G’day. Welcome back to The Lawless Perspective. If you don’t know the drill, this is a semi-regular column in which I offer a second opinion on recently released games. It’s a subjective analysis, based entirely on how I feel about the game in question, rather than an objective one and so I choose not to synthesise a score to summarise. With that out of the way, I’ll be looking, this time, at what is probably the most critically acclaimed new IP of the year: Dishonored. I know that I’m late to the party; I was originally intending to save my money for Hitman: Absolution, but as I stood looking at the shelf of games, the higher review scores of the former swayed me from my original course. Before beginning, a link back to Michael’s purchase-affirming 9/10 review and an obligatory spoiler warning.

Have no doubt that I feel as though Dishonored is a good game, and that this belief is shared by the rest of the team; the unanimous sanction of its inclusion for Game of the Year contention should be proof enough of that. It’s a brilliant new IP that shows a lot of promise in both its mechanics and story potential thanks to the incredible amount of lore that was packed into this inaugural outing. Played as either a stealth game or action game, it is so finely tuned that every fundamental aspect of it remains solid. In spite of all this, I just don’t “get” it.

What’s peculiar about that admission is that, on paper, there is only one aspect of the game to make me leery of it: the first person viewpoint. I’ve never been a fan of games that put you directly behind the eyes of the protagonist, but the likes of Bioshock, Resistance 3, Mirror’s Edge, Skyrim and Fallout 3 all enabled me to get past that issue, and Dishonored is more in the vein of these than other, blander uses of the perspective. In any case, that is not from whence my dissatisfaction springs. I like options. I like being able to incapacitate enemies as opposed to simply killing them. I like being able to sneak past guards like a shadow in the night with their being none the wiser to my presence. I like being able to use magic to circumvent direct combat. I like collectibles that matter in the grander scheme of the game. I like fresh, unique and fleshed-out settings. I like an ensemble cast of characters that can laden you with side quests. I like lore. The inclusion of every one of these things in Dishonored should prompt me not only to like it, but to love it. Yet it doesn’t. Instead, having sunk something like 15 hours into the experience, I walk away unfulfilled and with a sense of disappointment. It’s almost singularly difficult to pinpoint why this is but, since it is the case, I have elected to write this belated post-mortem in exploration of the fact.

It just doesn’t feel right being this close to your own sword.

One of the more likely reasons is that Dishonored is designed, first and foremost, around gameplay. For most gamers that would be an illogical conclusion to draw, but I have always held story and narrative in extremely high regard, using it as one of the key barometers in my feelings about any product. And while Arkane Studios have crafted a wondrously involving city and world, the plot and characters aren’t nearly as compelling or interesting as implied by their prominence in the narrative. The biggest problem stems from Corvo’s role as a silent protagonist. This form of characterisation can work in the right circumstances by allowing the player to implant their own personality upon them, but it’s a rather poor choice here in light of the black-and-white morality system and the very visible fact that Corvo is a puppet. Every action that he takes is reactionary, coming at the behest of the ancillary characters, headed by the Loyalist faction.

This is a motley collection of individuals, headed by Lord Pendleton and Admiral Havelock, that sprung up following the assassination of the Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and the abduction of her daughter, Emily; acts for which Corvo is framed and which set the events of the game in motion. The Loyalists aid in springing our protagonist from prison on the eve of his execution, and thus begins a rather short mission of revenge, the ultimate goal of which is the reclamation of Princess Emily Kaldwin to thus bring about the end of the Interregnum. Hardly a new idea, but one that can be home to interesting developments if tackled properly. Unfortunately, the characters comprising the Loyalist faction are, for the most part, single-minded and unlikeable, amounting to a disconnection from them. And the supposed twist that the developers have implemented as the kick-off for the third act is ridiculously predictable.

It really is sad that the game suffers from these glaring flaws in light of the backdrop. Dunwall City is not a vibrant locale. Instead, it has both a lived-in dinginess and sense of abandonment. Some may consider this lack of panache a bad thing, but it grants weight to the setting and helps to emphasise the story’s proclamation of a plague outbreak that has decimated the population. What this ultimately means is that there are very few friendly characters to be found when on a mission, making side quests a rare thing and hostile NPCs extremely prevalent. In a way it purifies the production by putting the focus firmly on the dichotomy of the core gameplay and doing away with much of the RPG-esque waffling that has slowly become ubiquitous.

Dingy is not a good look for a bath house.

What Dishonored does retain is a purchase/upgrade mechanic similar to that found in most action games, though it features a more logical implementation than your gaining and spending an esoteric form of experience points. Your weaponry is upgraded by visiting Piero, a merchant/inventor and spending the money that you find dotted throughout the levels. Besides the upgrades, he also offers extra grenades and ammunition, with an inventory that can be expanded by finding Blueprints. Magical enhancements are made available via Runes, which are spread sparingly throughout the levels and are located with the assistance of a mechanical heart given to Corvo by the supernatural being called The Outsider. This also aids in the finding of Bone Charms, which offer passive boosts to your skillset.

Unfortunately, in spite of three different forms of upgrades, the game never really provides enough for you to tailor the play style entirely to your own preferences. A part of the reasoning for this is that the effects of the improvements are almost negligible when in practice. Another is that only one of the magical abilities is compulsory and the game had to be designed to accommodate the possibility of it being the only one that is purchased and thus meaning that many of the others are useless unless you make it a point to use them. That being said, most of those abilities are functional for both stealth and combat-oriented ends, so it does have the potential for a more open-ended adventure.

This is tempered, however, by the intended method of play. Although it is more than possible to tear through the guards and destroy all opposition, Dishonored is a stealth game by conscious design and a much better experience when played in such a manner. Combat is cumbersome and the enemies quickly swarm to your location on your being discovered, leading to a bloodbath or, far more often, your swift demise as you succumb to the numbers game. Escape is always a possibility in such situations, but that’s often easier said than done.

One at a time… please?

Besides these gripes, stealth is very clearly preferred based on the enemy AI which remains blissfully ignorant of your presence unless you make the mistake of stepping into their direct line of sight. Never mind that the boundaries of their patrols are strictly enforced and they rarely, if ever, bother to take note of their surroundings. These are all issues typical of stealth games, as they are designed with the intention of being playable rather than overly realistic. It is a flaw in its own right, but when compounded with a deficiency of any kind of difficulty progression, it turns the experience into one that is extremely pedestrian. By the halfway point, you realise that the actions you are performing are by-the-numbers; the purported depth is an illusion and that all you have is Hobson’s choice.

There is a considerable amount to be negative about in Arkane’s implementation of key advertised features, but it is easy to see why it has been so widely acclaimed since its release. What I see in Dishonored is a solidly functional game that has been universally overrated. What I also see is something that was similarly present in Sleeping Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Binary Domain and Mirror’s Edge: untapped potential. With Bethesda already going on the record as saying that they now see as Dishonored as a bankable franchise, there are very good odds that we’ll see a sequel that cleans up the issues that I’ve put forward in this article and perhaps then I will be able to love it.

Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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4 Comments

  1. I definitely agree with you on the lackluster story. Corvo&#039s lack of personality and pro-activeness, coupled with the one-note Loyalists, definitely left a lot to be desired.

    I can also see where you&#039re coming from with the powers. In a game like Legend of Zelda, you&#039re encouraged to use these as a regular part of your arsenal, and there are specific segments of the game built around them. In Dishonored, the abilities are never mandatory and are more &#039useful tools&#039 than anything else, which I can see some people turned off by.

    With all that being said, I still love Dishonored. A lot of this has to do with the way the various tools and abilities are balanced (besides the pistol), the large, open-ended levels, and the fact that the game never makes a habit of clearly laying out the paths to success. To me, Dishonored is a wonderfully intricate toy that begs to be explored and analyzed, and continues to show you new things on subsequent playthroughs.

    After playing the game again and having opened my eyes to more of the game&#039s issues, I regret not dropping my review score down to an 8.5, as was originally planned. Dishonored most certainly has its flaws, and I&#039m sad to hear you didn&#039t enjoy it all that much. Still, like you, I can definitely see the potential there, and even though I saw more of it realized/fulfilled than you did, I too look forward to an improved sequel with a better story.

    Also, I&#039ll be curious to know what you think of Hitman: Absolution should you decide to eventually play it. I was disappointed by it, but who knows? Maybe you&#039ll really enjoy it, creating what I shall then deem "the Michael-Damien reverse 2012 stealth game appraisal." XD

    Gosh, that was a long comment.

    1. Sadly, I just never really felt the same way once I&#039d gotten my bearings. But were I to play it again, I&#039d definitely try to challenge myself into using the other powers and perhaps taking a very lethal route to change the feeling of the game. It just never really felt that open-ended to me.

      As for Hitman: Absolution, I&#039d love to try it out but my time and money is so limited that it&#039s not going to happen any time soon.

  2. I definitely agree with you on the lackluster story. Corvo's lack of personality and pro-activeness, coupled with the one-note Loyalists, definitely left a lot to be desired.

    I can also see where you're coming from with the powers. In a game like Legend of Zelda, you're encouraged to use these as a regular part of your arsenal, and there are specific segments of the game built around them. In Dishonored, the abilities are never mandatory and are more 'useful tools' than anything else, which I can see some people turned off by.

    With all that being said, I still love Dishonored. A lot of this has to do with the way the various tools and abilities are balanced (besides the pistol), the large, open-ended levels, and the fact that the game never makes a habit of clearly laying out the paths to success. To me, Dishonored is a wonderfully intricate toy that begs to be explored and analyzed, and continues to show you new things on subsequent playthroughs.

    After playing the game again and having opened my eyes to more of the game's issues, I regret not dropping my review score down to an 8.5, as was originally planned. Dishonored most certainly has its flaws, and I'm sad to hear you didn't enjoy it all that much. Still, like you, I can definitely see the potential there, and even though I saw more of it realized/fulfilled than you did, I too look forward to an improved sequel with a better story.

    Also, I'll be curious to know what you think of Hitman: Absolution should you decide to eventually play it. I was disappointed by it, but who knows? Maybe you'll really enjoy it, creating what I shall then deem "the Michael-Damien reverse 2012 stealth game appraisal." XD

    Gosh, that was a long comment.

    1. Sadly, I just never really felt the same way once I'd gotten my bearings. But were I to play it again, I'd definitely try to challenge myself into using the other powers and perhaps taking a very lethal route to change the feeling of the game. It just never really felt that open-ended to me.

      As for Hitman: Absolution, I'd love to try it out but my time and money is so limited that it's not going to happen any time soon.

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