I'm meant to be playing a cold, calculating murderer -- a man who assassinated an empress and gave her innocent daughter to traitors. So why am I hiding atop a broken chandelier, a mess of tightly wound nerves and sweat? Because I pissed off a witch, that's why. A whole coven of witches, actually. And they are hunting me down, not like nervous gang members searching for a ghost, but like predatory animals.
The Brigmore Witches, Dishonored's second expansion, might begin mere hours after The Knife of Dunwall ends, but it's a different beast. The horror that existed on the peripheries of the previous outings is now center stage, and with it comes greater challenges while peeling back the layers of Dunwall and the surrounding isles, revealing its darkest elements. This is Dishonored at its very best.
Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release: August 13, 2013
The Knife of Dunwall's slightly contrived tale of a broken assassin attempting to atone for his heinous acts was surprisingly impersonal. Daud's not very charismatic, helped little by Michael Madsen's half-hearted vocal talents, and while his investigation into the mysterious painter known as Delilah was a good excuse for lots of wonderful stealth and murder, it wasn't in the least bit gripping.
The Brigmore Witches immediately fixes this with its sharp focus: Daud's out for revenge. There's still a lot of nonsense about atoning for past sins, but playing in high chaos like I was, there's little forgiveness to be found or earned. Instead it's a hunt for Delilah. She who caused Daud's protégé to betray her master. We're still dallying in the realm of clichés, but it's one that doesn't come with the baggage of dissonance.
The first of the three missions sees Daud sneak into Coldridge Prison, not long after Corvo's escape. What could have so easily been a regurgitated level manages to be entirely fresh, and Arkane use it to expertly showcase the features that make The Brigmore Witches stand out from both the core game and its sister DLC.
Favors remain, introduced in The Knife of Dunwall, and continue to completely change the dynamic of a mission. For a fairly small amount of gold, Daud's able to get his hands on an Overseer disguise, and makes it into Coldridge right through the front door, unimpeded. None of the intensity provided by slowly sneaking into the imposing prison is lost, as Daud's instructed to stick to only a small part of the facility, and there's always that sense that he's going to be discovered.
Goodies locked away behind bars, like gold or elixirs, are a splendid excuse to use Daud's new power. A simple ability gifted to him by the Outsider, allowing the master murderer to pull items towards him. Upgraded, it can even snare people, leaving them vulnerable to a killing blow from Daud's bloodied knife.
Coldridge is on edge after Corvo's escape. The guards are meaner, more paranoid; the river has been drained, stopping anyone from leaping off the bridge; and those considered responsible for letting the Lord Protector slip through the grasp of the Lord Regent are about to be executed. It's the smallest of the three missions, but it does the best job of connecting the old with the new.
It is in Drapers Ward, the textile and seamstress district making up the second act, where most of Brigmore takes place. Canals, sewers, once glamorous streets now filled with detritus and crumbling buildings, factories, and a dock collide, making it by far the most diverse location. A savage gang war is tearing the place apart, with the dapper, top hat-wearing Hatters on one side, and the Dead Eel smugglers on the other.
While criminals paint the streets red with blood, Daud prowls above them. They fight amongst themselves, against the hungry rats, and like all the enemies in both expansions, they patrol erratically, making them tricky bastards to predict. Initially, both gangs will attack Daud on sight, but a side is taken, and deals are struck.
Where The Knife of Dunwall fleshed out the grisly whaling industry, Brigmore gives depth to Dunwall's criminal element and its textile industry. There's plenty of history to be devoured, all of it interesting, despite textiles not normally conjuring up exciting images. It's a history of oppression, and a fall from grace that revealed the true face of one of the city's most popular districts. The criminals are just more open about being criminals now.
Dark, claustrophobic tunnels sit beneath towering apartments and wide open spaces, demanding players switch strategies to tackle the varied geography of this slice of Dunwall. Options are plentiful, with additional objectives, side-missions, secrets, and puzzles making the ward a content-rich space. A quest from Granny Rags involving a corpse wedding, locked safes and homes, the opportunity to eradicate a whole section of the city in one fell swoop -- there's plenty to keep Daud busy.
Even while exploring a prison filled with mechanical security systems and the one-time heart of the textile industry, magic flows throughout The Brigmore Witches. Runes and bone charms return, of course, giving Daud new abilities or upgraded old ones, but with them comes corrupted charms. Made from broken bits and pieces of other charms or put together by amateurs, they do not work as intended. A charm designed to make its owner's attacks stronger also makes said attacks slower, while another gives the wearer preternatural speed at the cost of hardiness.
Frankly, they are a bit crap. Daud's a pretty deadly fellow as it is, so they payoff isn't really worth the negative side effects. There are so many regular bone charms (especially if you're using a save from Knife of Dunwall, letting you keep all the ones you found in the earlier DLC) that there's simply no reason to cripple yourself unless you want a bit of extra challenge.
It's a missed opportunity. There are a few books and accounts of these corrupted charms scattered throughout the maps, and there's a huge difference between those being described and those Daud finds. One charm apparently made its bearer able to deflect attack as if he wore armor, but every time he was struck, one of his teeth would turn black and fall out. Another account describes a man purchasing a charm that would allow him to dream of a night spent with the object of his affections, but instead fed him nightmares where he saw her sleep with every single one of his enemies. I would have loved to see a more creative application of these dark objects, but instead they provide some minor buffs and debuffs.
Elsewhere, magic is more deftly handled. The eponymous witches are bloody horrifying. Decaying women consumed by magic and nature, they fight with powers similar to Daud's, but with greater intensity. Blinking in and out of existence, they viscously stab and slice, before vanishing only to appear far away, where they start to shriek like banshees, assaulting Daud with their screams.
Deadly and unpredictable on their own, these harridans are unfortunately rarely alone. In the once beautiful and now dilapidated Brigmore Manor, the setting of The Brigmore Witches' final act, they not only tend to patrol in groups, but are flanked by hellish mutts that will hunt their quarry to the ends of the earth. What both Dishonored and The Knife of Dunwall sorely lacked were truly threatening antagonists. The Brigmore Witches is not so hampered.
Daud's final mission is undoubtedly his most challenging. I confess that I'm glad I was going for a high-chaos run, as staying hidden from this army of eldrich women and avoiding all conflict would be a tall order -- though it's one I will endeavour to attempt somewhere down the line.
It is only in the final moments where I felt let down by The Brigmore Witches. A shaky, humdrum "boss" confrontation that throws stealth and planning out the window, and then an epilogue that flies in the face of my own experiences in Dishonored felt tacked on, but they fail to mar an otherwise superb expansion.
All I really wanted was more Dishonored, but what I got was something that surpasses it. Intricate level design, nuanced worldbuilding, and gameplay that demands a thoughtful approach even when resulting in flashy, bloody violence -- The Brigmore Witches is setting the bar very high for future stealth romps.