Player choice and freedom is an idea many video games try desperately to capture. Ultimately, the vast majority fail, instead only offering brief glimpses of what a game could be like if it truly let you play it your way.
Dishonored is not one of those games. In the dark, steam punk, rat plague ridden port city of Dunwall, developer Arkane Studios gives you, the player, incredible power. Better yet, they give you freedom to do whatever you want with it.
Players done the mask of one time royal bodyguard turned assassin Corvo. After a bloody coup that leaves the empress you swore to protect dead and her daughter stolen, you are framed for the deed and imprisoned. After a daring prison escape you learn of a resistance aimed at removing the conspirators who captured the throne. From there the game is a series of daring assassination missions on key targets, paving the way for the return of the rightful heir to the throne of Dunwall.
Every mission sends players to a large, open ended environment. Aside from a few clues, it’s up to you to piece together the best way to eliminate the selected target. First you have to figure out how to get there, which is where the real beauty of Dishonored’s gameplay comes in.
Central to the Dishonored experience is the Blink ability. Corvo’s first magical gift from the Outsider, Blink allows players to navigate huge gaps of space in the blink of an eye. Warping across rooftops or quickly appearing behind an unsuspecting guard can be done instantly, eliminating the slow and methodical pace many games with an emphasis on stealth suffer from. Combine the Blink ability with the open environments and multiple ways to reach and accomplish each objective and you have a freedom that is almost unheard of in video games, aside from pioneers such as Deus Ex.
A variety of tools are at the player’s disposal. Corvo, being a bodyguard, is skilled with both swords and guns, and thanks to a little visit from the mysterious otherworldly presence known as the Outsider, he isn’t half bad with magic either. Stopping time outright? No problem for Corvo, magician extroidinaire. Summon a swarm of man eating rats? Easy. Possessing one of said rats? Done with the press of a button. Players can find hidden Bone Charms that provide small passive bonuses such as more mana regeneration or faster knock-out attacks, allowing you to tune Corvo to your playstyle.
Now combine all of this together and you begin to experience the possibilities, and fun, of Dishonored. Should I possess a rat and sneak into the Overseer’s office through a grate? What about Blinking up to the balcony, stealing the key from a guard and opening the door? Or I could simply waltz up to the heavily fortified front door and hack, slash, and shoot my way inside. The choice is yours – there is no wrong way to play Dishonored.
Except when there is. My only real gripe with the game, aside from a plot twist over half way through and a rather abrupt ending, is that though the choice of playing the game your way is there, if you want a certain ending (of which there are several) your play style must adapt accordingly. Killing enemies in the game has consequences in how NPC characters react around you and the state of the already dismal Dunwall. Players that kill with reckless abandon will receive a much darker and more depressing ending than those who snuck their way past every guard and performed the nonlethal options for removing assassination targets. While the choice in how to play is yours, so are the consequences. If you want the best ending, you really only have one way to play the game; with the upmost stealth, essentially eliminating a large, and satisfying portion of the game – the combat. Sword play involves well time parries to be successful, making it hard to simply hack and slash ones way through large groups of enemies. When combined with one of Corvo’s magical abilities however, such as Stop Time, you can quickly become an unstoppable force.
Perhaps the true star of Dishonored is the richly detailed world of Dunwall and all the interesting characters that inhabit it. Upon your first encounter with the Outsider you are granted a strange and grotesque, heart. This heart speaks to you, showing the locations of bone charms and hidden runes used for upgrading your abilities. When pointed at an NPC, the heart dives deep into the characters mind, revealing their inner thoughts, experiences and thoughts. I spent at least an hour just learning the hidden fears and ambitions of random NPC characters, even learning some very interesting background information about some of the games more important characters. Players can learn about the world of Dishonored and the city of Dunwall by reading books and notes littered throughout the game. It’s there for players who are into that sort of thing (I am) but is completely optional. From just looking and exploring the game environments you get a sense of Dunwal being city of real history, now suffering from a crippling plague that is bringing the once proud city low.
Dishonored is one of those rare games that truly is a joy to play. It’s variety of refined gameplay and it’s simple but precise controls combined with a detailed world setting evoke a near perfect mixture of gaming nirvana that is part Deus Ex and part Bioshock. Arkane Studio knows that if you give gamers the tools, they will figure it out how to play the game themselves. It’s this trust and faith, to simply let gamers play the game, which makes the game great. There is no hand holding in Dishonored, no right or wrong way to accomplish any given task. There is only freedom – and all the fun that comes with it.