It’s been seven long years since Blizzard’s Diablo 3, and the isometric dungeon-crawler genre slumbers peacefully, awaiting its next rodeo. Now, Eko Software has commandeered the reins and given the grimdark war-torn lore of Warhammer a dip in the beat ’em up pool with Warhammer: Chaosbane. There will be blood, and there will be daemons. But will there be anything truly new?
The answer to that, straight off the bat, is no. Sorry. That said, the Warhammer license (and its futuristic 40K counterpart) stretches across an empire of solid, if not entirely groundbreaking games. From Dawn of War to Space Marine and last year’s Vermintide 2, the proposition of a virtual outing in the worlds of Games Workshop is generally a welcome one. The rich, dramatic lore that these games pull from isn’t thematically diverse, but the sheer scale of it allows for essentially endless possibilities in both narrative and gameplay.
Enter Warhammer: Chaosbane. Drawing liberally from the already established ‘fun bits’ of past isometric action RPGs, Chaosbane bundles you through a slapdash romp of fantasy arse-whooping, bringing you under the hateful gaze of the universe’s four main chaos gods.
The hero emperor Magnus has been cursed, you see. A terrible affliction leaving him hovering most unpleasantly in the throne-room of Nuln, with a green cloud gripping him. You (in our case a Wood Elf archer) are tasked with clearing out the daemon infestation which led to the emperor’s state, a mission that will eventually bring you face-to-face with the chaos gods themselves – both in the sewers of Nuln and beyond.
“the pompous and caricatured voice acting is at times hilarious”
The fact that Chaosbane tries to tell a story at all strikes us as resources misplaced. While the pompous and caricatured voice acting is at times hilarious, tragic moments – like the ‘reveal’ that a psychopathic champion of the god Khorne was once the son of an ally – float by without much impact. Ultimately, it merely serves as a link between encounters.
The level design itself suffers from this similar feeling of directionlessness. As you make your way through the decaying sewers of Nuln or the raided streets of Praag, a sense of déjà vu sets in. Spaces feel the same, and it seems as though Chaosbane is built upon randomised areas. It feels like the level designers are drawing on a set of perhaps 15 ‘tiles’ with which they can build out each dungeon, but the seams are obvious. It’s impossible to tell if this was the intention.
You rarely feel as though you are ‘progressing’ through a space, like fighting deeper into a dangerous cultist hideout, crashing against waves of snarling horrors. Instead, areas feel faceless and stitched together – at times we asked, “Is this the same poison-fog covered arena as 30 minutes ago?” The areas themselves look decent, the toothy writhing masses which envelope the streets of Praag chitter and suck with some fantastic sound design, but these flourishes are perhaps most welcome simply because they remind you that you’re actually playing a Warhammer game, which at times can be forgotten.
It’s in moments like the opening of Act 3, when you’re about to face the proud, arrogant forces of Slaanesh, they simply charge you, screaming unintelligibly. Their personality is sucked out, replaced with a single directive to ‘be a threat’.
This sense of facelessness pervades Chaosbane. Having entered it with only a fleeting knowledge of Warhammer’s medieval setting, the game does the yards to get you up to speed, a quick opening cinematic of grand battles and good vs evil. Once boots are on the ground though? The charm and drama of the world melts away. Whilst fighting through waves of nameless creatures – round things, demons with swords, men with hoods on, big… weird arm… hulks? – it dawned that Chaosbane has no interest in using the rich lore of Warhammer as anything other than a list from which to pluck beasties. Beasties that you never even learn the names of.
Beyond the game’s main story there are ‘Boss Rush’ and ‘Relic Hunt’ modes. The bosses are a refreshing change of pace to the combat, with each one having a few unique phases, and the addition of normal creeps to the arenas means you’ll be run off your feet avoiding the bosses massive attacks and getting mobbed. In ‘Boss Rush’, it’s a simple matter of selecting whatever boss you want to face, with the chance of that boss dropping.
‘Relic Hunt’ allows for randomised dungeon runs with the promise of heroic gear, and ‘fragments’ (a skill development currency) if you can survive. This would be a more impactful and exciting mode if there was more dramatic changes to be found across armour sets. As it currently is, a lot of the armour seems to follow a pre-set pattern – helmets tend to contribute to the same kind of buffs, for instance. There isn’t a lot of motivation to experiment here.
Running through faceless hallways, mowing down chaos hordes with abandon could be argued as something deeply Warhammer, and so we come to the real meat of the thing.
Combat in Chaosbane is a mostly satisfying feedback loop hamstrung by its own repetitions. One of the game’s two skill development menus (one for of early unlocked skills and another for later, more devastating abilities) runs on a points pool logic. Levelling up, you’ll accumulate more points which are shuffled across the skill tree, allowing for more powerful versions of your base abilities. The question is which skills receive that benefit of your limited pool of points, but points can be removed and redistributed at any time. Chaosbane’s intent here seems to allow for a more ‘load-out’ based approach to combat, eschewing any kind of commitment to a build.
There are 14 skills spread across the basic, advanced and god categories, with an equal number of passive skills to choose from too. There is some room for variation here, but you’re able to assign six of the active skills at any given time, and it never felt like too much of a commitment.
“There is an overall friendliness to the design, a no-frills approach that makes Chaosbane remarkably easy to pick up and play”
There is an overall friendliness to the design, a no-frills approach that makes Chaosbane remarkably easy to pick up and play, but quickly shows its shallowness. Nowhere will you find a bestiary to read more on what it is you’re killing en masse, and equipment choices tend to boil down to making your stat numbers go up with no risk/reward element outside of late-game heroic sets. Story interactions are kept minimal, most of them serving as context for the wider goings-on in your fight against chaos. NPCs are mute, and enemies simply gibber and shriek.
However, even the combat encounters themselves develop a mundane rhythm over time. While creeping through Chaosbane’s dungeons you’ll almost develop a sixth sense as to where you’ll trigger the next group of four or five enemy types to come rushing in from off screen. And so it goes. Travel ten metres, hear the roar, knock the arrow, rinse, repeat. Playing on normal difficulty, at no point did it ever feel as though our little elf was even in danger, and death only occurred during boss fights. It was eventually discovered that the elf’s dodge-roll character skill could be used to literally skip any amount of enemies, in moments where the combat simply became too rote.
Warhammer: Chaosbane doesn’t fail in any given area. Its approach to storytelling is acceptable, considering it isn’t the star of the show. Its combat encounters begin to show their formula before you’re even done with the prologue, but blowing through enemies isn’t unenjoyable. Its character skill building shows a real dedication to easy co-op play, where players can try things out within a bit of couch co-op. It’s that Chaosbane fails to truly elevate any of these areas, or present them in interesting or exciting ways that makes it mostly forgettable. Its willingness to repeat a fairly basic formula, with meaningless changes in aesthetic, show that the developers couldn’t get the best out of the world they were working in.
Warhammer: Chaosbane is available June 14 for PS4 and Xbox One.