Dishonored review: Story-driven role-playing

By John Keefer, Oct 07, 2012 9:01pm PDT

The challenge for a developer creating a game is to build a bond with the player, the kind of bond where the player as protagonist not only believes in the mission of his alter ego, but cares about the characters in the game on an emotional level. The story is the essence of any good RPG, and the developer must allow the player to feel the character's anger, frustration, joy or any of the myriad emotions through that story. A great RPG builds a trust with the player and demands that role-playing be the game.

And for that reason, Arkane Studios' Dishonored is a great RPG. My emotions drove my style of game play as the bodyguard Corvo, falsely accused of killing a beloved Empress and my friend. I started with the mindset that clearing my name was secondary to finding those that killed her and kidnapped her daughter, the future monarch that I had watched grow up in my time as their bodyguard. I began play in a non-lethal fashion, fully unaware that what I was about to experience went well beyond the traditional point-and-click RPGs.

Many RPGs rely on an arbitrary experience point system to get you skills that are eventually theory-crafted to death to create the best build to take down the big bad boss at the end. Dishonored is quite content to let you play without any powers or modified gear. I could have conceivably finished the game using stealth and my wits and be no stronger than when I started. You do not start the game with powers, as the Outsider comes early in the game to bestow the ability to learn them. To gain these supernatural powers, you must find runes, with a certain number of runes required to "buy" a power. Perhaps the most useful is blink, which allows you to teleport a short distance in any direction. Why kill 10 enemies when you can blink up to a ledge and go around them? Bone charms can also be found, which give you minor abilities such as increased mana or health. You can even upgrade your gear at the end of a mission if you find enough money along the way.

This is one of Dishonored main strengths. The concept of abilities and game mechanics do not get in the way of the story or experience. Items you find along the way -- health potions, crossbow bolts, or even coins -- are essentially a bonus that makes any given mission easier to complete. You do not need any of them. What you do need is a creativity and a cleverness to circumvent the obstacles thrown at you and Dishonored gives you numerous ways to do that if you are patient enough to find them. Even listening to the idle banter of guards or the locals can give you clues to accomplishing tasks.

Make no mistake, though: Dishonored is an unforgiving game, and you need to save often. The AI is incredibly intelligent. Leaving a body in plain sight will alert other guards. Noises or even your footsteps can put guards in a greater state of awareness, forcing you to hide for a while until things settle down. Distraction and misdirection are your friend here and the sooner you get into that mentality, the easier a mission can be. The intelligence of the guards and the general populace makes for a much more believable role-playing experience.

All of this ties back into the experience. At every turn, I found myself trying to elude discovery. At times I wasn't successful, forcing myself to kill the city guard. I actually felt remorse in the beginning, because my goal was non-lethal. But as the story evolved, and the key pieces of the depth of Dunwall's corruption became clearer, I could feel my anger rise. The non-lethal approach wasn't as important anymore, and I was creating chaos wherever I went. I wanted my enemies to be afraid of me, and Dishonored plans for that. The more chaos I created, the more guards there were, and the more obstacles I had to overcome. About half-way through the story, I was leaving bodies everywhere, and I knew I was making things more difficult for myself, but I didn't care. The story that Arkane has crafted – with various twists that constantly had me on my guard – had me so invested in saving the Empress's daughter that I cared about nothing else, or anyone that stood in my way, friend or foe.

There were even instances where I did not kill intended targets if leaving them alive would humiliate them more. Near the end of the game, I had a character tell me that he didn't like what I had become and he planned to warn people of my approach. I killed my one-time friend before he could. I had become that ruthless. I'm sure that, if I had stuck to my original plan of non-lethality, the scene would have played differently, but again, I didn’t care.

This is not a way I usually play this type of game, mind you. I am almost always the lawful do-gooder that tries to do the right thing by everybody, including the bad guys. But there was something about the way the story was presented that changed all that. A game that can make you alter your traditional style of play is the essence of role-playing, forcing you to come to grips with the morality of your actions and admitting it didn't matter because the stakes were too high.

Granted, the game is not without its flaws. There are a couple of back-to-back missions mid-game that offer little guidance on what you should do or where you should go, and it is easy to get lost. It was the one time in the game where I dropped out of character and became frustrated. There are no maps that help you locate where you are. As good as the story is, and as prevalent as information is for back story and local flavor via books and journals littered throughout missions, there are a few plot points that could have used a bit more explanation.

But minor flaws aside, by the time the end credits rolled, I was emotionally exhausted and simultaneously stunned that a game could change the way I have always played. Dishonored is that rare game that takes the best of suspense novels and action movies and crafts them into the interactive experience. There is no need for number crunching or debates over ideal character builds. It is role-playing at its story-driven finest and Arkane has created a formula worth emulating.


This Dishonored review was based on a digital PC version of the game provided by the publisher.

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