Thursday 30 November 2023

[BEYONDE] Thief: The Black Parade [NOW AVAILABLE]


The Black Parade

“In THE BLACK PARADE you play the character of Hume, a hardened

criminal who was sent into exile as a punishment for his crimes.

The year is 833. You are now back in The City, a sprawling metro-

polis of soot-caked brick, greasy fumes and noisy machinery, with

many a sinister conspiracy whispered behind closed doors. Lost and

without a penny to your name, you are back to your life of thievery

and must find your old associate Dahlquist. Shadows and silence are

your allies. Light is your enemy. Stealth and cunning are your tools.

... And the riches of others are yours for the taking.”

 Regular readers of the blog may know I am a Thief: The Dark Project fan – indeed, it is my favourite computer game of all time, and one I have made a handful of fan missions for. Thief, today 25 years old, is a rich, complex and challenging stealth game that combines tight gameplay with excellent level design and top-notch mood. It is also a game which holds a lot of interest for old-school gaming: its roots lie in trying to simulate an AD&D-style thief on the computer, and there is much you can learn about dungeon design, open-ended scenarios, and even city adventures by playing it. A small but active level design community exists around the game (AD&D adventure designer Anthony Huso was one of the early greats in the scene), and there has been a steady flow of user-made fan missions over the years, from very simple thieving scenarios to full mission packs. However, not since T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age (2005) has a campaign approaching the scope and quality of the original Dark Project been attempted, let alone completed. (Your truly had tried and failed with The Crucible of Omens, a never-ever for The Dark Mod, a Doom3-based Thief spinoff.)

Until now.

Dark Mysteries

The Black Parade is a new, full, ten-mission campaign that has been released for the game’s 25th anniversary, built over seven years by some of the best level designers in the scene, and made freely available for download. Set slightly before the events of The Dark Project, TBP focuses on the adventures of Hume, a former convict, as he becomes entangled in a dark plot concocted by forces beyond his control, and must use stealth and guile to survive and come out alive from the ordeal. The dark depths of Thief’s nameless City, a corrupt industrial metropolis, serve as the story’s locations: dimly lit streets, crumbling mansions inhabited by the idle rich, haunted crypts and thieves’ dens populated by the dregs of society. I had the privilege of beta-testing the pack (there were several rounds of testing by both old hands and new players), and I can report it is very much worth the trip.

Skullduggery and Deceit
The Black Parade spares no expense in constructing this world: the ten missions you will play through are sprawling, complex, and rich with detail. These are all open-ended, exploration-heavy missions offering multiple ways of achieving your objectives, built by a team who get Thief’s gameplay loop, but also know how to make missions that, while difficult, are never unfair or needlessly obscure. (They are a step up from TDP, but that is to be expected.) They are rich in navigation-oriented challenges (verticality, waterways, obscure entrances and hidden byways), tense stealth situations (from dodging patrols and sometimes security systems to shadowing a lone figure through the City’s streets), and careful decision-making between stealth and exposure. The missions, although connected by a joint plot and a dedication to superb quality, are very varied in theme and approach: the hands of multiple authors with different design styles are visible, but so is the refinement that comes from teamwork. These are all interesting, high-quality missions, and there are two in the lineup I rank among the very best ever made.

Corrupted Splendour

But the excellence of The Black Parade goes beyond level design (although that is the most important element). The campaign comes with well-animated cutscenes between missions; numerous new voice lines, textures and objects; new AI types (including some once considered impossible) and game mechanics. Many previous fan missions have done one or a few of these; but very rarely all, and never at this level of quality. In all cases, the updates to The Dark Project extend the original game while remaining entirely faithful to its mood and style: at no point does something stick out like a sore thumb. Thief has always been heavy on the mood, and this campaign pack returns to that level of quality, while taking advantage of the technical advances which allow a 1999 game to transcend the limits of its antediluvian engine and quirky level editor (as the quote from one of the original devs, goes, “Once upon a time, not only would DromEd crash, but it would go out and kill your family afterwards”). In its consciously low-poly architecture and grainy textures – no ill-advised attempt has been to make this look like a mid-2000s experience – The Black Parade builds scenes of labyrinthine complexity and deep SOVL.

A Labyrinthine Plot

This is also one of those rare mods that takes writing seriously: the main story was meticulously plotted before the levels entered the building phase, and the levels were then filled with fragments of readable texts, environmental storytelling, AI conversations and the evolving objectives Hume will face during the course of the missions. Although the writing quality tends to be high in the Thief level design community, this is a standout even by those standards. While the cutscenes convey the main plot, much in gameplay is information you need to piece together on your own – from clues that will help you reach your objectives, avoid deadly hazards or find carefully hidden loot; to pieces which reveal more about the surrounding world in an unobtrusive way.

Strange Perspectives

There is much more that could be written about The Black Parade, and I suspect it will be widely discussed in the following weeks and months. For now, though, this introduction should suffice. You can download the campaign here. A trailer, and a handful of screenshots by yours truly, follow.

Lost in the Catacombs

Back in a Smoke-Shrouded City

Venturing to Locales Long Forgotten

Pursued by Merciless Enemies


  1. Played up to the start of the 5th mission, and I am ecstatic with this campaign.
    Thanks for beta testing this. And, obviously, my best regards to the authors for their immense effort.

    Since you are in contact with the developers, can I ask you a question? The decision to start from the plot and build the levels after it was made with the intent of mimicking the development cycle of Thief: the Dark Project? Or was it dictated by the need to save on resources to be employed on cutscenes and voiceover?
    If I remember correctly, that was the approach Looking Glass followed. While for Metal Age they did the reverse (first the level, then connected them with a plot), resulting in a much less tight narrative (still an excellent game, though).

    1. I can confirm this - the story was developed first, and level design took place afterwards. The rationale was exactly as you describe; to create something in the vein of The Dark Project. As I understand, some of the missions themselves had changed a lot between the first blockout and the final result (which could be expected).

      Creating cutscenes and voice sets is also a lot of work, so they had to be started long before completing the maps. (And still, one of them was not yet complete this October!)

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    3. Thanks for the confirmation.
      I have to say that the cutscenes, voice acting and readables are of excellent quality and perfectly fitting the setting, style and tone established by the original game. It's no wonder producing them took so much time.