Originally published on Trevor Trove on February 17, 2017
TL; DR(eview) – Dishonored is a great first-person action-adventure title with incredible level design. It provides players with a enjoyable set of tools to suit a variety of playthroughs but in the hypothetical scales of action versus stealth, the scales are a bit too tipped toward action with the set of stealth-focused tools under-represented. The DLC story content sets out to even the playing field by offering up additional stealth/non-lethal-centric weapons, which would lay the groundwork for the more balanced sequel.
This is an interesting retro review for me. After enjoying my time with Dishonored 2 enough to warrant three separate full playthroughs of the game, I decided to take advantage of the fact that Bethesda and Arkane included a code for the original game’s remaster with the “Day One” Edition and revisit one of 2012’s best games. Having just reviewed it’s sequel, it’s impossible not to play Dishonored again without looking at it through that lens. Given the changes made in the sequel compared to what exists in this initial entry, I’m fascinated by what Arkane identified for refinement as they decided to return to the world of Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin. It also reminded me of characters that appeared in this one and left me curious as to why they perhaps didn’t return in the sequel.
Dishonored tells the story of Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector of the Empress of Dunwall. Upon returning from an expedition around the kingdom in an attempt to recruit help dealing with Dunwall’s recent rat plague infestation, the Empress is attacked. Corvo is unable to thwart the assassination and the Empress’ daughter – and heir to the throne, Emily Kaldwin – is kidnapped. As the Assassin Daud and his henchman were able to magically teleport away from the scene, Corvo is discovered alone with the Empress’ body and thrown in prison for her murder.
Six months pass with Corvo in jail until, on the day before his scheduled execution, outside parties conspire to orchestrate his jailbreak. Corvo escapes through the sewers, where he meets a sailor named Samuel who ferries him to a cadre of Loyalists who have identified that the Royal Spymaster engineered the assassination and kidnapping and has used the event to elevate his own power. Determined to free the still “missing” Emily and restore her to the throne, these Loyalists – let by Admiral Havelock and a aristocratic politician Treavor Pendleton – have conspired to free Corvo as the sword and brawn to their brains. They begin providing Corvo with a series of targets to eliminate in the quest to discover Emily’s location and restore order to the Empire. One by one, Corvo infiltrates assorted areas of Dunwall to remove these targets from power in his efforts to restore young Emily to the throne.
The two sets of story DLC place you in the shoes of the assassin who killed the Empress, exploring what he was doing throughout the events of the core game and expanding on the universe of the game. The Assassin Daud has his own skills that are similar, but not identical, to Corvo’s. He is joined by an ally Billy Lurk, who serves as his second in command as they try to discover what other foul play is corrupting Dunwall, notably the Witch Delilah Copperspoon. Ultimately, these DLC stories, while short with only a few levels each, are still more of the same great gameplay and interesting story elements as the base game.
At its core, Dishonored offers an objective and a tool set to achieve that objective. The objective is virtually always “eliminate this target” and the tools are an assortment of weapons, powers, and environmental factors that allow for lethal and non-lethal actions. After playing through with both styles in Dishonored 2, I didn’t know if I would attempt the same here. When I originally played the game a few years ago, I believe I attempted a stealthier, non-lethal approach but lacked the patience to stick to it and eventually played somewhere in between. I remember exploring enough (and the trophies confirm it) to have completed the game with both the low- and high-chaos endings, but I did not attempt to go through the game without being detected or without killing anyone. I imagine it was something like my Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain experience: where I was sneaky until I wasn’t, then I killed anyone who saw me.
One issue with the original Dishonored, which is even more apparent after playing Dishonored 2, is that there are far more tools to support lethal action than there are to support non-lethal action.* Non-lethal tactics are pretty much limited to sneaking up behind someone and choking them out and sleep darts with Corvo’s crossbow. Meanwhile, regular and incendiary crossbow bolts, regular and explosive pistol bullets, regular and sticky grenades, the springrazor mine, and Corvo’s sword all fall in the lethal arsenal. Powers like Devouring Swarm (which will summon rats to attack an enemy) or Wind Blast (which can throw an enemy through the air with enough force to kill them), as well as the Drop Assassination technique allowing an insta-kill-from-above attack also skew lethal. This doesn’t detract from the game per se, it just makes it obscenely easy to play through the game lethally instead of non-lethally.
* Dishonored 2 would go on to create non-lethal analogs for a lot of these tools in order to balance the scales: a stun mine to mirror the springrazor one, the ability to knock someone out from above and not just kill them, and even the option to knockout an enemy once engaged in combat instead of only being able to kill them or flee. It still isn’t a one-for-one system with the pistol and grenades still being exclusively lethal, but it’s much closer.
That said, when it comes to the Key Targets featured in each level, the non-lethal methods are pretty much always more visually and narratively interesting than simply shooting them or stabbing them. For example, the first such target is the corrupt head of the game’s religious order: the Overseers. You CAN walk up to High Overseer Campbell and stab him (or even switch a poisoned-drink he has on hand for his own political enemy) but for me, the much more satisying approach comes from overhearing about the Heretic’s Brand, a tool used by the Overseers to cast out any of its members for disobeying the tenets of the order. Reading the instructions on how to administer the brand allow you the option of taking Campbell into a specialized chamber (after you’ve knocked him out) and branding his face with this mark. This act removes him from power, as it is actually against the laws of the order to even speak to someone so marked, without killing him.
As I said in my Dishonored 2 review, I’m a huge sucker for these kinds of revenge stories so the notion of taking everything away from someone like High Overseer Campbell and leaving him alive to suffer his fate is so much more satisfying than a simple knife to the throat.
Throughout each level, you can find hidden Runes, Bone Charms, and money to upgrade Corvo’s abilities and weapons. The Runes allow you to select from a handful of active and passive abilities (or upgrade those you’ve already obtained). Bone charms serve as gameplay perks. And the money can be used to purchase equipment and upgrade your gear with Piero at the Loyalist base when you visit between missions.
When playing non-lethally and full stealth, it almost felt like there really wasn’t much for me in the way of worthwhile abilities so I just stockpiled the Runes. This speaks to what I referred to above with the game favoring lethal skills (like the ability to disintegrate dead enemies so that nobody else will find them and be alerted). Bend Time, allowing you to slow or freeze time for a few seconds, is really the best skill in non-lethal, allowing you to move by enemies unseen. But with an overabundance of other weapons in a lethal playthrough, I only ever found myself exploring other powers to try them out. My weapon/power D-pad shortcuts were pretty much always locked to grenades, crossbows, and pistols.
Dishonored laid some excellent groundwork in its first outing. Ultimately a bit too underdesigned for non-lethal exploration compared to the plethora of lethal options at your fingertips, the game still finds joy in either approach.