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Warhammer: Chaosbane Review — Funbane

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The Warhammer licence has enjoyed a strong run in video games in recent years. Creative Assembly brought its grand strategy talents to bear on the franchise with Total War: Warhammer, and Fatshark’s Vermintide II is a favourite of many. Eko Software is the latest studio to take a tilt at the revered fantasy universe with the isometric ARPG Warhammer: Chaosbane, but is unable to match the heights of some of its precursors.

A common point of comparison for Chaosbane in the media to date has been Diablo, but the game is little more than a shadow of Blizzard’s classic franchise. The adventure begins by allowing the player to select one of four characters, each with unique abilities. However, little indication is provided about the exact skillset of each hero before the selection is made, and Chaosbane feels as though it actively obstructs experimentation with each character, as the player needs to start the story afresh simply to trial them. Those who find enjoyment within the game will have no trouble in slaying the ravening hordes over and over in various ways, but anyone who fails to make that connection will be hard pressed to find replay value in the process.

That concern is valid, too. Experimenting with the character’s expanding pool of abilities makes for an enjoyable experience, yet the shine wears off quickly due to the repetitive nature of the game. Each mission sends the player into one of a handful of environments—the procedural generation of which is glaringly obvious after only the second visit—to fulfil one of a small number of objectives. In practice, those goals are almost meaningless. Instead, the bulk of gameplay is taken up by clearing one dreary corridor after another. Even so, the process could be exciting; it certainly is in Diablo and myriad other corridor-runners in all genres, so what is the problem?

Even on Hard, Chaosbane is too easy. Aside from the boss battles (which are subject to enormous difficulty spikes), no real strategy is ever necessary. Players need only fill out their hotkeys to guarantee that the hordes will fall. Not only does the absence of challenge robs the experience of any fun it might possess, it also undercuts the entire role-playing portion of the game. The skill points that limit the character’s abilities are no barrier to slaying enemies, and the God skill tree seems like an afterthought, having no measurable effect on the game other than hiding away more skills and giving reason for the multiple currencies.

On a related note, no Diablo clone would be complete without a loot system, and the one for Chaosbane is so lightweight that it may not even have been included. While the armour and trinkets do increase the character’s stats, they require no consideration. Arming the hero is as simple as scanning for the highest numbers, and loot is dropped so frequently that the player’s inventory can get beyond manageable within a single ten-minute mission. A kind of vendor is available to trade these items with, but players receive only an improved reputation with the guild rather than gold, gems or even the option to purchase better gear. Again, “meaningless” is the operative word.

Surely, then, if the gameplay is so lightweight as to be utterly forgettable, Eko has at least made the story compelling?

Alas, no. Sadly, the premise has potential: the war is over, the Chaos hordes vanquished, with the promise of peace on the horizon. In an unexpected turn of events, minions of the Chaos Gods force their way into the stronghold of Nuln, reaching and cursing the Emperor before the guards can react. The set-up is conventional, to be sure, but the galloping pace of the opening moments and the mere idea are both engaging enough to provide cause to care about the stakes. However, Chaosbane squanders all of that by relying on the most tired of epic fantasy clichés: sending players into the sewers—then that keeps happening. The justification for these repetitive forays beneath the city rapidly loses its lustre. By the time the game is ready to let players leave Nuln, they will already have grown weary of its stonework.

While each new locale brings with it a new story challenge to overcome and side characters to maybe care about, the effort is wasted. Without notable variety in the mission structure, the requests for assistance and consequent growing trust between protagonist and the NPCs ring hollow. The greatest boon in progressing the story is in coming across new mission givers, solely to hear a new voice actor leaning in to the inherent ridiculousness of the concept. The performers are clearly having a blast with every line they deliver, making the story seem like burlesque. As a result, a significant disappointment is that only story-centric NPCs are available to talk to. Every other character is merely set dressing.

To claim that as entirely negative is slightly disingenuous, for the visual make-up is where Chaosbane shines brightest. Repetition aside, each of the environments is wonderfully realised, leaning fully into the fantasy tropes of majestic stone cities, ramshackle villages, and enchanted forests. That same quality extends to the enemy design also. The world of Warhammer has provided Eko with plenty to draw from, and the artists have created an enormous bestiary, some of the examples therein being truly gruesome. As commendable as the number of different types of foes is though, more could have been done to differentiate them in gameplay terms.

Not only might such diversity make the moment-to-moment gameplay more compelling, it could also improve Chaosbane’s shelf life. After completing the main missions, players have options for expeditions and a boss rush mode, but the draw of either depends entirely on the player loving the experience, so the mileage will undoubtedly vary.

Warhammer: Chaosbane is a functional though fundamentally unspectacular addition to the Warhammer universe. The number of missions, the multiple playable characters, and the additional modes available after completion give the game a thick padding that could provide weeks of entertainment for the right player. However, the core experience is more bones than meat, which means that that ‘right player’ may be a rare breed.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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Review

The Sinking City Review — Sanity is Optional

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Video games based on tabletop games seem to be in vogue at the moment. With Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines 2 and the announcement of Baldur’s Gate III generating a lot of hype, the time seems to be right for The Sinking City, an atmospheric horror-themed investigation game. Based on the lesser known Call of Cthulhu board game, The Sinking City sees the player taking the role of Charles W. Reed, a private investigator and veteran of the First World War as he travels to the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts to seek reasons why he is plagued by horrific visions. Reed quickly discovers that the citizens of Oakmont are also troubled by the same visions, as well as other threats of a sinister and supernatural nature.

The game is set in the 1920s and unashamedly embraces the hard-boiled themes of that era of fiction while blending in a strong dose of creeping, Lovecratian horror. The city of Oakmont absolutely drips with ambience, from the murky lighting to the semi-constant rainfall and the looming, old-fashioned New England architecture. The graphics are extremely impressive, and the animation is very fluid. Even the horrific monsters are fascinating to look at. Getting caught up in the many mysteries lurking about the beautifully well-realised town leads to quick and easy immersion.

The town itself is half-inundated after an otherworldly event known only as The Flood. This means that many of the streets need to be traversed by boat. Doing so can be a little awkward at tight corners, of which there are many, but the other option is swimming in waters infested with any number of nasty things, so taking the time to learn how to steer is worth the extra effort.

At times, the player may need to don an old-fashioned diving suit and take a trip underwater. These are some of the most unsettling sequences in the game, as the ambient sounds, underwater lighting effects, and the shadows of things twitching just beyond the edge of vision give a profound sense of claustrophobia and helplessness as the player lumbers slowly towards the destination.

The main gameplay elements recall other investigation or detective games, such as L.A. Noire or developer Frogwares previous work on the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. The developer has used that experience to good effect, as the outcome of the quests depends on how well the player has managed to pick up on various clues hidden in the crime scene and evidence. The developer has said the goal in each investigation can be reached in multiple ways, so if the player gets stuck at any point, they have the freedom to move on to a different quest. Sometimes, evidence for the problem quest will pop up, or the player will have a sudden epiphany on what to do next.

The visions experienced by the protagonist have a gameplay application as well, as Reed can use his visions and investigative powers to reconstruct crime scenes and gain insights into the events. However, doing so costs Sanity. Some disturbing scenes or monster encounters can also drastically cut the player’s Sanity, and this, in turn, can affect perception of the environment, causing the player to overlook or completely misinterpret what actually happened. Total Sanity loss is fatal, as the protagonist descends into suicidal insanity.

In addition to conserving Sanity, players need to also conserve ammunition. Though encounters with supernatural creatures often involve the need to unload a gun into them, bullets are also used as currency in Oakmont, as bullets are more valuable than gold in the nightmare-infested town,. The player can barter for useful tools or weapons, but will need to remember to keep some bullets aside for those inevitable run-ins with tentacled horrors.

The result is a balancing act with the player trying to conserve Sanity and ammunition while delving into the secrets hidden within the town. The Sinking City has many layers, with much to be unravelled in the dark, dripping streets.

The Sinking City

The setting is well-served by the music, which is mostly subdued and ambient, serving the mood well. Of particular note is the voice acting, which is great, particularly on the part of the protagonist. Reed’s voice actor does an excellent job of portraying his various moods, giving a convincing performance of a troubled, world-weary war veteran.

The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraft-inspired games available and, despite some slightly awkward controls in places, the game is brilliantly crafted. Fans of horror will love its atmosphere and those who enjoy investigative games will quickly become absorbed in the depth offered by the gameplay. Those who loved L.A. Noire or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and players of the tabletop game, should definitely give thought to picking this title up.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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