects life into what would be an underwhelming game otherwise (despite its many pluses, the lack of anything good story-wise would have been a deathblow), and the marketing/review focus on the combat mechanics have grossly misrepresented this game, sending a number of gamers to rush through the game as violently as possible and ultimately be disappointed.
Why would they be disappointed, you ask? Great question, hypothetical you. Like I said earlier, the game does feature some story branching. This means rewarding you with one of three different endings, with the “good” ending being reserved for mostly-nonviolent playthroughs; the carnage you cause is reflected in a “chaos” stat, and the good ending is only possible if you keep it low by using non-lethal takedowns. That’s not to say that you can’t kill, of course—I was able to kill several key enemies while still getting the good ending. It requires stealth, however, to keep from having to kill too many. As such, those who took Dishonored to be their personal assassination simulator and ran through the game killing willy-nilly inevitably ended up with an ending ranging from heartbreaking to painfully bittersweet, and undoubtedly used The Heart solely to find upgrades.
That being the case, a large number of people didn’t actually play the game despite what they may think. You can find these people on Youtube and forums, usually talking about how disappointed they were after playing through the game. They’re the ones remarking about how Dishonored was so short, rambling about how they finished it in one day, complaining that nothing was explained (this is untrue, by the way), and blah blah blah. It’s not the longest game ever, and there’s really no denying that, but to finish it in one day would require skipping such a large amount of what makes the game so special—that mostly being The Heart and listening in on conversations—that you barely touch on the outer fringes of what the game has to offer. If you’re speaking to someone who claims to have finished this game and they don’t know the previous identity of The Heart, promptly disregard their opinion because they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Gameplay is also great, though it becomes less so with an aggressive approach. One of the innovative features of the game is the ability to “blink,” which is basically a short teleport hop from one place to another. A symbol appears in front of you that shows you where you’ll land, and you can land on the edges of buildings to teleport and then climb up. This lends a very fluid feeling to movement in the game and makes it possible to dart around rapidly. An aggressive approach doesn’t have much use for this power, however; it’s possible to teleport close to an enemy to attack them, but most enemies will just run up to you anyway. On the other hand, a stealthy playthrough almost requires it since you have to sneak up behind people to knock them out (there are also sleep darts, but they’re rare enough that you can’t rely on them) and then hide the bodies. In many situations it’s even possible to circumvent enemies entirely by blinking to the rooftops and sticking to them until you’ve gotten where you’re going.
That’s not to say that an aggressive style of play can’t be fun, though. There are a number of other powers you can use (once you’ve upgraded) that allow you to slow/stop time, possess people and animals, call rat swarms to attack enemies, and a few other things. I simply derived the most enjoyment from mixing all of these, creatively taking out certain key enemies while leaving everyone else alive, usually stacked up in an unconscious pile of bodies behind a door somewhere. The problem with a too-aggressive approach is that you end up with annoying swarms of enemies that become tiresome after awhile (unless you kill people stealthily, in which case you might as well take the nonlethal approach since it requires about the same amount of work), and of course there’s the fact that you’ll end up with a depressing ending at the end of all of that. Stealth is where this game shines, but a mixture of chaotic violence and stealth really allows you to get the most out of the game. It’s possible to spare pretty much everyone, of course, but there are plenty of people who have earned the inglorious death you’re capable of visiting upon them.
Okay, so you know how I said the story minus the details that The Heart provides is kind of weak? I wasn’t kidding. There are twists you’ll call twenty minutes in that will play out just like you expect them to, and it’s really kind of embarrassing that the whole thing is so predictable. The details you find thanks to The Heart wind up being infinitely more interesting than the main story, but the whole thing is serviceable enough. Toward the very end there are a few unexpected moments, but it’s really not enough to save the main story from its own lack of inspiration.
While I’m talking about annoying things… The Outsider. He’s some kind of Loki-esque god figure who isn’t good or evil, and he gives you magic. You know, because you’re interesting. He looks, talks, and acts like he’s in a boy band (the picture at the top of this review is of him), and it’s really annoying to have a crazy powerful figure who seems like he just got back from performing at an *NSYNC concert. Just saying.
Dishonored has strange graphics. They’re cartoony in a way, but the game itself is dark and violent. It’s actually a nice juxtaposition, and several areas manage to be prettier in motion than the screenshots below indicate, though some textures are a bit too low-quality for my taste. This is most apparent when you’re choking out a guard or pulling someone near to perform an assassination, but it’s not anywhere near bad enough to spoil the game.
The music throughout is very light and atmospheric while you’re playing, and as a result it’s entirely unremarkable. It works within the context of the world and helps you listen in on random conversations between people, but I’d have liked a few songs to remember while sneaking around.
Here’s what you should do: