Version tested: Xbox 360
I never really got to appreciate the game over screens of Dishonored in my first couple of playthroughs, where ghosting through the towering squalor of Dunwall was as effortless as it was, more frequently, clumsy. There's an uneasy intimacy I have with them now, though. I think over the few hours of The Knife of Dunwall, the first truly substantial DLC for Arkane's 2012 wonder, I spent more time staring at their austere, swirling art cursing my luck or stupidity than I did exploring the strange new locations the standalone campaign presents.
This expansion is, to put it less than politely, bastard hard. Where there'd be one guard patrolling a perimeter in Corvo's campaign, here there'll be four - and where there'd be one solitary walker, here there are mobs of armoured butchers wielding hulking buzzsaws that spit out painful sparks. Progress is a case of trial and many errors that can push the playtime well beyond five hours, but, as ever, once you stumble across your own solution, it's delicious. The Knife of Dunwall is effectively just more Dishonored, and that of course is a very good thing.
The Knife of Dunwall runs parallel to Dishonored's main tale, placing you in the soft leather boots of Daud, the master assassin who plotted Corvo's downfall and who killed Empress Kaldwin. Daud's story starts in that ornate gazebo where Corvo's fate was set in motion, before taking its own path across three missions that are set to be concluded with a second instalment later this year.
There are similarities between the two protagonists, of course, but The Knife of Dunwall does well to define itself with a litany of subtle differences. Daud's a slightly blunter tool than Corvo, and his skillset pushes you towards high chaos and a pile of corpses. A couple of his new powers are awkward analogues at first - the ability to summon assassins by your side initially feels like a less satisfying alternative to the devouring swarm, while the heart is replaced by a new vision mode that's nowhere near as smart - but they eventually settle into their own vicious groove.
His blink ability has been retooled slightly, allowing you to teleport mid-air, but it's Daud's grisly gadgets that steal the show. Arc Mines act like little pocket walls of light, disintegrating anyone unfortunate enough to step in their path, while Chokedust grenades churn up clouds of dust that provide perfect cover for you and any allies you may have summoned to clean up quickly.
If it's never quite as entertaining as Corvo's campaign - the omission of powers such as possession that favour a more stealthy approach certainly smarts - it's at least entertaining enough to experiment with the new toys, and to see Dunwall through Daud's eyes. But the new perspective is slightly underplayed. Michael Madsen's performance as Daud at first promises to explore the conflict within an assassin who eventually expresses regret over the consequences of his actions, but it's only ever fleetingly returned to. It is, perhaps, something that will play a larger part in the second half of Daud's story, but right now it's a far from satisfying part of The Knife of Dunwall's make-up.
Not that it matters too much, because it's Dunwall once again that's the star, and any fresh opportunity to explore its sprawling majesty is a welcome one. Of The Knife of Dunwall's three missions, the last is a retread of a location found in the original game, the second a slightly over-familiar remix, but it's the first that warrants the price of admission.
The Rothwild Slaughterhouse is a fine creation, and one that's as worthy as The Golden Cat or any of Dishonored's other highlights. Cast in orange early evening light, it's an impossibly tall warehouse that's been caught in the throes of a heavy-handed industrial dispute, allowing you to pick through the debris as some of Dunwall's extremes clash together.
As a play space it's thrillingly wide, a courtyard coursed with clumsy pipework and littered with ribbed corpses funneling into a central building that can be explored through high walkways or through sticky sewers. There's a centrepiece that's worth discovering for yourself, and all around it are a handful of little stories playing out that you're free to lend your hand to or to just casually observe.
It's all that's great about Dishonored, essentially, a subtly tweaked and well fleshed out return to the dirty streets of Dunwall, and its handful of shortcomings and taste for blood over stealth are never really enough to stop it from being essential.
8 / 10