Readers may want to read my original posts about Dishonored first, and optionally, if spoilers are not a concern, my recent Death Before Dishonor series. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
After revisiting Dishonored for the epic saga of Death Before Dishonor, in which I played through the game (twice!) without falling back on saved games to get me out of trouble, I’m finally trying out the story DLCs, which I’ve never played before. The first of these is The Knife of Dunwall, and is notable for having a different protagonist. No longer will I play as Corvo Attano, the silent and rather boring hero of Dishonored. This time, I walk in the shoes of the mysterious Daud, the shadowy assassin who plays an important role in Corvo’s story.
While Death Before Dishonor was full of spoilers, I’m going back to my usual minimal spoiler policy for this, since it’s the first time I’ve ever written about the DLC.
Back when I first wrote about Dishonored, I discussed how much it reminded me of the Thief games, which may well be my favorite games ever. As I continued to play, Dishonored established its own identity, but it still owes an undeniable debt to those classics. In The Knife of Dunwall, the debt becomes even more explicit through the character of Daud. One of the reasons that Corvo was disappointing as a protagonist is that his silent, bland character pales in comparison to Garrett, the star of the Thief games, who is one of the best characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of controlling. Garrett’s voiced introductions to each mission in the Thief games are highlights, expertly establishing his character, dropping bits of detail about the City and its denizens, and setting the tone and atmosphere of the games.
The Knife of Dunwall jettisons the explorable home base area between missions from the main game, in favor of voiced mission introductions from Daud himself. These are clear homages to the Thief series, and they are great. Unlike Corvo, who is thrust into his role of assassin by circumstance, Daud has been an assassin for years, operating among the criminal underbelly of the city of Dunwall. Immediately, this begs comparisons to Garrett, who is already an infamous master thief by the time players take control, and Daud’s jaded narration only underscores this further. It’s also just as effective as the intros from Thief. His first mission introduction alone was enough to make me feel I knew and understood Daud, how he operates, and what he wants. Granted, The Knife of Dunwall benefits from the fact that the base game already did the heavy lifting in terms of introducing the city of Dunwall and the wider world, but Daud actually feels like a part of Dunwall in a way that Corvo never did.
He also plays differently. Like Corvo, Daud can use the Outsider’s magical powers, but some of these are different. He lacks Corvo’s Possession ability, so he can’t temporarily take control of nearby animals or people, nor can he use Windblast to bowl over a pack of enemies. In their place, Daud gains the ability to summon one of his fellow assassins to help out in a fight, and Daud can invest runes towards empowering these assassins with Daud’s own magical abilities. Daud also has his own version of the Dark Vision power called Void Gaze, which pulls double duty, both spying on people through walls and locating the runes and bone charms which Corvo would instead locate with the Heart. The biggest difference in Daud’s powers, however, is the way his blink works: as long as Daud is not moving, time is frozen while he aims his blink.
This is a stroke of genius. The blink ability is the most iconic magic power in Dishonored, letting Corvo (and Daud) teleport short distances to move between cover, climb up buildings and scaffolding, infiltrate security systems, and get the drop on unsuspecting enemies. It’s an absolute joy to use, effortlessly zipping around Dishonored’s wonderful explorable spaces. But if Corvo’s enemies spotted him, blinking away became a frantic scramble, trying to aim a teleport while dodging pistol shots and sword swipes. I often used the Bend Time ability just to give me some breathing room while I plotted an escape. As Daud, there’s no need for that. If an enemy sees him, all he has to do is activate blink and he has all the time he needs to choose a destination, effectively vanishing before his pursuers’ very eyes. Daud can even pull off crazy maneuvers like jumping off buildings and activating blink in mid-air, freezing time while choosing a place to land. It’s awesome.
Overall, Daud’s abilities seem to push him more towards stealth rather than open conflict, which is in keeping with how he and his gang usually operate. Daud’s blink makes escape easy, and his summoned assassins can be used as distractions if necessary, or as valuable help when launching a surprise attack against a group of unsuspecting guards. Daud has an upgradeable wrist crossbow similar to Corvo’s miniature crossbow, but can only use a pistol if he loots one from his enemies, and he can never upgrade it. This further encourages silent attacks from the shadows rather than loud frontal assaults. After my murderous epilogue to Death Before Dishonor, I was happy to return to a stealthy, careful approach to the missions in The Knife of Dunwall.
I wondered if the DLC would be a prequel, but it is not. It begins exactly where the main game does, when Daud and Corvo first cross paths. Then it makes the same six-month time jump, before starting proper with events running parallel to Corvo’s story. I also expected to undertake assassination contracts, since that is how Daud and his gang make a living. But the story in The Knife of Dunwall is more personal. I assume the gang is handling contracts in the background, but Daud himself is investigating a mystery, hoping it can in some way assuage the guilt he’s begun to feel for his actions. He’s helped by one of his lieutenants, Billie Lurk, who occasionally blinks in to relay some scouting information or offer advice. This partially compensates for the lack of the Heart’s commentary on the current location, but is also thematically appropriate for Daud, who would of course rely on reconnaissance from his gang and go in better prepared than Corvo and his scrappy resistance group.
The missions are just as wonderfully designed as those in the base game, and offer a chance to explore more of Dunwall. There’s a whale slaughterhouse, the like of which players read about constantly in the main game but never got to visit, and a trip to the Legal District that offers a glimpse of how the wealthier Dunwall residents are weathering the plague. Daud even gets to meet the Hatters, a gang only hinted at in base game. Exploring these places as Daud, with his well established motivations and interesting power set, was perhaps even more fun than my forays as Corvo had been.
At the same time, however, it’s clear that The Knife of Dunwall is a smaller affair. The missions are great, but there are only a few of them, and they fall on the smaller end of the spectrum. There are no grand escapades to rival the Distillery District or Flooded District from Corvo’s adventure, and I also found my objectives were less clear. Dishonored offers a highly customizable user interface, and one of the first things I did while playing the base game was turn off the objective indicators, which constantly point the way to Corvo’s objective. These distracted from exploring the city, and it was always clear enough where Corvo needed to go without needing an explicit pointer. With Daud, however, the objectives tend to be vague, like “meet with Bille Lurk before leaving”, with no indication — other than the objective marker, presumably — where that’s supposed to happen. This left me wandering aimlessly a few times. Surely it would have been easy enough to add a few extra words, like “meet with Billie Lurk in the alley behind the building” or something?
Despite this shortcoming, the missions are rich in alternate pathways and flexible approaches. Players can even take a fully nonlethal route if they wish, although another thing I liked about playing as Daud is that I felt less pressure to do so. Corvo is ostensibly a bodyguard, only turned assassin out of necessity in his fight for justice, but Daud is a killer. Would he really bother with an elaborate nonlethal method of getting rid of someone, when it’s far simpler to just silence them permanently? Similarly, while infiltrating secure locations to get to his targets, Daud can knock out enemies with choke holds or sleep darts, but he can also just kill them silently from the shadows. And really, what’s to stop him? I decided to play mostly nonlethally, since I wasn’t on an official paid job, but there were times when I decided people needed to die. Overseers, who ruthlessly hunt Daud and his gang for practicing witchcraft, saw no mercy from me. On the other hand, sometimes I was incentivized to act nonlethally. I took that route with one of the main targets, because I met someone who paid me to do so. A contract’s a contract, after all.
The Knife of Dunwall is also clearly just the first part of the story, ending on a cliffhanger that will be concluded in the second story DLC, The Brigmore Witches. The end came sooner than I expected, but if The Brigmore Witches is of similar size, then Daud’s story won’t end up being that much shorter than Corvo’s in the end. I also appreciated how the final mission in The Knife of Dunwall not only connects to events in the main game, but mirrors them in pleasing ways. As in Corvo’s story, the passage of time is unclear; as Daud I heard news of Corvo’s exploits over the city’s PA system, but not as much as I expected. I think that, by the end of The Knife of Dunwall, Corvo should be the talk of the town, but I’ve yet to hear about the results of his missions like I did in the base game. Perhaps this is because those announcements respond to players’ choices as Corvo, and the writers didn’t want to assume anything here, but it’s a still a disappointment. Hearing about Corvo as I played would have really strengthened the connection between the two stories.
Overall, however, I really enjoyed The Knife of Dunwall. Its smaller scope means it can’t eclipse the base game, but Daud is a stronger protagonist, and some of the missions have more inspired design than Corvo’s. It’s well worth playing, and bodes well for the later Dishonored games. And indeed for The Brigmore Witches, which I intend to play next. Soon I’ll find out if the conclusion of Daud’s story is as good as the start. Stay tuned!