Dishonored is a steampunk assassin simulator by French developer Arkane Studios whose previous work includes Arx Fatalis and Bioshock 2, here teamed up with publisher Bethesda (Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3) and creative co-director Harvey Smith (Cybermage, Deus Ex, System Shock). All this sounds too good to be true, but amazingly the game lives up to its impressive pedigree. Dishonored is hands down the best stealth/action RPG I’ve played since the great 2000 classics Deus Ex and Thief II: The Metal Age, clearly outclassing the two uneven Deus Ex sequels and even the relatively solid Thief: Deadly Shadows.
So as not to end this review on a negative note, let me first discuss the one (and only one!) thing about Dishonored that didn’t quite work out. There is a “chaos” meta-narrative whose outcome you determine not by explicit choice, but by emphasizing in each mission either lethal (i.e. murdering everyone) or non-lethal means (i.e. knocking out or bypassing enemies). This seems like a clever idea but the implementation has several problems.
The knock-out option doesn’t seem to work very well for chaos reduction. I finished a mission where I knew that I had rendered most enemies unconscious, yet the final tally showed most as killed. What happened? Unless the game is outright buggy, I suspect that marauding rat swarms devoured my helpless victims when I wasn’t looking. (Rats feature prominently in the game world.) The only counter-measure is to carefully deposit each unconscious body in one of the few rat-safe places, rather than just dragging it out of sight. That would make for a lot of tedious detours!
Avoiding both killing (which directly increases chaos) and knocking out enemies (which is unreliable or impractical) obsoletes all of your destructive skills and gadgets, which is a shame since they are highly entertaining. Your character is also a skilled fighter with no in-game disincentive against violence, unlike Garrett in the Thief series. All this makes the “low chaos” route less of a narrative choice than an extra difficulty level for experienced players. I expect that most people who start out trying to play Thief-style will eventually give up and just murder everyone in their first playthrough. It’s much simpler, and you won’t miss out on half the gameplay mechanics.
The progress of the chaos meta-narrative is delivered through the game’s worst writing and voice-acting, which is otherwise of a very high standard. A supernatural mentor provides mostly vague and inane comments on your actions, while another character turns outright schizophrenic when he switches from generic to high-chaos dialog. Conversely, the story’s big turning point and subsequent events make a very awkward fit for the low-chaos narrative, and the final mission begs for player choices which exist in other missions (and other RPGs) but are now absent since events are predetermined by the meta-narrative.
This design gaffe is rather unfortunate, but the rest of the game is excellent enough to make up for it. Dishonored is a triumph of aesthetics and level design, comparable only to the Thief series. The electric steampunk technology looks wonderfully sinister yet realistic, blending effortlessly with the environment’s quasi-Victorian art and architecture. Character designs neatly avoid the uncanny valley with an expressive stylized cartoon look, the best I have yet seen in a video game. The levels strike exactly the right balance of realistic size and structure without becoming tedious, and multiple approaches without becoming ridiculous (e.g. giant air ducts everywhere). There is a generous supply of easter eggs in the form of unexpected information and conversations, sometimes weaving independent story threads throughout the game.
The combat system is perhaps not jaw-dropping but very solid. Remarkably, there are no mandatory boss fights. Two unusually powerful late-game enemies might qualify as bosses, but their powers are not unique and both fights can be entirely avoided. The quasi-magical skills you can obtain may look terribly overpowered in preview videos, but surprisingly this is not the case. Dishonored features a twist on the partially-refilling health meter: your health and “mana” pools both refill automatically over time, but only by a small amount. Expending too much at once, or multiple times in quick succession, will leave them permanently drained until you restore them with rare potions. A skilful combination of mana expense, duration and cooldown timers renders your skills impressively powerful yet never game-breaking. Even the loot system is precisely balanced, with just the right amount of resources and useful things to spend them on.
My total play time according to Steam was 24 hours, with plenty of reloading. Perhaps not too long but I always prefer compact high-quality content over repetitive padding, and Dishonored richly rewards taking your time and exploring everything. One final tip: talk to everyone repeatedly whenever you get the chance, until the conversation prompt disappears! There’s a wealth of situational dialog you don’t want to miss. And remember to equip the heart (you’ll know it when you have it) and use it repeatedly in every new level, to hear what it has to tell you.