There are few games that can capture that feeling of being a predator stalking its prey, quite like Dishonored. While not my first experience with stealth games, it was the first one that made me see how open-ended they could be when they were done correctly. Experimentation, trial and error, and exploration should be key concepts of a good stealth game, and Dishonored puts these concepts on full display.
After finishing Dishonored 2 just the other week, I felt like revisiting Dishonored to help better compare the titles. I played Dishonored for the first time when it released in 2013, and I quickly became absorbed in its world. However, Dishonored 2 revealed a few things that made me want to pay extra attention to the little details this time around.
Dishonor and Retribution
I love the beginning of this game. Corvo has just returned from neighboring kingdoms in the hope of finding an ally that could help them with their plague situation. Upon returning to the castle, Emily runs up to Corvo and expresses how much she missed him. Corvo takes the time to play a little hide and seek with her, which also helps to serve as a brief introduction to the basic stealth mechanic. Then the two walk up toward Emily’s mother and current Empress, Jessamine Kaldwin.
On their short walk, Corvo passes several people who will play key roles in the coming story. At the peak of the walkway, we learn of the Empress’ frustration at the other kingdoms not being able to help with the plague.
Just as the three are getting reacquainted, assassins begin to teleport across a neighboring roof. Corvo draws his sword and fights but is ultimately overpowered by magic, and Jessamine is assassinated in front of Corvo before the assassins teleport off with Emily.
The Spymaster arrives on the scene to see that Jessamine is dead, Emily is missing, and Corvo is seemingly unharmed at the center of it. The blame is placed on Corvo, and he is arrested. However, we learn in the next scene that the Spymaster and a small group of fellow conspirators are the ones responsible for the assassination, and Corvo coming home early and being framed was a lucky bonus.
In just 15 minutes, we learn that the kingdom is facing issues, the Kaldwin’s are ultimately kind and benevolent leaders, but their kingdom is taken over anyway, and we are introduced to most of the important characters that we will be basing events of the games around. This is how an intro is done, and the player should already feel a great sense of frustration at having been blamed and the desire for retribution.
Corvo has become branded with dishonor but will do what he can to stay loyal to Emily. After escaping prison with the help of the loyalists, he is given some gear and becomes the main instrument in taking out key figures in this new administration while he searches for Emily.
I love everything about this, and seeing as this is the first in the series, it makes this beginning feel really tight and original. Dishonored 2 might copy a bit of the setup in its intro, but this first outing as Corvo feels so personal and is well told.
Playing this back to back with Dishonored 2, a lot of things stuck out to me during the event of the game. For instance, in Dishonored 2, Emily and Corvo will have voice-over narration in cutscenes and when facing certain story beats in game. That doesn’t happen in the first game. Instead, all key information is communicated through audio logs, other characters, and written information.
This written information is actually more important than I ever realized because there are some hints that would have led me to believe earlier that Corvo was Emily’s biological father. I always thought it was more of a father figure type relationship but Dishonored 2 showed me that I was wrong.
I feel like something this big should have been covered more explicitly, but it’s also pretty obvious by the ending that the developers never intended to make a second game, so it’s possible they never meant for it to be an important topic to cover.
Exploring and Planning Are Vital for Execution
Going back to these levels after Dishonored 2 was both disappointing and invigorating. I had forgotten how varied the non-lethal options for these targets could be, and some of them were pretty dark and even weird.
In one mission, for instance, we had to knock out a Lady at her own party and deliver her to a strange masked man who was going to keep her imprisoned forever as his secret love. I feel like this fate was worse than death, but the game thought otherwise.
While I enjoy the personality more in this game than in Dishonored 2, the level design is nowhere near the same level of intricate. Dishonored gives you plenty of options, but it could often feel like there were only two or three paths that would lead to a target and they were obviously broadcasted. On top of that, most of the options felt very much the same.
There’s little variation between levels where you will be climbing the same air vents and rooftops literally, with some sections of the game repeated more than I would have liked.
Skulking around as Corvo with sword drawn can feel really great as you scramble across rooftops and look for ways to surprise your next target. However, the powers are what really makes Dishonored the game that it is.
You can just use Blink and easily get through the game as it makes getting around so convenient, but using abilities like Dark Vision, where you can see enemies through walls, can add additional layers to the gameplay.
The best one by far (besides Blink) is Possession due to the level of creativity that it allows the player. You can take over animals like rats and go scouting through cracks in the walls, or you can take over enemies and make them fall to their deaths. These powers really help to add more ways to play this game that go beyond just the traditional assassin maneuverability, and it’s partly why this series is so beloved.
However, you need to make choices throughout this game. No matter what, the game will get dark tonally, but how dark is a matter of how much chaos you create in your efforts to return Emily to the throne. Low chaos will allow the game to be much easier in places as characters feel safe that Corvo won’t reach them, while in high chaos, you might need to break into a safe room to take out a target.
The environment can change as rats and guards increase in number as Corvo dispatches bodies. However, the most heartbreaking event is how Emily perceives these actions.
Much like Eleanor in BioShock 2, Emily will show you that she has been watching. She draws pictures and hangs them up in Corvo’s old room. In low chaos, Corvo will be maskless in these drawings, and there is a sense of hope, while in high chaos, Corvo wears a mask, and rats pervade all the images.
Dishonored can really make you feel the weight of your decisions, unlike many other games that simply add choice mechanics to be trendy. It’s also fairly easy to compare and contrast these events with its level select and stats pages, so I was able to go back and figure out exactly how to change my gameplay.
When It’s All Said and Done, Who Will You Be?
I enjoyed returning to Dishonored after all of this time, especially with my recent experiences with Dishonored 2. It made me see parts of the game in a new light and even notice some details (because I was searching desperately for them) that I had no idea were there.
I honestly think Dishonored 1 is much more enjoyable in the story department than Dishonored 2, and while I do appreciate the foundation that Dishonored set, the levels feel pretty barebones in comparison.
I would say about half of the locations in the game felt way too hand holdy, restricted, or even bland. Don’t get me wrong, these levels accomplish what they set out to do, but they are not nearly as creative or fun as the follow-up.
Now I realize this might be because of the proximity of playing 2, but I think it’s an important thing to consider when revisiting a game. How has it aged compared to its competition and its successors? Some levels felt more like filler or like that they didn’t have enough time devoted to them.
Also, now that I have played so much Dishonored this past month, I don’t think I enjoy the power progression that much. Runes and Bone Charms are spread across the levels and must be tracked down using a beating heart.
Runes allow you to purchase new abilities and upgrades, while the charms are like perks that boost existing abilities. Now it makes sense to encourage players to explore entire levels to get all of their abilities, but it can make progression tedious on repeat playthroughs. I wish there was a mix of how powers were obtained instead.
Running through a new playthrough means I need to hit all of these random places in the map that might be entirely out of the way for me for the run that I have in mind. That is if I want to have an assortment of powers. If I’m okay with only using Blink the entire playthrough, I can ignore everything, but where’s the fun in that?
But it’s not fun to play a collectathon every time I want to possess a rat. Having something like challenges that allow players to level up abilities instead of having to waste Runes might be a great workaround. I’m thinking something similar to how Wolfenstein: The New Order did it. That would have made it much less tedious to get around and have a decked-out arsenal of powers.
While Dishonored may not have as intricate and detailed of level design as its sequel, it offered a great foundation for the series to build off of. The story depicted here is one that, while not perfect, sets the stakes and motivations beautifully. There is a lot to uncover in this game and even more ways to play, so if you haven’t played yet, this is a great starting point.