Playing Dishonored instills a strange mix of vulnerability and strength, where I’m given a superhero’s ability set but feel like I’m always one mistake away from death. Errors are severely punished by aggressive enemies, and because powers are tied to a limited mana resource, they can’t be spammed. I can’t simply blanket an area with rats. I can’t use my wind blast ability to repeatedly knock aside any that stand in my way. I need to be careful about timing, precision, and chaining abilities together in an effective manner.
Exploration is also rewarded. Opportunities for discovery are all over Dishonored’s fictional city of Dunwall, where a plague eats away at the poor and hardens the insularity of the ruling class. When I fled to the rooftops, for instance, I found an open window that led to a porch where a nervous looking man gripped the railing. I snuck up and choked him, then pulled a special item from a nearby pile of junk that I could use to augment my abilities.
There aren’t a huge number of abilities in Dishonored, and each can be leveled in ways that not only strengthen but alter functionality. The possession ability initially allows me to inhabit the bodies of rats and fish, sometimes to escape, sometimes to squeeze through small spaces to access alternate paths to guarded structures or enter otherwise locked treasure rooms. With an upgrade to the ability I can possess humans. Though the possession time isn’t long, that means I can more easily disrupt a patrol path or walk a guard to his doom. The wind blast ability initially knocks down enemies and shatters doors, but after an upgrade it can actually kill foes by slamming them into walls. By combining these active abilities with the different weapon types and passive enhancements, it seems like the number of ways to solve problems will only increase further on in the game, ideally leading to some outstanding climactic missions.
My mission in this particular instance was to infiltrate a party at a mansion and take out a target named Lady Boyle. Unfortunately three at the party shared the name, so another part of my mission was to discover the proper target. First I accessed the facility by blinking through an open hole in a sewer grate and breaking into the mansion’s basement. Then I reloaded and blinked over the front gate, where I plucked a fallen party invite from the ground and handed it to the guard, who promptly led me inside.
This mansion’s courtyard and interior were not hostile spaces – in fact most at the party seemed happy to see me and impressed with my menacing outfit. It was a costume party where all wore masks, which ranged from subtly unsettling to outright bizarre. One particularly uptight partygoer wore a full-head whale mask, and the woman he was talking to wore a moth mask complete with pluming antennae. When he left she turned to me and asked for a drink. I went back to the buffet table across which was laid a colossal glistening fish gutted open and steaming and scooped a cup of cider out of a fountain. She thanked me and in return revealed the identities of two of the Boyle ladies wandering around the party in identical outfits. I snuck upstairs past a guard and plucked a note from a desk to uncover the identity of the true target.
I didn’t have to do any of that. I could have walked into the mansion and shot the first innocent I saw. I could have moved between the rest of the terrified revelers and snatched their coin purses while slashing at any guards who got in the way. I could have tried to kill everything in the building instead of investigate. When I eventually did attack, the fights proved to be fast and unforgiving. Enemies shot guns and blocked and dodged and did seemingly everything they could to avoid taking damage while continuing to deal it.
A particularly striking element of the scene was how Arkane was able to hide threats in plain sight. Several characters standing around the party held what looked like sci-fi accordions and I assumed they were there to provide entertainment. But as soon as I plunged my sword into a guard’s neck they started playing and generated an anti-magic field that inhibited my abilities. Suddenly they’re the biggest threat in the room, whereas moments before they seemed a perfectly fitting part of the backdrop. Tricks like that work because Arkane built such a densely detailed dinner scene where everything seemed to be in the right place and appropriately extravagant.
Dishonored is so exciting to me not only because it rewards creative gameplay, but because so much care was clearly taken to build a place with enough layers and moving pieces to give it a curious plausibility, to make it seem like every time you push it pushes right back.