An uninspired narrative is overshadowed by a compelling setting and flexible gameplay in this excellent stealth action hybrid
The stealth genre has gone into recession in the last few years, with series which traditionally provided stealth focused gameplay now sliding towards the more widely appealing action side of the fence. Gone are the Theifs and Splinter Cells that not only encouraged but required you to lurk in shadows and strike swiftly and silently, alluding detection and achieving goals silently and cleanly. This dearth of proper stealth games has left a hole in the gaming market, as no other genre can offer the same blend of tension and breath-releasing relief as you plunk the resting body of an unconscious foe into a well-hidden nook in an intricate level.
While Dishonored is not a straight up stealth game like some of these classics, it can provide this experience. Dishonored attempts to follow the Deus Ex school of gameplay design by letting you choose how you want to play, and provides the tools for multiple play styles. While it isn't quite as flexible as a game like the original Deus Ex, Dishonored is largely successful in letting you play as you wish, a feat which has not been pulled off so successfully since last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Like Deus Ex HR, Dishonored gently encourages you to go the stealthy route, but it is entirely possible to play through the game in a decent variety of different ways. Non-lethal avoidance, silent-but-deadly assassinations, or balls-to-the wall, swash-buckling sword fighting and pistol dueling are all entirely possible and equally effective ways of getting through Dishonored.
An abandoned pub serves as the Loyalists' base of operations
The story of revenge that serves as a backdrop for your deadly (or non-deadly) shenanigans is fairly bland as far as revenge stories go. You, as Corvo, the lord-protectorate of the Empress, are framed for her murder and after escaping from prison are taken up by an organization of loyalists who realize your innocence and wish to dethrone the newly seated Lord Regent. The characters are well voiced, but most of them are flat and uninteresting without any real back-story, and it is difficult to become invested in the quest for revenge. The plot takes a few lazy, predictable twists as it unfolds, but the narrative is not what keeps you pushing forward.
Beneath the uninspired plot there is another, much more interesting story. This is the story of the fictional English whaling town of Dunwall that has been brought to its knees due to the near extinction of whales and a terrible plague spread by the infestation of rats. This is a town under the control of the corrupt and dictatorial new Lord Regent, where the sick are quarantined in filthy districts and the wealthy attend extravagant parties in luxurious mansions. To help the Loyalists you must visit both the upscale and the ugly parts of Dunwall, uncovering the story of the city, its inhabitants, politics, past and present through observation and reading books and letters found lying around. Not since Bioshock's Rapture has there been such a compelling and detailed original setting for a video game.
Rats can provide a permanent solution to your body-hiding woes
Near the start of the game you are given the option to unlock and upgrade a series of powers which will help you progress, although the means through which you get the powers is contrived and poorly explained. The default power you get is Blink, which lets you teleport short distances instantly. This power is extremely useful in almost all play styles as it allows you to bridge the gap between you and an enemy, escape quickly when an enemy notices you, or climb onto high ledges. Blink is prevalent throughout much of the game, and feels intuitive and natural once you get used to using it. It can be a bit finicky when trying to climb on to ledges, a problem which is compounded when you try and perform mid-air blinks onto ledges, but for the most part Blink is a great ability that helps set Dishonored's gameplay apart.