After several months locked in the bowels of Dunwall, a once-great city turned into a shrieking, squeaking nightmare of rats and plague sufferers, something visits Corvo Attano. Corvo has been accused of the murder of the Empress, a most heinous crime, all the worse considering his past occupancy as Lord Protector. With whale-oil lanterns casting a grim glow about the cell, it just doesn’t seem fair. Corvo didn’t do it. Of course Corvo didn’t do it. The aristocracy of Dunwall hold lavish parties and employ terrifying new technology to guard their manors while the commons and Corvo alike are left to deteriorate. Then vengeance visits Corvo Attano with an offer.
There’s a chance to escape, a chance to act, and a chance to find the Empress’ lost daughter and restore her to the throne. How to do this, and how Corvo enacts his revenge on those who have wronged him, is up to the player. Ultimately, it comes down to the usual choice between right and wrong, or rather whether the player chooses to dishonor Corvo on his quest for vengeance, or not.
Standing center of Dishonored is Dunwall, the sort of fantasy industrial nightmare that is destined to be remembered. Playing Dishonored invokes memories of BioShock’s haunting Rapture, or Half Life 2’s oppressive City 17 – fictional worlds that are unique in vision, well designed, and powerful in thematic resonance. Prepare to welcome Dunwall to that canon. Levels are small sandboxes: a brothel here, a distillery there, and swathes of flooded, derelict neighborhoods, all contrasted with the affluence of the city’s ruling classes. Dunwall is a city thriving off of the industry granted by the power of whale oil, but also a city turned in on itself, ravaged by plague, and preyed on by political opportunists.
Tone and concept are the story’s strongest hand, played against the player with exposition, in audio logs, and in notes laid about the levels. While prowling across its dingy rooftops, or skirting the gaze of a hulking watchtower, it’s easy to feel the weight of Dishonored’s world. It’s a shame that where Dishonored succeeds in terms of ambient storytelling, it stumbles somewhat in direct narrative. I was disappointed to find that the tale of Corvo Attano is particularly underwhelming when set against the narrative opulence of Dishonored’s wider world. Regardless, it’s hard not to be seduced by the game’s setting – like a Dickens novel oozing with whale oil, electricity, and magic.
Corvo receives these magical powers from the Outsider, a stern, seemingly disinterested spirit, and can expand these skills by collecting runes carved into yellowed whale bone. These skills transform Corvo from brooding fugitive to whichever the player prefers him to become. He may be a precise, calculating assassin, ready to dispose of those (in whichever fashion) who oppose his cause, or he may be an angel of death, a supernatural demi-god capable of murdering anything in his way. Each and every power has its own applications, and how the player chooses to use them will define Corvo.
Wind Blast, for example, can be used to silently dismantle passages barred with planks of wood. Likewise, when upgraded with those whale-bone runes, Corvo can use it to throw enemies with such ferocity that they die on contact with the nearest surface. Both applications will lead Corvo to his goals, but one is done out of necessity, the other out of malice. Bend Time slows time down, allowing the assassin to easily dispatch foes, flee, or cross open space before guards have the time to notice his passing. Devouring Swarm draws forward a plague of rats to attack, distract, or chew bodies away, while Possession allows Corvo to enter the body of animals for scouting, or humans for sadistic and inventive methods of violence.
The crux of Corvo’s supernatural arsenal, however, is the Blink power, which allows him to teleport a short distance to an area in his line of sight. Using Blink, Dishonored becomes a puzzle of environmental traversal, zipping past monitored, open spaces unseen. Despite the occasional visual infidelity which makes lining up the Blink marker a little too tricky, Blink is a satisfying and powerful mechanic, and it was Blink alone that was formed my own play style, early on. Initially, the impetus to raise no alarm, take no life, and leave no clue was strong for me, but I found that it wasn’t Dishonored’s strongest sell. Stealth in Dishonored is a meticulous, sometimes tedious game of watch, wait, sleep dart, and stranglehold.
Playing a game of pure stealth almost seems like a waste of potential. Vengeance is great – it’s cathartic – and in Dishonored, ripping your opponents to ribbons using the gleeful interplay between all of Corvo’s skills is the most fun the game has to offer. Corvo’s strikes are brutal, his parries ferocious. He ends lives in a lavish, gratifying way, sinking the blade deep into flesh, beheading, and lopping limbs at will. He can possess enemies and throw them in the path of friendly fire. He can force enemies to throw themselves from buildings. He can set spiteful traps and enact sadistic situations. In short, if you choose, Corvo can become a demon of a man.
But revenge is poisonous and indulging in its more sadistic pleasures has its consequences for Corvo and the city around him.
It’s disingenuous to say that every action in this or any game has absolute consequence, but Dishonored responds to your actions in notable fashion. A Corvo who has chosen to debase himself by murdering the guards who were only doing their job, or causing chaos for chaos’ sake will find more rats and more plague victims as a direct result. However, Dishonored, even as a stealth game, makes it tempting to throw caution to the wind.
Revenge solves everything, except in the long term, it seems. It’s all too easy in a cruel, dark world of mindless plague victims and uncompromising guards not to have Corvo kill, and frighten with mystical malevolence. It’s much harder, and at times much less satisfying, to sheath Corvo’s cruel knife and let a guard pass unscathed. Narratively, and practically, it might be better to duck out of sight and blink past unnoticed, but at every moment the other route calls out to Corvo, the one where he indulges in revenge. Perhaps it’s telling that this approach is both the most fun and the most damning.