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