As a big tabletop fan, it’s hard for me to escape the sight of Warhammer anytime I walk into my local game shop. When I see those little space marines, I’m always intrigued, but there’s just so much to the world of Warhammer that it seems overwhelming. I’ve always flirted with taking the plunge into the property every time a new PC game is released, which seems surprisingly frequent, but I’m never fully swayed. Finally, with Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, I’ve been dragged in. XCOM 2 is one of my all time favorite games, and Daemonhunters does nothing to hide the fact that it’s heavily inspired by the tactical turned-based classic, making it the perfect game to introduce me to 40K.
And what an introduction it is. After leading a squad of Grey Knights, a powerful chapter of Space Marines, on a bombastic mission against demonic forces, you’re dropped onto your base of operations, a massive cathedral-like ship called the Baleful Edict, where an Inquisitor enlists you into a war against a rapidly spreading plague, one that seems to be orchestrated by the Chaos God Nurgle. If that description sounds like a lot of ominous proper nouns, Warhammer is full of them, and they all have a rich lore that’s explained just enough for you to hit the ground running, even without the full context of decades of history. Little details like Knights saying “I’ve sanctified my rounds” when reloading or ornate grenades with “wrath” written on the side bring the grimdark world of Warhammer to life in the most over-the-top way possible.
This feeling is also perfectly captured in the moment to moment tactics portion of the gameplay. Each mission, you select four knights from your pool of available units to go on missions, and every one of them feels like an absolute badass. Knights make a satisfying thunk as they stomp across the battlefields, smashing through doors in dramatic animations with dynamic camera work that makes YOU feel like the thing to be feared, despite all manner of horrific creatures around you. XCOM 2 played with the idea of allowing you to destroy terrain and walls, but Daemonhunters takes it a step further, allowing you to manipulate specific pieces of the environment into devastating attacks. I’ll never get over the satisfying feeling of a night Knights slamming his shoulder into a pillar, knocking it down on a row of unsuspecting enemies.
While XCOM’s DNA is all over this game’s design, it takes a lot of the best bits from Gears Tactics to give you tools to maximize your damage output and encourage aggression. Each round, your Knights are given three action points to use on a combination of moving and attacking, with various abilities mixed in depending on the class of your character. There are four initial classes and four classes that are unlocked in the later game. They all fall into fairly standard archetypes (medic, tank, gunner, etc), but can be further specialized as you upgrade their skill trees. Knights have psychic powers, which use up a character resource called willpower, that can change a fight in important ways, from teleporting around the map to granting an ally your armor for a round. Every ability seems useful, making the level up choices have weight in how you will use the character going forward. Daemonhunters also takes the stun system from Gears Tactics, allowing you to stun an enemy after a certain amount of hit, opening them up for an execution that will provide every Knight an extra action point for that round.
Turn-based tactics games often give you interesting choices to mull over, both on the meta level and the battle level, and Warhammer finds clever ways to layer on wonderful pairings of risk and reward. During a battle, a Warp Surge meter will rise each round. Once that hits 100 percent, it activates either a boon for your enemies, like reinforcements or a buff to resistance, or a bane against you, such as losing max willpower or a debuff to movement speed, before resetting back to zero to start the process over. This encourages you to get through a mission as fast as possible, before it becomes overwhelming. In addition to its natural progression, the Warp Surge meter also rises when you use your special abilities, adding one more satisfying variable you need to calculate when choosing your action. Every turn becomes an intricate puzzle of trying to deal the most damage possible through chaining abilities, while avoiding taking hits from the increasingly deadly forces on the map.
Damage you take in-mission causes your Knight to spend time recovering, so every turn counts for both the short term and the long term. If you know you need to take out one massive target to finish the mission, sometimes it’s best to just focus on that instead of the many minions around you who are chipping away at your health. The pressure of decisions can feel overwhelming for players new to the genre, but to me nothing is more thrilling than finding the exact order of operations to take out the one minion that’s putting a hazard in front of my Knights, then letting them all unleash on the critical target to win the mission in the nick of time, surrounded by a horde of enemies that failed to stop me.
This feeling is compounded in the game’s large set piece boss fights, which are as epic in nature as you would expect from something like Warhammer. Similar to Gears Tactics, these fights are against massive enemies that have interesting, but predictable, attack patterns you need to manage while also dealing with smaller enemies trying to distract you from your target. By the time you get to them, you’ll have a large array of powers at your disposal, creating monumental battles between titanic forces, even though the scale of your squad is so small. The battles aren’t always perfect; sometimes the enemies do questionable actions, such as laying down a hazard in an area that’s nowhere near you, but aside from small nitpicks, it’s one of the most satisfying moment-to-moment tactics games I’ve run across in years.
Despite having so many moving parts in battle, it’s always easy to read everything happening on screen, thanks to some great UI design. Anytime you’re about to make a move, the mouse cursor will tell you how many actions you will have left after executing your plan, with other UI elements indicating how much damage it will do to the target, if you’re going to be crossing any hazards on the way to the attack, and anything else you might need to weigh before committing. Unlike XCOM, there’s no random chance to hit involved with your attacks, but different amounts of range and cover end up varying the damage dealt. It’s a change that allows you to more accurately plan your turns, which is crucial when your back is against the wall on tougher missions.
After battle, you’re given the opportunity to acquire assets from an armory, giving you access to new weapons, armor and recruits. Since all items in the armory are randomly generated based on an upgrade track, the game has a nice power curve that rises as you progress through the campaign. You can increase the amount of items you requisition from the armory by taking on Valor Deeds, bonus modifiers or objectives that you can opt into for the mission. If you succeed, you’ll be awarded more requisition points, but if you fail, you’ll be penalized. Deeds can include things like going into the mission with one less Knight, or asking you to kill eight enemies with melee strikes. It’s a simple wrinkle that adds one more layer of risk-reward to the game. Outside of bosses, there is only a small pool of mission types you’ll encounter, so the Valor Deeds help keep the encounters fresh despite their repetition.
The more complicated layer of the genre that’s tougher to pull off is the between-mission strategy, and fortunately Daemonhunters nails that as well. Much like the famous board game Pandemic, you move the Baleful Edict around a map trying to stem the rising Bloom infection, which rise a certain amount when you neglect to complete a mission in time. Missions pop up in sets of threes, and you can never hit them all, so you’ll need to prioritize your destinations carefully so none of the planets end up hitting a tipping point in infection level. Upgrades can be made to the ship that will aid in navigating the map, while other ship upgrades will give bonuses to your squad XP or recovery time. Research can also be done to give you special strategum moves that can be used once per mission, providing you another critical tactic to tip the scales of battle. Daemonhunters would probably benefit from a bit more tutorializing with this layer, as it can be hard to know what to prioritize early on, leading to some possibly tricky starts to your campaign if you chose poorly.
Despite the fact that Daemonhunters isn’t particularly innovative in the turn-based tactics genre, it knows exactly what to pull from its peers. The overall structure from XCOM, the aggressive action economy of Gears Tactics and the titanic weight of Battletech all mix together to form one of the most satisfying games in the genre. Each element it takes from these games works perfectly in concert with the world of Warhammer 40K. Even the story is engaging, with great voice performances and ever-increasing stakes, drawing me into this unique world that I’m definitely going to spend more time learning about. It may be slightly overwhelming for players new to the genre, causing players to get to a doomed state early on, but I can’t recommend it enough for players looking to scratch their tactics itch.