Dishonored: The Greatest of Flawed Games

Joe DeClara

The sequel to Arkane Studios’ sleeper hit Dishonored has been officially set for release this November, and the excitement is palpable here at ScreenWatchers. With Mass Effect and Zelda: Wii U officially vacating this year’s roster and whispers of other games like Horizon: Zero Dawn joining them my enthusiasm for this holiday season was beginning to dwindle. But these delays were a blessing in disguise, making way for what might very well be my most anticipated game this console generation.

We first saw Dishonored 2 in the form of a concept trailer last year at Bethesda’s pre-E3 conference. Though it was exciting to see the return of Corvo, the Outsider, and Emily Kaldwin, along with some new gadgets and abilities, my excitement for this game mostly derives from the love I have for its predecessor.

I will be first to admit it; Dishonored is a flawed game. The game features insanely fun mechanics and abilities in a variety of well designed open-ended levels; but its story pans out predictably from middle to end, its graphical fidelity is sub-par compared to contemporaries, the silent protagonist once again comes off as boringly obedient and stupid, and every stealth game crux from easily manipulated AI to “must’ve been the wind” is present and accounted for. But some of the other popular criticisms actually lend to what makes this game so fascinating.

A more critical review of Arkane Studios' stealth-action game.

Many have criticized the game’s mechanical bias for violence, despite its advertised focus on agency. And it’s true; though you can get through the entire game without as much as scratching an NPC, Corvo’s arsenal of deadly weapons and demonic abilities eclipses his little pouch of sleep darts throughout the entire campaign. Every time I opened up my weapon wheel, the pallet of grenades, crossbows, exploding bullets, devouring rat swarms and springrazor traps proved too enticing for me to ignore. And let’s be real, Arkane - you put a sword in my right hand with no option to swap it out, and you have the unmitigated gall to tell me I’m not supposed to kill everything that moves? Not a likely disposition for the modern gamer to take the high road.

And that was exactly the point; Dishonored is meant to be played violently...at first. Everything is set up for you; a blind witch offering you powerups in exchange for murder, a supergenius offering you tons of fun toys for murdering, and a scatological playground littered with guards and other evident jerks begging for a well-deserved murderfest. But most importantly, right on the back of the box are the words which fuel your murderous rage: “revenge solves everything.”

All of this heavy-handed incitement starts at the plot’s launchpad; the assassination of the Lady Empress. Though Arkane Studios claimed Dishonored was  “as violent as [the player] chooses,” this mandatory scene earns the game’s M rating all on its own. The shock from helplessly watching Daud slay the empress in such brutal (and moderately male-dominant) fashion swiftly justifies any manner of violence required to exact revenge. Follow that up with some false incrimination and torture, and those grisly rat-summoning powers start looking mighty righteous.

Again, the devs are very aware of this. They know that as these villains try to extort a guilty plea from Corvo, all you’re thinking about is how to best carve out their innards. And they do not disappoint; throughout the next five missions, every sad sap who ever crossed you is offered up for butchering in spectacular fashion. Slice them, gas them, feed them to the hounds - all is fair in bringing justice to these perfidious usurpers.

But what about the guards? Surely, these non-playable characters are little more than glorified bullies, graciously doing your adversaries’ bidding. And that Bottle St. Gang? A bunch of crooks, clearly worth no more than the air they breath; the world is better off without them. Plus those evangelicals, the Overseers, who clearly work for High Overseer Campbell. And the plague victims - well, they’re suffering anyway....

And on and on it goes. As the player, our mind has been trained to immediately dismiss our enemies as soulless goons who must be brought to a quick death (and let’s be real; this is the norm). Arkane Studios uses this to their advantage and even arranges scenarios wherein the player’s instinctive assumptions might be justified. Many of the guards in Dunwall can be found performing inhumane acts, like throwing rats into electric fences or cracking jokes while dumping bodies into the sea. With most of the city dead and only the scum left alive, it’s easy to dismiss Dunwall’s inhabitants as little more than fodder for your new toys and tricks.

Unfortunately, you are sorely mistaken. For every body-dumper and rat-tormentor, there are innocents. Besides the more obvious victims like citizens, maids and prostitutes (again, a very male-dominant game), players may also happen upon guards and other hostile characters whose conversations reveal details about their families, their insecurities - one guard even discusses his plans of marriage with one of the maids. Of course, one may discover these signs of humanity only provided they don’t instantly slaughter everything that moves upon entering a room. However, even if your fell rage cannot be stifled, you may still catch a guard cursing your criminal acts; “the man you killed was a friend of mine,” and “you’ve made someone a widow, damn you,” are two that stuck with me on my first playthrough.

Throughout the game, these signs of your cruelty become increasingly apparent, though not always through direct repercussions. Some are subtle; certain scripted events will play out differently depending on your chaos level (how many people you’ve killed), some of which having no apparent connection with your storyline. (embed video of overseer)

Other signs are more noticeable and even have an effect on the gameplay. Most notably, the rats swarming the streets of Dunwall become more abundant with the more corpses you leave in your wake. Rats may only be a minor challenge to work around, but their increased presence adds to the dismal ambience of Dishonored.

All of this culminates in a final mission wherein Corvo must both bring justice to his betrayers and rescue the late empress’s daughter. Suddenly, all of your misdeeds stare you back in the face through the eyes of an innocent child. Arkane’s big fat finger wagging disapprovingly. The credits role. Thank you for playing Dishonored, you murderous git.

I can only speak for myself, but at this moment in my first playthrough of the game I was deeply conflicted with how I had left this world. I had come into a city that was all but ruined and had somehow managed to damage it further. Blinded by rage and a thirst for vengeance, I had repaid my misfortunes sevenfold, destroying the land which I once protected. I was a monster.

So I played the game again. And with that second playthrough, the true beauty of Dishonored revealed itself to me. I killed no one...or at least, no one that deserved it. The rats dissipated, the skies cleared, and all my non-playable companions addressed me with less trepidation and more reverence. All was right and dandy in my plague-ridden town.

But it wasn’t easy. As always, every time I pulled up that weapon wheel, those toys and tricks seemed to sing like sirens, enticing me to regress. Though the game is certainly difficult when attempting a zero-chaos run, the true challenge of Dishonored lies in maintaining the discipline needed to ward off our player instincts and choosing not to kill. With this in mind, I'm almost worried for the sequel, fearful that it may only succeed in chasing the dragon that was my first journey in Dunwall. We'll find out in November!