Imagine the scene: two dwarves stand around a table, leaning over their pickaxes as they gaze down at the extensive blueprints that are sprawled across the table in front of them. The sewage system that they're building underneath the city of Nuln will be the most opulent and well-made sewer in the world. It's going to be a sewer fit for a king, spacious enough for enjoyable jaunts and packed with enough intricately designed features to make any duke or duchess jealous through to their entitled bones. And it's a good job the dwarves, let's call them Nigel and Ian, did spend as much time and effort as they did building this maze of passages and walkways because if they hadn't gone to all that trouble there'd have been nowhere for us to slay the hordes of minions that live down in the bowels of the city in Warhammer: Chaosbane.
Broadly speaking, Chaosbane is a Diablo-like that is set in the Warhammer universe. There have been a number of action-RPGs such as this one that have, over the years, eyed the crown currently sitting empty while we wait for the return of Diablo. What Eko Software's effort has that none of the other contenders can muster, is a fantasy setting that's just as popular as the one in Blizzard's genre-defining series. Maybe even more so. This means that if Warhammer: Chaosbane turns out to be excellent, we could be sitting on a sleeper hit here, one that could speak to the legion of Warhammer fans out there as well as those Diablo players still fuming after Blizzard had the audacity to only announce a mobile game at last year's BlizzCon.
We've only played a few hours of the very beginning of the game, so we can't tell you about the quality of the overall product, but we can say that the early signs are encouraging. Chaosbane seems like a very respectable effort to give us a Diabloesque experience, and we wouldn't say that this isn't just a simple Warhammer reskin either. Thanks to the atmosphere established by the storytelling and the characterful writing, this feels like a genuine, Games Workshop-backed endeavour (although to be fair, the tabletop company seems to have a great back and forth with the developers that it works with, so this isn't surprising).
It's also pretty fun. We sampled lots of solo play, as well as a few rounds of local multiplayer, and we dropped into some online battles with a trio of strangers (although earlier we had struggled to join the same game as a friend who was also playing and generally speaking the online component still feels rough around the edges), and while it's not trying to reinvent the wheel and doesn't do anything particularly ambitious, this is a solid action-RPG adventure that delivers some really satisfying moments while making good use of the Warhammer license. And you know what? We're totally fine with that.
We spent the vast majority of our time playing an arrogant magic-wielding High Elf called Elontir and over the course of the first chapter we were able to upgrade our magic abilities to a decent extent, turning our pompous princely outcast into a fire-blasting badass who incinerates his enemies on the battlefield. We very quickly had a series of abilities mapped to all of the triggers and face-buttons on the DualShock 4 we were playing with, and using those abilities we were able to transport ourselves short distances, smash our enemies with fireballs, knock them down with area-of-effect attacks, call lightning down from above, and thin the herd with attacks that don't dissipate when they make contact and instead ricochet off the walls and rebound around the space, racking up the damage points as they go.
Then there was the melee class, your standard Imperial Soldier more focused on swordplay and a few magic spells. He relied more on hacking and slashing than strategic play, but thanks to a health recharge button, often we found ourselves hitting enemies, running away and drawing them out. There are four classes in the game all told, although we only got to play as the fighter and mage, while the other two were out of bounds. Using our spellcaster in particular, we were able to devise tactics on the fly, mixing up our attacks to clever effect (at least we thought so). Playing alone meant we sometimes found ourselves overwhelmed and cornered, but when that happens and you run out of health, if you haven't got a friend to revive you, you can buy back in using in-game coins and then reposition yourself on the battlefield before getting stuck in again.
We only saw a limited number of enemy types, and while we're looking forward to seeing more, those included in the beta seemed to dovetail quite well together. After a while and during certain moments there are challenging difficulty spikes with enemies that are able to fix you in one place and then inflict big damage, but these bumps in the road never took us too long to overcome and we welcomed the change of pace because much of the time you're able to easily power past the low-level grunts that come after you. Often it's a case of taking down your biggest threats first whilst keeping yourself away from the swathes of enemy units that are out for your blood.
We poked gentle fun at the intricate sewer system before, but that was certainly affectionate and we noted some nice ideas in the environmental design that resulted in different-feeling missions. One section had us pushing through winding walkways as we searched out a cult leader, hugging the hard corners in order to split up the enemy horde so we could target specific enemies and let our more powerful spells recharge. Another time we were heading down deeper underground and this meant a spiralling decent via a series of small rooms, each one a little challenge to overcome as we made our way down. On the other hand, some of the assets that were used to build the sewers were somewhat over-used and things did start to feel samey after a while, and so we're hoping that there's plenty of variety waiting for us beyond Act One.
The character movement isn't the most nuanced we've ever encountered, and the positioning of the camera meant that we were constantly aware of the enemies resting on the periphery of the screen before they were activated by our proximity. And then there's the loot - there's too much of it here if you ask us. We like grabbing cool new gear as much as the next dungeon crawler, but after a while we were sifting through menus filled with junk. At least Eko Software uses a tried and tested colour coding system for gear and it's easy to compare stats, so it's not a major headache to sort out your stuff, but it could be streamlined further with a tweak to the drop rates of certain items. At least the levelling system is straightforward and simple to manage, so if you've played games of this type before you'll be up to speed pretty quickly.
The start of Warhammer: Chaosbane is currently available to play for those who pre-order. Until March 13, early birds will be able to try the game's first act for themselves as part of the closed beta. Then it'll be a case of waiting for the full thing to land on PC, PS4, and Xbox One in early June (or late, late May if you order the Magnus Edition). After having played this first chapter we're certainly more enthused about the idea of an action-RPG set in the Warhammer universe and our early game impressions are generally positive, but we're going to wait until we've played through the entire thing before saying anything further. Consider us intrigued, though.