A honed blade
Crouching on the rooftop of a dilapidated building in the whale oil-fuelled Victorian dystopia of Dunwall, I felt like I had never left. I’d cleared the name of Corvo Attano, saved a child who would become an Empress, and freed a city from the clutches of mad men and despots, but here I was again, leaping from ledges, slitting throats, and doing the work of the Outsider.
The Knife of Dunwall is neither a revolution or a reinvention — it is simply more Dishonored. Whether that’s a good thing or something less desirable really depends on how you feel about Arkane’s first-person stealth game.
It will also likely depend on the way you played the original. With Dishonored, the developers attempted to craft a title that could be experienced as an action game or a stealth game, though I think that the latter made for the most compelling romp. The Knife of Dunwall, however, is not something that should be raced through, sword raised, guns blazing. Though there are more than ample opportunities for a bit of mayhem if that’s your cup of tea.
Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall (PC [Reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release: April 16, 2013
The clock has been reset, and Dunwall is once more under the oppressive heel of the Lord Regent, Empress Kaldwin is recently deceased, and Corvo Attano is wanted for her murder. The real murderer, the veteran assassin Daud, takes center stage in this bloody drama.
The Knife of Dunwall eschews the silent protagonist of its predecessor, giving Daud a voice in the form of gravel-throated Michael Madsen. I was not a fan of keeping Corvo mute throughout the original game, not merely because of the dissonance created by having people constantly talking to someone who never so much as utters a word, but also because it simply made him a frustratingly boring protagonist.
So, on paper, having a more chatty assassin seemed like a wonderful idea. It is a shame, then, that Daud is almost as bland as Corvo. He feels bad about killing the late Empress (sort of), and is seeking redemption for her murder (sort of), and he does this by embarking on a convoluted investigation into a woman called Delilah that sees him assassinating a whole bunch of people.
The narrative is far from gripping, and the lip service paid to themes like guilt and redemption are at odds with the murderous nature of Daud. Of course, much like its forebearer, the entire three-mission piece of DLC can be completed without murdering anyone, but unlike Corvo, Daud is a genuine assassin, and The Knife of Dunwall always seems like it leans more towards high chaos — in great part due to the amount of enemies and their patterns.
Foes are rarely by themselves, and when I spotted a solitary guard, he’d usually have a chum (or four) right around the corner, waiting to jump out at the most inopportune time. The Shadow Kill perk, which makes a welcome return, was my best friend, turning dead bodies to ash and allowing me to continue my murderous activities without alerting the veritable army of enemies.
There’s a lot more urgency in The Knife of Dunwall, with harder-to-predict patrols making hiding an unconscious body a nerve-wracking affair, and close calls punctuated the whole experience with great frequency. I tried to use non-lethal approaches as much as I could, but I’d often find myself in situations where I’d be taking a huge risk by not permanently dispatching someone.
I recall one attempt I made to find an appropriate nook to hide a slumbering chap that ended in a significant amount of bloodshed. I was making past some boxes, looking for a good place to dump my snoring friend, when no less than three guards walked around the corner.
I chucked the body aside, unfortunately dropping it over a rail and into the river, and blinked up onto the boxes above my foes. The new blink mechanic is rather delightful, stopping time entirely when you are standing still to allow for plenty of time to analyze the situation. From my spot atop the crates, I summoned a friendly assassin — another of Daud’s special abilities — and managed to drop all three guards with bolts launched from my wrist-mounted crossbow as they struggled to deal with my swirling, vanishing ally.
I could have dealt with these party crashers in a completely different fashion, mind you. If I’d been feeling less like sticking around, for instance, I could have blinked away, leaving one of Sokolov’s ingenious ark mines behind as a little present. The guards would have inevitably given chase, and found themselves reduced to nothing more than ash on the ground, as the mine shot out fatal streaks of electricity.
Even when painting my blade with the blood of my foes, I never stopped trying to be a stealthy assassin. All three of the sprawling levels must have been designed by those familiar with staying out of sight, as they are laden with secret routes, high perches, and underground passages. Sneaking through a tunnel drenched in the blood of tortured whales might allow Daud to completely avoid a confrontation, while blinking up onto a walkway puts him in a perfect position to take dangerous foes out from afar, or even drop on top of them, blade first, before they can react.
It is entirely possible to run through each mission in an almost straight line, slicing flesh, firing off bullets and bolts, and launching grenades with wild abandon, but to do so would ignore most of the DLC. Bone charms and runes return, there’s a lot of new reading material for those with an appetite for Dishonored‘s rich lore, and little touches that breathe life into the world litter every level. Truly exploring each area can take up to six hours or more, but turning it into a blood-drenched sprint warps it into a half-hour-long, less-satisfying experience.
While The Knife of Dunwall‘s missions may not reach the heights of the Boyle’s masquerade or the Golden Cat, the first mission — which sheds more light on Dunwall’s grisly whaling industry — is undoubtedly one of the best designed game-spaces in both the DLC and game proper. It both encapsulates what makes Dishonored such a delight to play and introduces a few new things, including the horrific Butchers — a particularly nasty enemy who requires a wee bit more thought that most to dispatch.
The new protagonist and plot may have been underwhelming — and completely unfinished until Arkane releases the next piece of DLC — but I’m less disappointed due to the polished gameplay. Daud has less tricks than Corvo, and damn do I miss the talking heart, but it all goes towards making The Knife of Dunwall a more focused package.
Solving puzzles by silently watching guards, figuring out who to dispatch and when; uncovering new paths when you find your progress blocked by criss-crossing guard patrols; and being able to adapt to increasingly challenging encounters lie at the core of the experience, not the narrative or plethora of powers. Dunwall also remains an intriguing place, filled with mystery and character, even if this particular yarn isn’t all that interesting.
After finishing Dishonored I wanted more, and The Knife of Dunwall gives me exactly that. Hell, at moments I even completely forgot that I was no longer playing Corvo, as both he and Daud do play in generally the same way. The promise of more DLC has me excited, if not to finish Daud’s adventure, then to explore more of this detailed world, and embark on more devilishly challenging assassinations.