The Knife of Dunwall’s defining characteristic is confidence. Confidence in its setting, the world that Arkane created with Dishonored. Confidence in you, the player, and your ability to navigate increasingly dense and dangerous levels that are as unforgiving as anything in the core game. Confidence in itself, in being able to break free from its predecessor and pursue a story with a character whose fate we already know.
From the outset, we understand that our character, the assassin Daud, is doomed. His godlike patron, The Outsider, tells him as much in the opening scene. He cannot escape what his assassination of Empress Kaldwin has set in motion, and it will be the end of him. But is he damned as well as doomed? It is possible, in this powerful expansion to one of last year’s best games, to find some redemption in the twilight of a long and bloody career. But you still have to face Dunwall.
“Right now I see a man walking a tightrope over a sea of blood and filth. The Empress is dead, and the water is rising.” - The Outsider, to Daud
Daud’s final quest is a Macguffin: he must find out what he can about a woman named Delilah. It’s a testament to The Knife of Dunwall’s storytelling that I overlooked the shaky motivations and implications behind this wild goose chase and still became invested in the missions and the decisions Daud must make along the way. Even by the end of The Knife of Dunwall, I still wasn’t really sure why Delilah mattered. It’s not really the point: Daud’s crisis of conscience is the real stake here.
Daud, a gifted killer with a band of assassins behind him, is not simply a Corvo clone. He may not be able to possess people like Corvo could, but he can summon assassins into battle alongside him and freeze time as he uses his blink ability. These are not huge differences, but they don’t have to be. Daud is both novel and familiar, a good protagonist for a game like this.
That combination of novelty and familiarity extends to the missions, which include some new locations in Dunwall that more firmly establish the city’s history and character. Dishonored showed the mysterious power of whale oil and how the inventor Sokolov was radically reshaping the world; here we see the ugly sources of that power. As Daud investigates a whale processing plant, you’ll find cruel experiments, see the bloody and dehumanizing work of butchering the whales, and get caught up in a deadly labor strike.
The levels themselves are not just dense with detail, but also opportunities and challenges. I probably spent about nine or ten hours on The Knife of Dunwall, lingering over each mission and scouring them for secrets and clues. On the first mission, after a long and painstaking infiltration, I realized I’d come about seventy-five yards in forty minutes. I’d been so intent on my task, and the dangers were so numerous, that crossing a wall and a factory yard had felt like a journey of a hundred miles.
It was in that factory, as I watched a union-busting Butcher carve up another worker with a circular power saw, that I lost my resolve to turn over a new leaf. I’d wanted to do a clean run, to play Daud like someone who really has lost his taste for bloodshed as he lives with his guilt over murdering the Empress and kidnapping her daughter.