Platform: PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Stealth FPS RPG
Price: $29.99 GOTY
Dishonored is an example of how well executed world building can team up with solid gameplay and make a game memorable despite a paper thin story and cardboard characters. It's also an excellent example of how limitations can spur creativity.
The limitation in question is the fact that Dishonored was one of the last games to be designed for the Xbox360 and the PS3. Despite being released in 2012, a time when most gaming PC's were equipped with at least 8 gig of RAM, it had to run on creekingly antique hardware that had, in the PS3's case, a mere 256 megabytes of RAM (that's about 62 times less RAM than a gaming PC of the day). The CPU and GPU of the Xbox360 and PS3 were similarly underpowered, being around 16 times less powerful than 2012's processors.
All of which meant that Dishonored should have looked awful by modern standards, built on obviously low poly models and with textures that made everything look either cartoonish or muddy.
In reality, Dishonored was strikingly beautiful and still stands out as one of the better looking recent games. How?
By taking the limits of the systems to heart and building a visual look that would work well inside those limits and fit the world as presented. Dishonored abandoned any attempt for photorealism and embraced a style that made it look as if the player had stepped into an old oil painting. It meshed perfectly with the world they were presenting, and the tone of the story. Rather than being muddy, Dishonored is muted, rather than being blocky it is simple. All of which helps to convey the mood of the world, and helps mask the gaping void where an entertaining and well plotted story should have been.
The single best thing about Dishonored is the world building, the setting is lovingly crafted, you get the impression of a world that goes well beyond the borders of the game. Even, or perhaps especially, the minor characters seem to fit and have a story and life larger than their role in the game. This is helped by mostly above average (and occasionally excellent) voice acting and music.
The gentle Cthulhuoid monstrosities so casually referred to as "whales", the religion that has been based almost entirely around opposition to what is apparently the only source of genuine magic in the world, the dying city, and the technology which is wholly based on "whale" oil (to say nothing of the torture involved in extracting it), all fit together beautifully and mesh with the hints of the larger world beyond Dunwall with each element reinforcing the mood of the setting and story. Even the costumes, in so many games largely ignored leaving characters dumped into costumes that either don't fit the setting or are taken straight from history and break immersion, reflect a thoughtful design influenced by, but not bound by, actual historic costumes.
Even better, for the most part the game gets out of your way and allows you to enjoy the world by having a well done interface. I can't speak for how it played on a console, but on the PC the controls were smooth and didn't intrude into the game beyond the absolute minimum.
All of which is good, because without such a well developed world, mood, and interface, the game would have had to rely on the characters and story, and it would have been largely forgotten if it had.
Apparently having expended all of their creative energies on the world, the developers at Arkane seemed to have little left for the main characters and the plot. The plot is a bog standard revenge tale motivated by the worn out and tired trope of the dead love interest and/or kidnapped love interest. Arkane decided to go with both: a dead lover and a kidnapped daughter.
Corvo is, say it with me everyone, a grizzled male silent protagonist. Someone must have spent a full minute or two thinking that one up. Like all grizzled male silent protagonists, he needs a shave, has a scar or two, and is ruggedly handsome in a brooding sort of way. Yeah, just like the dozens, if not hundreds, of other grizzled male silent protagonists you've played. They broke the mold a bit, rather than a buzz or shaved head, he's got tousled dark hair, but eh.
Most of the other major characters slot neatly into well worn tropes. There's the socially awkward genius engineer, here's the politically ambitious general, and look over there is the corrupt aristocrat complete with the loyal servant. The open villains are similarly shopworn, and when the inevitable betrayal plot element comes up it is with a long expected inevitability that couldn't have been more blatantly telegraphed if they'd actually telegraphed it. You have to wonder if perhaps Corvo just isn't all that bright since he apparently didn't see it coming.
For the most part, the beautifully realized and executed world, the tight gameplay, and the pacing of the game help to keep you sufficiently distracted that you don't (much) notice how the plot is so well worn that you knew it by heart from the first scene, or that the characters are all made of cardboard.
There are a few exceptions, Emily doesn't fit easily into any established princess trope, for example. And despite being a bit unoriginal, the Outsider is just too awesome not to love.
If the plot and characters had been given even a tenth of the attention that was given to the setting, the game as a whole could have been so much better.
There's a degree of improvement in the DLC. Daud gets a bit more fleshed out, though he's still rather shallow, but Billie Lurk is actually a good character, and while Delilah Copperspoon isn't all that original, nor is her plot, she's got a bit of zip and manages to avoid the worst of the femme fatale tropes that could have caged her in and made her more boring.
So here's to hoping that in Dishonored 2 they spend a bit more time on plot and character, and have the same attention to detail and world building that went into the first. If Dishonored 2 manages to keep the good stuff from Dishonored and include better characters and plot, it'd be worth an A.