The streets of Dunwall are rat-infested and coarse. Their entirety is a weeping sore, brimming with boarded-up hovels, buzzing insects and discoloured corpse shrouds. This atmospheric prose perfectly captures the lifeblood of Dishonored, a game in which its essence remains firmly grafted to the dirt and smut of a fictionalised steam punk society. While its story is full of awkward voice acting, and some frankly tiresome character moments, the uninviting world that has been crafted here is truly one to behold. Not only are environments linked to an overarching universal narrative, but so is the gameplay, in which stealth mechanics and player actions can either impressively forestall an oncoming force of corruption, or send the world hurtling towards blood and madness.
The story within this land of vermin at first appears to be interesting, with its grubby hands delving into political conspiracy, unrighteous zealots and masked assassination, but instead, an over-simplistic and frankly dull plot mires the intrigue. You play as Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, who soon ventures into unemployment after Her Majesty is murdered carelessly in front of him. He is quickly framed by the regent ruling in her stead, and must work with a group of Loyalists of reinstate the rightful heir over the crumbling city of Dunwall by assassinating a number of corrupt public figures. Apart from one significant twist, that any capable player could spot from three miles off, the story trundles along without any exciting alterations. The objective at the beginning remains an unchanging variable, and the finale comes without surprise.
Characters also have a similar bout of lifelessness. Corvo sneaks through his journey without a voice to call his own, leading to one-sided and awkward interactions with others. Moments of heart-crushing emotion are quickly reduced to bland affairs through this inclusion of a silent, and therefore slightly outdated, protagonist. He isn’t the only wet fish amongst this bunch however. A series of well-known actors, such as Chloe Grace Moretz and Lena Hedley have been hired to bring the supporting characters of Dishonored to life, while failing to do so in fabulous style: their voices are tinged with monotony, and oddly unfitting American accents. Although their drabness may provide reminiscence of the game’s motif of death, they do little to bring colour or energy to the already shallow tale.
Thankfully, the all-embracing universe of Dishonored is a much more fascinating and comprehensive yarn than the personal struggles of Corvo and his bland brethren. Not only is the city of Dunwall an enticing, yet gruesome, locale, with a fantastic steam-powered design that is reminiscent of Victorian London, but it is also the site of a cause-and-effect system of death and destruction. The consequences of the Empress’s death have led to a damaging shower of events: electrical devices of control have been implemented throughout each labyrinthine quarter, Gestapo-esque Overseers have taken to torturing heretics, and rats are spreading a sickeningly dour disease amongst the poor and aristocratic alike. It is horrifying yet gripping to see the city falling apart brick by brick through a heavy amount of contextual storytelling. For example, the clever placement of experimental notes, decaying corpses and literal lab rats in the twisted home of Doctor Galvani paint the perfect portrait of a brilliant vivisectionist without actually having the character appear in any tangible form. Much like The Last of Us, Dishonored’s world comes alive through incremental, enriching titbits of narrative.
Not only does the world tell a story when left to its own devices, but it is also affected by player action. Dishonored’s first-person stealth can either be utilised to a precise and satisfying degree, or disregarded in a loud torrent of blood and decapitation. The arsenal of weapons and abilities available to Corvo, which are implemented in the two-handed weapon-wheel style of BioShock, encourage a variety of play styles. Guards may be trampled under a deluge of bullets or explosive crossbow bolts, or they may be silently dispatched with the hiss of a sleep dart; both tactics can be viable conclusions to any combat scenario, and can lead to an alteration in the state of Dunwall’s city streets.
If you prefer to sneak past enemies without a fuss, then an air of cleanliness shall sweep over the land, but if you share in the fandom of a mass murderer, then more bodies and rats will accumulate within the city’s already decrepit remains. Each approach has a downside but both are ultimately rewarding. Stealth is obviously more difficult, but it is able to preserve Corvo’s idyllic morality, resulting in a more affable ending. The latter technique, however, puts a series of horrifying obstacles in your way, attributable to an influx of plague, but can still provide a staggering amount of gold, ammo and items. Each method of play remains open and functional due to this contextually appropriate system of choice.
The Empire of the Isles is also connected to another realm known as the Void, in which the supernatural pervades. Mystical items made from the shards of dead whale bone have been able encapsulate magical energy from such a domain, and are available for Corvo to collect, in order to give him a series of entirely useful and upgradable abilities. Blink allows him to traverse short distances either horizontally or vertically; Dark Vision grants an aptitude to see items and adversaries through walls; and Devouring Swarm causes an infestation of rats, which can reduce a guard’s limp corpse to a fleshy mass in seconds, to materialise. While some of these are standard gaming fare, they allow for, yet again, greater choice when traversing environments or tackling difficult crowds of enemies.
Whether slathered in blood or neatly unblemished, Corvo’s jaunts around Dunwall are rewarding through a variety of environmental detail. A painted bathhouse drips with pink opulence and smut, a masquerade ball twinkles with a sparse decal of gold and white marble, poorer districts have ragged structures and green grime and decay, while the Overseers live in rich abodes plainly decorated with a Nazi-like austerity. These locations have been visually designed using a watercolour aesthetic that perfectly captures the fluidity of a city in motion, while also adhering to its culture of maritime lore. Each mission area has a number of paths accessible, that boast secret hideaways, safes and combinations, carefully placed vent ducts and sodden sewer systems, making Dunwall a perfect playground for the genre of stealth.
The visual style may be beautiful, but some close-up textures are often muddy and pixelated, no doubt due to the older tech used to craft the architecture of the 2012 original game. Animations are also clunky, and the characters portraying them have an ugly, chunky style to them that belongs solely to the canvas of a caricaturist.
This Definitive Edition also comes packaged with three expansions: a number of frustratingly tough combat and stealth challenges, as well as two bouts of story content where you play as the guilt-ridden assassin, Daud, from the main campaign. Both the Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches play in the exact same manner as previously stated, but also expand upon some interesting Dishonored lore that had been left lacking, such as the Dunwall whaling trade and its various street gangs. Daud, performed by a particularly dark Michael Madsen, is also a much more interesting protagonist than Corvo. His voice bestows an element of personality not present in the principal figure, and characterises him superbly as a tactical killer torn apart by conviction.
The story of Dishonored is composed of the same filth as the city itself, but thankfully, the fantasy world in which it is set has been enriched through a depiction of mass terror, and of great political and cultural ideas. These facets provide the backdrop to a stealth experience that allows for freedom of movement and character ability. It is a game of choices, and sublime horror; it is a game that exudes industrial and pestilent atmosphere from every corner of its magnificently crumbling edifice.
A wreck of a city, a heck of a game.
Dishonored: Definitive Edition's story may plead to be put down, but its world, stealth and atmosphere will be the ones holding the blade.