The Empress’ Outlaw – Dishonored Review
The First Person Sneaker is one of those polarising sub-genres; you either love it or you hate it. Some people don’t have the time for it either due to lack of patience, skill or interest. Others lap it up.
The best of these games was the venerable Thief series, and while we’ve been teased with a fourth installment at some point, it isn’t really necessary as Thief: Deadly Shadows had a beautiful conclusion to the series that ended the protagonist’s story in a satisfying way.
But it did mean there was a gap in the market that Splinter Cell and others of its ilk just couldn’t fill. Fortunately, this seems to be the year of rehashing old ideas successfully, as we have a spiritual successor to Thief in Dishonored. But oddly, it’s more of a spiritual successor in regards to world building and setting more than anything else. Because believe it or not, Dishonored isn’t a game about stealth.
It’s a game about revenge.
The story opens with protagonist Lord Protector Corvo Atanno, the Empress’ trusted bodyguard and confidante, returning from a failed mission of mercy on behalf of the Empress of the Isles to quell the rat carried plague ravaging the capital of Dunwall. Before he can fully give his report, the Empress is attacked and murdered by supernaturally adept assassins, and the Empress’ young daughter Emily is kidnapped.
Corvo is blamed for the assassination, stripped of his rank and spends the next six months being tortured and interrogated at the hands of the new Regent and his court. Finally sentenced to die for his apparent crimes, the night before his execution Corvo learns that he has been framed by high-ranking members of the new government, whilst Loyalists to the dead Empress managed to secure a way out of prison for Corvo. On the run, Corvo links up with the Loyalist movement and begins plotting his revenge.
This classic set up leads us into the world of Corvo and Dishonored, a Lovecraftian tainted 19th century industrial port city where the poor choke to death in filth and plague and the rich try to ignore the coming apocalypse with excess whilst supernatural entities manipulate events from behind the scenes and grant boons to those they find “interesting”. How the player perceives this world and interacts with it is entirely up to them. Corvo is a voiceless protagonist; the player’s actions speak for him and allows the player to project whatever motivation they want onto him. While this allows the player the freedom to direct Corvo in almost any way they wish according to their play style, there is a slight disconnect with the world. Corvo is a larger than life persona before Dishonored begins, it seems odd for him to be a blank slate. But this is a common pitfall of Voiceless Video Game protagonists.
Throughout the nine chapters of Dishonored‘s story, the player guides Corvo through the crumbling city of Dunwall. The levels are huge for a game of this style, and the environments manage to change things up each time whilst still maintaining a consistent style.Whilst much of the story takes place in grim locales, the beautiful watercolour visuals of the design gives everything more beauty than it arguably has any right to. Each chapter also has a variety of side missions to be stumbled upon, so exploration is encouraged.
The turn of the century industrial aesthetic retrofitted with Eldritch tech will be familiar to any Thief fan, but the military hardware on display throughout the story is clearly the influence of Half-Life 2. But aspects of the aesthetic aren’t all that is influenced by that game. Whilst there is exposition from characters Corvo encounters, the majority of the story is told by listening and observing, either by the player’s own volition or through a…device Corvo receives early on from his supernatural benefactor as a gift for being so interesting. This magical exposition device reveals more about the world as Corvo wanders through it, and the secrets it reveals in its hauntingly familiar voice ensures at least a couple of play throughs to make sure everything has been revealed.
Game play wise, this is a smooth experience, with loading on the PC either between area transitions or from a save being fast. The controls are intuitive and the range of options you have either via weapons, gadgets or powers allows for multiple approaches to the chapters. As a Spaniard once said, there’s not a lot of money in revenge. But the toys can be fun.
While stealth is definitely a favoured option by the designers, there’s nothing stopping you from cutting a bloody swath through those on Corvo’s road to revenge.The player’s choices will affect the Chaos Level, resulting in a higher or lower level that will impact the conclusion of the game. Oddly, whilst killing guards sensibly raises the Chaos Level, so does killing plague victims, even if it would be considered an act of mercy. A slight oversight, but a jarring one.
Whilst I love a good sword fight, given the Dumasian plot threads I opted for the Monte Cristo approach; death was too good for the conspirators, so I took a non lethal and stealthy approach in my first play through. Being an old hand at Thief, I found the hardest difficulty setting still surprisingly easy prior to getting the first power; teleportation. After that, I was like Nightcrawler in X-Men 2, leaving nothing but unconscious guards and slight hint of cinnamon in my wake. Whilst it’s fun knocking out guards, it becomes apparent fairly early on that unlike the Thief games, there is nothing in the world of Dishonored that is scarier than Corvo. Creepier, sure. But not scarier.
The stealth mechanics in this game are pretty basic and pretty forgiving and the indicators are subtle but enough to let the player know what is happening and what they can and can’t get away with, so new players should get the handle on it quickly. A better tutorial than the introductory “hide & seek” game might have been better though.
Therein lies the true fault with Dishonored. While repackaged in a fresh way, this plays in a lot of ways like a relic of a bygone era. Fortunately for myself and other old Thief fans, it’s a relic we have a unique set of skills for. But I have to wonder how less experienced gamers will fare with the minimalist though intuitive interface.
To round out the production, an impressive voice cast has been assembled to voice the diverse range of characters of traitors, loyalists, artists, scientists, Gods and Demons. Each of the major characters has a well crafted back story and good motivations for their actions given that this is a revenge saga. I’m also fascinated that two of my favourite games this year have me acting as guardian for a little girl and manipulating me into caring for this character. Here it’s Emily, the young princess. The other is Clementine from The Walking Dead, which I hope to review in its entirety at the conclusion of the fifth episode.
My final minor complaint with Dishonored is that the ending. Whilst remaining true to the story, it is anti-climactic. There is no final battle, no reckoning really necessary. It’s a shame, I had hoped for something a little more cathartic. But this may have been more indicative of my play style than the narrative itself. If I had to fight my way up the final level like Errol Flynn rather than slinking in like Larry Niven, it might have seemed a bit more exciting! We are however getting DLC at some point, so I’ll be curious to see what it adds to the story.
Nitpicks aside, this is one of my favourite games of the year and I highly recommend you check it out. Old Thief fans like myself will love it, and those who missed out should enjoy the gameplay and the rich world that Dishonored has crafted.
Dishonored scores a 9 out of 10 as I’m an old Thief fan. If you’re not a Thief fan, it scores an 8 out of 10.