A wrongly accused warrior seeks revenge with help from a sword and aggressive vermin in the stealthy first-person adventure Dishonored (Bethesda Softworks and Arkane Studios, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated Mature, $59.99).
A creepy, emotional story takes the player through the late 17th century-inspired fictional industrial city of Dunwall, now under an oppressive regime of Lord Regent Hiram Burrows after the murder of its beloved Empress Jessamine Kaldwin.
Within a land ravaged by plague, twinged by the mystical, fueled by whale oil and suffocated by religious dogma, a solo gamer takes on the role of the empress' former bodyguard, the part-time assassin Corvo Attano who is accused of her death.
His escape from prison to search for the empress' kidnapped daughter and root out the conspirators takes the role-playing fan on missions around the city as this masked avenger (Dr. Doom would envy his face covering).
To touch on the complexity of assignments, let's take the case of eliminating the High Overseer Thaddeus Campbell holed up in his heavily guarded compound.
I sneaked in through a drain pipe to the main mansion, past the kennels, quietly killing low-level overseers through the use of a crossbow bolt and folding blade. I orchestrated his demise by poisoning wine and watched him die before throwing his body behind a screen to not alert his guards.
While his city watch officer Captain Curnow was stunned and looking on in disbelief, I simply shot him with a sleep dart and, as requested by the caring daughter, carried and place Mr. Curnow in a safe spot (a trash bin outside the gates of the compound) to live another day and hopefully align with the loyalists.
I actually then went back into the now-on-high alert compound to find the high overseer's secret room and pilfer its riches.
For those who prefer the ways of violence, they will find themselves deep in the bloodied carcasses of foes, often skewed and or decapitated by the point of Corvo's sword, diced by his use of the diabolic spring-razor traps (proximity mines), shot point-blank range or chewed to bits by an ever-burgeoning rat population.
Watching the voracious pack of pests devour the flesh off bodies (stay far away or also become a victim) is a hypnotic as well as truly disturbing experience.
The gruesome choices by the player increases his chaos ranking and guarantees more evil spreads, such as more encounters with the eye-bleeding, toxic-goo-puking Weepers, across Dunwall.
Amidst teleporting assassins, sharp-toothed hounds, fire-spitting thugs, flesh-and-bone dissolving Walls of Light, acid-spitting river krusts and armored guards perched atop tall mechanical legs, our hero executes his assassinations, plans his escapes and fights for survival.
A player also can take an easier route to complete any mission by simply using the sewers, waterways, rooftops and extreme stealth paths to get past most enemies, even sneaking up behind them and applying a knock-out chokehold to avoid confrontation.
Intriguing characters help and hinder Corvo along the way and send him on side jobs to keep the player satisfyingly busy and never bored within the somber, multipathed storylines.
For example, Granny Rags needs help poisoning the distillery with infected rat viscera (rewards are plenty), rescue the merchant Griff from the Bottle Street Gang to purchase items or free prisoners to learn the combination of a safe and collect some cash.
Role play requires balancing health, mana (magic power) and munitions (from incendiary bullets to sticky grenades). It extends to collecting voluminous amounts of stuff to sell on the black market (including rare paintings), coins to purchase goods and morsels to eat (a tin of brined hagfish or rotten Tyrian pear anyone?) and books and notes to read, hidden all over locations.
Most intriguing is using a mechanical beating heart that acts as a bizarre tracker to uncover rare rune artifacts or bone charms that unlock and enhance Corvo's selection of supernatural powers.
These abilities are a delight for fans of the macabre and include conjuring a grisly swarm of rats, possession of enemies (imagine the potential for mayhem there), short-distance teleportation, time stopping, dark vision (X-ray powers embellished with haunting voices) and a powerful windblast.
Top-notch voice acting combines with a character design reminiscent of sequential-art painter Dan Brereton's work and London-inspired steampunk architecture and gadgetry to bring the action to life.
Dishonored delivers a welcomed variety of experimentation and depth tied to Corvo's cinematic salvation and plight. In the finest traditions of Bioshock, Assassin's Creed and Deus Ex, it allows a player to exist in an evolving fantasy universe that's more addictive than the famed Hound Pits Pub's pickled quail eggs.
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