I’ve spent half an hour or so trying to figure out a good way to start this review. It’s difficult, though, because of the way I feel about Chaosbane, and because of what Chaosbane does. The three versions of the intro I’ve written so far all meander around for whole paragraphs, blathering on and on about other recent ARPGs and their innovations in the space, largely because I’m doing my utmost to avoid talking about Chaosbane itself. Once upon a time that would have been fine; these days, however, I prefer to have a slightly punchier opening to my writing. A single sentence that sums up, as adequately as I can, how I feel about a game. And as far as Chaosbane is concerned I might as well use the message I sent to my game-playing friends immediately after my first sixty minutes with the game, because I knew one or two of them were considering trying it:
Do not buy Chaosbane under any circumstances.
I’ve since forced myself to put a few more hours into it, just to give the game a fair chance before taking it out back to work it over with a two-by-four, and that initial reaction from deep within my gut still very much stands. Warhammer Chaosbane is one of the dullest ARPGs I’ve ever played. It is certainly the worst game I’ve played this year so far — and remember, I put a dozen hours into Anthem, so that is really saying something. It is a game so bad, so utterly devoid of interest or imagination, that when faced with the prospect of actually having to boot it up again I look around for something, anything else to do with my time. If you asked me to choose between an hour spent playing Chaosbane and an hour spent staring at a blank wall painted entirely in white, I’d probably choose the wall. The wall has more going on.
But why is Chaosbane so bad? At first glance it appears to be a perfectly competent example of the hit-things-get-loot genre. It even somewhat feels like Diablo 3 during those opening moments thanks to having stolen the basic combat mechanics lock, stock and barrel. You have two skills bound to each mouse button and four skills on keyboard numbers 1-4 that can be swapped out at will. You have a dedicated button for swigging a health potion, which has infinite uses and is only gated by a cooldown time. Enemies will occasionally drop red orbs in combat which restore a bit of health in addition to charging up your Bloodlust meter, which can be activated when full for what is basically Berserk mode from Doom. Basic attacks feel fairly meaty and the special ones are impactful cause the corpses of your enemies to ragdoll away from your character in a very Diablo 3-esque manner. To use your special abilities you consume Energy, which is a renamed Rage mechanic; hitting enemies with basic attacks gives you Energy which you can spend on the special ones. Yes, for the first twenty minutes Chaosbane comes across as pleasingly violent, even though the systems you’re interacting with are just Diablo 3 with the serial numbers filed off.
So the hitting monsters part is fine — to start with, anyway. Chaosbane’s problems start when you go looking for the rest of the game, because that’s the point at which you’ll realise it doesn’t exist. Literally everything else about Chaosbane, from the fundamental game structure to the loot to the character levelling, is woefully inadequate to the point where it’s painfully obvious it’s yet another game that’s been released long before it was ready. There’s simply nothing there for a player to engage with, no reason to keep running along this endless treadmill of hitting monsters — and even that is an activity that gets increasingly annoying the more you do it. It’s a game with no spine, no internal support of any kind; just a jumble of incredibly basic building materials that the developer and publisher have attached a frankly ridiculous £40 price tag to.
Let’s start by tackling the game’s structure. Most ARPGs these days take place in an open overworld that’s full of dungeons to be delved into and explored, and with random events and named elite enemies scattered across the world to spice things up a little bit. It’s the Diablo 2 formula, one that came about from a recognition that seeing the same level tilesets over and over again got rather boring for the player and which tried to inject a little variety into proceedings to keep them hooked. It worked quite well twenty years ago; these days both Diablo 3 and Path Of Exile have moved things on from there quite considerably, but I can’t think of a single ARPG I’ve played in the last decade that hasn’t at least used the Diablo 2 game structure as a platform to build on. It’s tried and tested. It works.
Unfortunately Chaosbane doesn’t agree with me. From a certain point of view, Chaosbane is actually an interesting experiment: what would happen if you took all of the variety out of an ARPG’s game structure and instead replaced it with a repetitive, monotonous trek through a series of identikit dungeons that are all either set in a literal toilet or an environment that looks like one? Here, I’ll summarise the first act of the game for you to illustrate what Chaosbane’s game structure actually looks like:
- High Mage Teclis asks me to find a Chaos cult camp. The Chaos cult camp is located in a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to find a survivor of a Chaos assault. The survivor is located in a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to find the leader of the beastmen helping the Chaos cult. The beastman leader is hiding in a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to go with the beastman leader to find the leader of the chaos cult. The beastman leader leads me into an ambush. I then have to fight my way out through a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to kill the leader of the Chaos cult, for real this time. The Chaos cult leader is hiding in a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to find another, different Chaos cult camp. The Chaos cult camp is located in a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to find another, different Chaos cult leader. The Chaos cult leader is located in a sewer dungeon.
- High Mage Teclis asks me to kill the Chaos cult leader. This leads a bossfight where the developers have once again confused “difficulty” with “giving the boss a huge sack of hitpoints”, and, which took well over ten minutes to complete because that’s how long it takes to chop through it. The bossfight takes place in a sewer dungeon.
- On my return from the sewer dungeon, High Mage Teclis teleports me to the cursed city of Praag, which has been overrun by Chaos forces. It looks an awful lot like a sewer dungeon.
And to be absolutely clear about the sewer dungeons, they don’t contain any of the flavour events other ARPGs do; no random events, no loot goblins, not even any elite enemies with interesting elemental affixes. Chaosbane has one thing to do, and one thing only: fight your way through a dungeon filled with regular mooks until you get to the end. That is it. Aside from the bossfights, that is all of the content this game has to offer — an endless trudge through PCG dungeons that are constructed out of the same 8-10 crossroad, passageway and dead-end tiles, and which themselves quickly grow repetitive. And for an ARPG in 2019, that is not enough. That is nowhere near close, and especially not for a game that costs £40, because Diablo 3 costs less than that and has much more for the player to do, and Path Of Exile costs nothing and also has much more for the player to do. Even if you had played both of those games utterly to death it still wouldn’t be worth playing Chaosbane, because you’d just be constantly reminded of how much better they did every single thing an ARPG does. Torchlight does it better. Van Helsing does it better. Hell, even Grim Dawn does it better; I did not like that game at all but even at its worst it was making far more of an effort to entertain the player than Chaosbane does here.
Still, I don’t even think Chaosbane having only a single trick would be fatal if there were some interesting progression systems built around it. That’s the other half of this genre, after all: the character builds and the loot that supports them. It is unfortunate, then, that Chaosbane arguably doesn’t have any progression systems to speak of. Oh, sure, your character levels up every now and again once they’ve killed enough monsters, and for the first few levels they’ll be unlocking new skills and filling out their skill bar. However, once they’ve unlocked the first tier of skills (which doesn’t take long at all considering there’s around 10 active skills per character) all that is left is to unlock higher tier versions of the same abilities you already have; this is bad enough on its own, but the higher tiers are the most miserly stat upgrades possible, being on the order of 5% increases to damage dealt or damage reduced. It’s really difficult to get excited about that, and the lack of imagination shown here means that there’s nothing to look forward to as you level up other than very slightly increasing your efficiency at killing stuff. Even if the higher tier skills were genuinely more powerful there’d be a much narrower range of builds possible thanks to the truncated number of them.
In particular there’s no concept of build archetypes in Chaosbane. For example, in most other games a warrior can choose to sword and board it, or to twat things in the face with a gigantic two-handed hammer, and the game will provide some skill options to support each of those playstyles. In Chaosbane, though, you have exactly one way to play each character and an extremely limited range of customisation around that playstyle. This has knock-on effects for the loot as there’s a much smaller range of items available for each character; the warrior can use a one-handed sword or a warhammer, but they’re both functionally identical and don’t have any special attributes thanks to being a sword or a warhammer, and for all other equipment slots there’s practically no difference between two items of the same level.The Middenheim trousers might be red and the Ostland trousers might be green and there might be one different stat affix on each pair, and that’s the sum total of the flexibility the game offers you around equipment loadouts1. Certainly it’s impossible to build towards a specific character goal because there’s only one destination available to you; and this entirely linear journey along the progression railroad means that every new item you pick up is either a straight upgrade from what you have now, or not. There’s just no breadth to this equipment system. I can’t think of a better way to suck all the fun out of picking up loot in an ARPG than to take all of the choice out of which items you should keep and equip (or not), and as a final insult Chaosbane doesn’t even have any shops or crafters where you can offload your excess equipment. You have to clear out your inventory by donating it all to Oxfam instead2.
So you spend your time in Chaosbane going through the same dungeon over and over again, picking up loot that you equip after glancing at it for half a second and seeing that it has mostly green stat improvements and giving it no more thought than that, being told that you’ve unlocked a new skill tier that does 1% more damage than it did previously and which you can’t equip anyway because you don’t have enough skill points, and hoovering up gold and gems that you can’t spend in shops or use in crafting. Instead these valuables are used to buy skill points in Chaosbane’s God Skill tree — this is a take on Path Of Exile’s bafflingly huge skill tree, and it’s also a very big believer in the power of 1% stat increases. It’s all laughably insubstantial, and because of that lack of substance elsewhere the cracks in the one thing Chaosbane appears to do passably well — the combat — start to widen alarmingly quickly.
Most enemies in Chaosbane are relatively weak chaff who obligingly crowd around you to be dispatched by your various AOE attacks, which is pleasing to watch even if it is astoundingly braindead as an activity. However, these chaff enemies are leavened with miniboss enemies that have huge pools of HP and take literal minutes to burn down, and who have attack patterns that appear to rely on the player dodging out of the way extremely quickly. Except you can’t do this, because they move at the speed of treacle and every enemy in Chaosbane has an absolutely massive collision hitbox. The usual escape abilities ARPGs offer are present and correct but — for the Warrior at least — they are absolutely no help because both of his charge abilities will be stopped in their tracks if he so much as clips an enemy that’s in the way. It’s honestly ridiculous, not to mention absurdly frustrating, to attempt to open combat with your big charge AOE slam on a big group of beastmen only to get hung up on a tiny Nurgling that happened to be in the way. For contrast, when my Diablo 3 Barbarian uses his big AOE slam ability to initiate combat/escape combat, do you know what he does? He just leaps over anything that happens to be in the way. That’s the thing that actually makes it viable as a skill, and it’s something that Chaosbane pointedly doesn’t do. And to go back to those minibosses for a second, the hitboxes may be huge for collision purposes but when you click on them to attack them you’ll discover that your character is very picky over which part of the miniboss they’ll consent to hit with their sword, taking a huge detour around tails and wings and any other extruding body parts just so that they can hit them in the centre of mass. Meanwhile you’ve eaten one of the minibosses attacks because they require precise movement in order to dodge them and your guy has just gone walkabout.
Eurgh. That’s the story of my time with Chaosbane: abject, excruciating boredom that quickly turned to frustration at how low-effort and slipshod the whole thing was. It doesn’t even leverage the Warhammer universe effectively; story and setting are always nothing more than window dressing in an ARPG, but Chaosbane’s feels especially generic and disposable, with each act being themed around a different Chaos god and having exactly the same structure of a bunch of dungeon runs capped off with a bossfight against a Greater Daemon. I played until level 30 (out of 50) on my Warrior, and during that time I saw absolutely nothing to convince me that the remaining 20 levels weren’t going to be exactly the same tedious, shallow, repetitive experience. I also played a few levels as the Mage just to see if it was any different, and while they appear to have a slightly better time of it thanks to more imagination being shown in their range of spell skills the equipment variety is just as narrowly restrictive. I played solo, which appears to be especially dull since a lot of the skill effects are outright stated to be applied to your party members only rather than yourself; I imagine it is more fun in co-op, as most things usually are, but this would require you to con somebody else into buying Chaosbane with you. And quite frankly, knowing what you do now after reading this review, that is a crime for which you should be tried at the Hague. Please, stay away from it. If you have a hankering for an ARPG, please try Path Of Exile, which is free, or if you don’t like Path Of Exile you can try, I don’t know, literally anything else. Just don’t buy Chaosbane, under any circumstances. You’ll regret it if you do.