Immortalising the world-that-was.
Backed into a cold, dark corner of a long-forgotten sewer, the hordes of Chaos surround me. Foul, despicable demons in servitude of the dark gods, hungry to fulfil their master’s bidding. Their bloated, rotting corpses press in on my position, glistening claws and blades dripping with pestilence.
As all seems lost to the enveloping darkness of chaos, I ignite with shocking bright flame, burning the plague walkers into cinders in great swathes of arcane energy. Flames and magical whirlwinds surge forth from my fingertips, sending the twisted abominations before me screaming back into the warp, the depraved plane of reality from which they originate. This is the world of Warhammer, a universe ravaged by war in which the Empire of Man clings to the last vestiges of hope standing against an evil and almighty enemy: Chaos.
Warhammer: Chaosbane is the first ARPG to be set in the Warhammer universe but certainly not Warhammer’s first foray into video games. Often more comfortable in the strategy genre, most likely due to the tabletop game design, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a more fast-paced iteration of Games Workshop’s rich fantasy world, albeit a bit late to the party. I say that, as I’m sure fans of the Warhammer tabletop game are aware, as the Old World – the setting of Chaosbane – doesn’t exist anymore in the fantasy tabletop that inspired it. So, this is somewhat of a novelty for fans of old-school Warhammer as much as it is for fans of classic ARPGs.
You enter the fray at the height of a Chaos invasion into the realms of men as the Old World teeters on the brink of survival. With the human emperor Magnus trapped in a deadly spell by the nefarious forces of Chaos, it’s up to you, the hero of Nuln, to defeat the ruinous powers and save the day. You begin on this journey by selecting one of four legendary heroes. There are no shocking surprises to the roster; it’s a very classic, and safe, selection of warriors to pick from. There’s a proud, elf wizard, the character I chose; an unhinged, axe-wielding dwarf berserker; a noble wood elf archer; and a sword-swinging human soldier.
With your chosen avatar you battle your way through four areas of the Old World, each in the grip of one of the notorious Chaos gods: Nurgle, Khorne, Slaanesh, and Tzeentch. Each one of these demon lords vaguely represents a flaw in humankind, and also, one of the seven deadly sins: Gluttony, Wrath, Envy, and Pride respectively. They’re an interesting bunch, each preying on humanity in their own specific way and twisting the environment to their form of corruption. Of course, each has a variety of unique enemies that battle for their cause, which breaks the game up into four very distinct parts.
The controls will be very familiar to any ARPG fans out there. The obvious comparison is Diablo 3, one of the most well-known ARPGs, and no doubt many people have looked at Chaosbane as something very similar. It is, and that’s not a bad thing; Diablo in itself was heavy inspired by tabletop games like Warhammer, so it’s understandable that their worlds seem alike. The combat is much the same, simple and repetitive, although as with many ARPGs, the technicality of simply pressing buttons is not where the depth lies. It comes from the game’s insatiable love of numbers, and the acquisition of new gear and skills to be combined in a variety of ways with destructive results.
It’s a shame this isn’t evident in the first few hours of playing, as I fear many people will sign the game off as boring or unimaginative. This is down to the fact that the first run-through you do on the game on standard difficulty is easy, bar a few mildly challenging moments with the bosses.
To a certain extent, you could use only two buttons to get through the majority of the game, but as previously mentioned, complex button combinations are not where ARPGs shine – it’s the intricate progression system. And that is absolutely there, with what seems every intention by the developers to continue to expand post-launch content over the next few months. In a way, the future of Chaosbane’s endgame is as important, if not more, than the base campaign storyline.
There’s a flow to a well-designed ARPG, that although easy from a technical point of view requires a lot of skillful planning and stat juggling. Chaosbane has that flow, from its simple yet informative minimap to its relatively intuitive equipment and ability management system. On top of this, it gives you simple systems to handle things like your ever-expanding inventory, with an option to trade unwanted gear for reputation points towards unique skills.
It offers interesting combinations of abilities that give your character a great deal of adaptability, especially late game. As you near the end, things like the god skill tree, the ability to bless gear, and unlocking tier three abilities open up a whole new world of options in destroying the hordes of Chaos. There are plenty of shiny things and stats to get your teeth into during the ample campaign.
There’s something quite meditative about ploughing through swathes of enemies in an ARPG. It’s almost like a metagame to see how large a horde of enemies you can gather trailing you before turning to blaze through them in a dazzling combo of abilities. Repetition is often looked down on as a negative trait in video games but ARPGs embrace it, and it’s in that repetition it’s so easy to find relaxation and, by proxy, enjoyment.
It’s what I imagine knitting is like, not to sound flippant, but an activity that invites you to master it to a degree where you don’t have to consciously think about doing it. In fact, you can even do other things whilst you crawl your way through another dungeon, like listen to a podcast or music. There’s value in that, that the modern-day ethos of ‘video games have to be hyper engaging’ no doubt fails to see in Chaosbane.
Battling the greater demons of Chaos is certainly a highlight of the campaign. Each one has its own patterns and attacks you’ll need to memorise, and I can only imagine how devilishly hard these are going to become on the higher difficulties, especially when modifiers come into play. Each one is spectacularly brought to life by exemplary voice acting throughout, the rasping machinations of the Chaos servants sounding every bit as diabolical as you’d imagine.
This recreated version of the Old World, told through the eyes of a witch hunt, somehow preserves Warhammer’s legacy of rich lore and dark fantasy in a way that, presumably, future games in the universe won’t. This may be the first action RPG set in the world-that-was, but it may very well also be the last with future games taking place in The Age of Sigmar, the current timeline the tabletop game is in. So, in many ways, Choasbane may serve a nostalgic reminder of the origins of Warhammer as we know it.
Ultimately, like many ARPGs, it comes down the numbers – almost above and beyond the thematic backdrop or narrative. This is not unlike Warhammer the tabletop game, in which no matter how cool your model looks, their fate is decided by the roll of a dice. If that’s your thing, then you’ll undoubtedly love Choasbane, but for most people, the end game is going to be where it’s at.
Right now, the end game content is okay; there’s enough to keep you entertained for a short while, including Boss Rushes and Expeditions, which are procedurally generated dungeons you can run through with other people online. Add Relic Hunt to that, which gives you access to the Collectors Guild, and you can begin the inevitable grind to obtain an insanely powerful full heroic set of gear. It will need more to remain interesting, though, which the developers have detailed, so there seems every chance for Chaosbane to expand into something truly noteworthy.
I do think Chaosbane missed a few opportunities in its design and execution. At its core, it’s a great ARPG but it could have taken a little more creatively from the Warhammer franchise. As mentioned previously in the review, it takes a vanilla approach to character, level and equipment design. There’s nothing that’s ridiculous, outrageous or overpowered, and that’s a shame as the worlds of Warhammer are full of that kind of stuff.
From the hilarity of halflings to the insane strength of legendary magical weapons, I can’t help but feel they missed the chance to really showcase the lore. I’d have loved to have seen some really powerful special weapons like The Sword of Khaine, for instance. They seem to take a very mundane approach to the all-important loot that will hopefully be addressed with coming updates.
But Chaosbane nonetheless achieves what it sets out to do as an ARPG, and there’s still every chance the game will expand into some more fascinating areas of the Old World and its characters. I can’t shake the feeling that this could have been a lot bigger deal if it was released five years ago or more, but as they say, better late than never. No doubt, the world’s of Warhammer will continue to entertain us with their ever encroaching foray into the realm of video games. For now, there’s something comforting in the fact that the Old World, albeit destroyed in the fires of apocalypse in the ever-expanding lore, will forever be immortalised in the digital world.
[Reviewed on PC]
Jon loves the experimental nature of indie games, and has written about them for the likes of Eurogamer, PCGamer and GameReactor. As editor of The Indie Game Website, Jon is responsible for the overall content direction of the website, and enjoys moving things around in our Google Calendar.