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Arkane Studios is one of my favorite developers of recent years. As a relatively small French company, they've had the advantage of being able to make few, high-quality titles in the last decade, from Arx Fatalis, a sort of spiritual success of Ultima Underworld, to Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, a swashbuckling adventure with the best first-person melee combat of just about any game ever made. But it was Dishonored, their latest title, that resonated most with me, thanks to its blend of Deus Ex- and Thief-style gameplay.
With The Knife of Dunwall, Arkane have revisited the Dishonored universe to tell the story of Daud, the leader of a group of assassins who were responsible for some key events in the original story. Taking up the tale of a character who we didn't get to learn much about the first time around has given Dishonored a fresh feel, with some modified weaponry, occult powers and a different personality to tap into. At $10 USD, and offering 3-5 hours of gameplay and some decent replayability, is this downloadable add-on a must-have, or a waste of time?
Story & Setting
The Knife of Dunwall is effectively a parallel side-story to Dishonored, though the actual interaction with that original story is quite limited. Daud, who assassinated Empress Kaldwin and kick-started Corvo's story in Dishonored, is filled with regret and self-doubt at his lifetime of killing, making him a sympathetic character that we only caught glimpses of the first time around. Daud finds himself visited by the Outsider, the ambiguous "trickster god" of Dishonored's world, and is tasked with solving a mystery before his inevitable death, given only the name "Delilah" to go on.
From there, you'll play as Daud to investigate a handful of new locations and fight on your own turf in the Flooded District, reused from the original campaigns. Daud's story takes you to a slaughterhouse where whale oil is harvested from the still-living creatures, to the city's closed-off, well-protected legal district. Your reasons for going from place to place aren't fueled by the promise of money or revenge, but unraveling the Outsider's cryptic messages and following connections between people and events one-by-one.
Unfortunately, I found the story, at least what was on offer, rather weak. Dishonored didn't have the most memorable cast of characters ever, but it did have the benefit of time to flesh them out over the whole game; in The Knife of Dunwall, it's hard to care about Daud's allies or the rest of the cast, who are little more than transitory mission objectives. The closest you get to a real personality is Billie Lurk, an apprentice of Daud's who shadows himduring the missions and provides some commentary; she shows up for scripted sequences and doesn't actually help in gameplay, and even her character really can't be said to be anything more than "mildly cynical". The best moments instead come in small poignant scenes found while exploring, and in reading notes left behind by the residents of the city.
Although there are only three missions, there are actually four all-new maps to explore, as each mission is split across two sections. These new areas are just as large, if not larger than any of the levels seen in the original game, so this actually works out to a fair amount of content. Each of these levels, in the spirit of the original game, has lots of little hidden areas to explore, optional side-quests which will often help you complete the main objectives, and of course, plenty of collectable Runes and Bone Charms to find. These new locations don't look especially different, as they're mostly built out of the same art assets seen in the original game, but they are used to good effect, with some visually striking and atmospheric scenes to come across. There are also dozens of new books to find, complete with extensive, sometimes very lengthy and interesting lore entries, that are sure to please those who are interested in Dishonored's world and back-story.
The Chaos mechanic makes a return as well, with your choice in how to complete missions and your body count influencing whether you send the world into a High Chaos or Low Chaos state. The influence of Chaos does not seem to be as big as in the original game; I didn't notice any different objectives or more difficult enemies present playing on High Chaos. However, some dialogue sequences and cutscenes do change a little bit, so there is still some reason to play through the story twice. As The Knife of Dunwall's story ends in a cliffhanger, to be continued in an upcoming add-on, perhaps it's Arkane's intent to have Chaos make more of a difference in the next chapter. Unfortunately, this also means the sudden ending to The Knife of Dunwall leaves you with more questions than answers, but not necessarily wanting more thanks to the drab, one-dimensional characters and lack of interesting stakes.
The biggest gameplay changes to be found in The Knife of Dunwall come in the form of some tweaked powers and new weapons to play with. The most obvious change is that Daud has had his powers re-configured and modified slightly from those available in the original game. The most unique is by far the ability to summon in Daud's assassin underlings, which come in very helpful as a means of staging distractions and taking out troublesome enemies - they're useful both for stealth- and combat-oriented play-styles. Other changes to the available powers see Dark Vision replaced with Void Gaze, which fills the role of the Heart from Dishonored, and Blink now freezes time while targeting, allowing for more precision use of it, especially when jumping or falling. It was my fear the modified Blink would make the game too easy, but in practice it doesn't give much of an extra advantage.
The range of new items covers several bases. Some are cosmetic, like Daud wielding a "wristbow" instead of Corvo's standard hand-held mini-crossbow. More, however, fill the gaps in Dishonored's non-combat inventory. My favorite is the Chokedust, a grenade item that causes anyone nearby to start hacking and coughing for a few seconds, allowing you to slip by unnoticed or set up an ambush. There's also Stun Mines, which are useful both for covering your back and taking out patrols indirectly. Arc Mines round out the new additions, and they fill the same role of Springrazor Traps in the original game, but have the added benefit of not leaving any blood and body parts behind when used, instead zapping their targets to dust. I like these new items quite a bit, but with a relatively short campaign to use them in, it's also hard to gain full appreciation for them.
It wouldn't be worth talking about The Knife of Dunwall without mentioning tweaks to the AI and level design. One major problem with Dishonored was that the Blink power was often so useful that it trivialized stealth in certain parts of the game. In The Knife of Dunwall, it seems Arkane Studios are aware of this, and as a result, most of the environments have had much of their vertical space laid out better. Where it was possible to Blink atop lampposts and completely avoid guards just a few feet below you in the original campaign, now your options for both stalking your prey and escaping pursuit are more limited. Instead, vertical options are more useful for planning your assault and traversing areas. This in turn has the effect of making patrolling guards more dangerous, as it's more difficult to single out enemies without the others nearby noticing. It's a positive change and does a lot to help make Blink's use less exploitative, and more situational and exploration-driven.
Last, one addition that seems inspired by Thief is the inclusion of "favors". These are effectively small modifiers on missions which require you to pay some money before hopping into each one. In theory these are a great idea - for example, paying a little extra for a code to a safe - but in practice they are a bit uninspired. Favors only show up in two of the three missions, and it's only on the first mission where they are really interesting. Specifically, you get the option to perform some sabotage on a building without setting off its alarms, making your job easier. But, all the others simply amount to more loot - you're basically just paying for an extra Bone Charm or Rune to be placed somewhere in the level. It's a great idea, and it's also a big disappointment that there aren't more options, like coughing up the coin to bribe away an enemy patrol, or have a normally locked door opened for you.
Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall is a well-put-together downloadable add-on that doesn't make drastic changes to the game, but it does give a fresh spin on what was already a robust set of mechanics. The best part of Dishonored, for me, came in both exploring the open-ended levels and finding new ways to get past obstacles, and Arkane has done well to add more tools of the trade to make this more fun. Improvements to level design also mean that the levels seen in The Knife of Dunwall are arguably more fun to play, and challenging, than any in the original campaign.
However, it's impossible to fully recommend The Knife of Dunwall without a big caveat: the fact is that the story is not that interesting, and that playing as the head of an assassin guild just doesn't have the intrigue you'd expect. It's at once entertaining and a bit different, yet also impossible to shake the feeling it's half-finished. It's very clear that the story is meant to be continued in another downloadable, but that also means this one is left feeling somewhat unsatisfying, and I can't help but wish that Arkane had delayed it further, releasing the whole story at once.
So long as the weak story doesn't bother you, and you're looking for more Dishonored doing what Dishonored did well, then it's definitely worth a look. Now, if only Arkane would patch these new additions and tweaks into the original campaign...