Let me break the fourth wall for a moment and explain how glorious it is to be able to review something to break the string of increasingly obscure indie games I’ve been forced to turn to recently. While To The Moon was fantastic and Bit.Trip Core wasn’t, I was of the opinion that something that came in an actual box with a manual and press releases from the developers couldn’t possibly be difficult to talk about. I mean, why would they okay a complex game? They’d get sued! Oh how wrong Dishonored made me realise I was.
If you’ve ever wanted to play a combination of Fallout 3, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed, then firstly you’re probably an alternate history junkie and might be just as pleased with a game with the premise of ‘what if Hitler was a girl?’. For what it’s worth, Dishonored, which is after all published and overseen by the developers of Fallout 3, everyone’s favourite work of green-hazed apocalypse fiction of the last five years, does its level best to emulate the styles those games evoked; it just does them the wrong way around.
Fallout 3‘s appeal was in its atmosphere and freedom, Bioshock‘s in its narrative and aesthetic and Assassin’s Creed‘s in its fluid controls and creative level design. Unfortunately, Dishonored seems to have ended up with a combat system reminiscent of Fallout’s ‘swing wildly and pray you hit something fleshy before it hits you back’ approach and an aesthetic that looks like Eiji Aonuma went nuts and decided to go the gritty steampunk route with Skyward Sword, while stripping out the intuitive inventory system. The plot doesn’t make tremendous amounts of sense, although that might be as a result of the developer’s bloody-minded refusal to incorporate subtitles, something that’s desperately needed in a game where everyone talks like noir movie characters, meaning you need to be listening to it through megaphones duct taped to your head while sitting in a soundproofed room before it’s even vaguely comprehensible.
While the story of Corvo Attano, a former Lord Protector stripped of his title and imprisoned after being framed for the assassination of the Empress, might seem cliché, it’s a fairly good framework for the story that brings a certain Count of Monte Cristo bent to the otherwise Bioshock Infinite feel of the world. However, it’s a story of betrayal and redemption of a man caught in a plot much bigger than himself that we’ve all seen done before and better.
It would be remiss to tear this game apart mercilessly as a deadline looms without discussing its numerous good points. The stealth sections are frequent, but not so telegraphed as to make the player’s experience too easy and the wide-open areas with a single goal mean that genuine creativity is possible – will you avoid the guards, stealthily sneak up and knock them out, or charge in, sword drawn, and eviscerate them wholesale? It really is your choice and it’s a range of play styles that modern gaming has depressingly taken away from us.
It’s not without flaws, namely that it’s often hit-or-miss whether the quick assassinations that revolve around dropping from above or popping up from behind will work properly or just result in fall damage and a vicious scrap on the ground, which is done no favours by the finicky first-person perspective that makes timing and awareness of surroundings a more difficult task than it ought to be. There’s also no perceptible difference between knocking the enemies out and killing them, besides the disadvantage that guards will freak out if they find their comrades taking a nap in a corner instead of being easily disposed of by chucking their corpse off a bridge. However, it’s still thrilling to leap out at a target as they turn a corner and stuff them in an otherwise abandoned room before returning to dispose of their mates.
The game also missed the chance to embrace a fighting style similar to that of Mirror’s Edge, with sword strikes and blocks expanded upon with the use of jumps, kicks and other momentum-based blows to throw your foes off balance. The level design is actually pretty reminiscent of that game, and would in fact be far better if it borrowed more heavily from it.
The soundtrack is particularly nice, with a lot of ambient sound to compliment the lovely soundtrack, but then again I’m a sucker for haunting cyber/steampunk tunes. It all fits rather nicely with the visual design of the game, which while lacking in polygon count and texture quality is at least fairly consistent and striking, with a great awareness of colour range and vibrancy that we don’t see often enough in our world of grey-brown military shooters. It rather puts one in mind of Ragnar Tornquist’s The Longest Journey, quite possibly the last great adventure game of the 20th century and one of the few to have pulled off 3D well.
Dishonored suffers from the same problem as many other games in that it’s a fantastic concept with an unfortunately lackluster execution. However, I’d probably recommend it anyway, because it’s so unique you’d be missing out if you didn’t play it even taking its flaws into account. We need more originality in games, and by not encouraging games that do take risks we end up with bland, safe, committee-designed games with no soul or artistic vision, something that Dishonored has in spades. To encourage people on review-aggregate websites to buy this game, to encourage the advancement of gaming as an art form and (most importantly) to express my own disdain for numerical review scores, I’m going to give Dishonored an approving, ‘encouraging failure’ score of 8/10.
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