Oi. Mate. See that skull? That is the skull of a demon who stood betwixt my axe whirling dwarf and a nice new pair of trousers, for I have been playing angry Topman visit simulator Warhammer: Chaosbane, a serviceable ARPG that’s a fair bit more interesting than Diablo 3 but probably slightly less interesting than a top end hand blender. Confused? Excellent. Let the merciless torture of wonky metaphors commence.
Let’s talk about friction, flow, reward loops, and chickpea paste. Imagine you are making houmous . You have a bowl of chickpeas and an exceptionally effective hand blender. You press the blender down unto the chickpeas, hold the button down, and wiggle your wrist about in a blendy motion. Awed by your considerable power, the malleable, pathetic chickpeas offer no resistance. This is nice, you think. I will make this houmous and then I will take it to cooking class and fling it in the instructor’s eyes, shouting “who uses too much paprika now, Steve?”, as his soft eyeballs melt under the onslaught of searing paprika.
You lovingly stir the correct amount of paprika into the houmous, discard the four empty paprika jars, and continue to blend. But something is wrong. You glance at the empty jars, then recoil in horror. That wasn’t paprika at all - you zedonk, you absolute barnacle - but dozens of tiny clumps of sand, arguably the worst spice going. Your once-smooth blending experience is now periodically interrupted by short bursts of resistance, as the powerful blades struggle momentarily against the sandy clumps. The clumps give way quickly, but these discrete instances of adversity are enough to, if not shake you from complacency, at least give you a friendly nudge.
Chaosbane defines itself in these tiny instances of friction that break up the flow of holding down a button to smoothly mulch through an ocean of solid obstacles. Most of these obstacles are more aggressive than sandy chickpeas, although only some of them are smarter.
Chaosbane throws your chosen dwarf, crusty elf, posh elf, or Monty Python extra into a war against the forces of chaos. You’ll be doing the clicky thing through four different environments, each inhabited by a different aspect of Chaos. Nurgle-rotted sewers. Snow-dusted forests and opulent Slaaneshi hideaways.The blood-flecked cobbles of Khorne-ravaged village streets. Alien Tzeentch temples. All are visually spectacular in their lore-reverent detail and all are stitched together from long corridors and circular arenas, free of the cognitive burden of a single navigation puzzle or scrap of storytelling. You will be blocked in the corridors and swamped in the arenas, and in response you will mulch and continue to mulch until all the mulchables have evaporated. Then you will get some shinies. You will move closer toward your objective. You will know it is your objective because it glows on the minimap. Mulch. Mulch. Mulch.
If this sounds dismissively bleak, I should point out that Chaosbane is really quite good at making this endless mulch feel both chunky and rewarding. The crowds of cultists and demons have health just inflated enough to gum up your hand blender for the split second required to convincingly emulate blades or arrows or bullets connecting with flesh. The pool of sound effects is replete with ichorous ‘urghs’ and blood-slick slashy wooshes, whip-sharp and layered and relentless. Special abilities are announced with pyrotechnic bursts of energy and even basic attacks invite a dam collapse of sticky crimson.
Even amidst the visual and sonic bedlam, it’s impressive how readable everything is. While basic shitmobs will offer themselves up before you, half-heartedly nibbling at your thicc dwarfish ankles and composing their own headstone quotes, some of the rarer enemies introduce powerful but telegraphed attacks. More sand in the houmous, and a reason to use your brain, if only briefly. You can get slowed, or poisoned, and possibly some other status effects the game doesn’t tell you about. Sometimes a yellow circle will appear on the ground and you’ll have to move before you get hit. Sometimes a demon will do a telegraphed wind-up with a large pointy thing and again, you’ll have to move before you get hit. Flow. Friction. Flow. Mulch. Duck. Mulch.
This all plays into the absolute best thing Chaosbane has going for it, which is that (up until early endgame, at least) the focus is much more on character abilities than loot. It’s not that the loot is entirely boring. The dwarf, for example, can equip different beards. It's more that, in a game that makes very little effort to hide the fact that it’s effectively an elaborate Skinner box, steadily increasing numbers on near-identical shinies tend to lose their lustre rapidly. The abilities are good, though. There’s a healthy mix of area-of-effect attacks , ranged attacks, crowd control, evasive moves and buffs. Your basic attacks fill an energy globe which is then spent on the special attacks. Some special attacks set up foes for more effective basic attacks. There’s also a big double bastard extra special move you can do sometimes when you collect enough red orbs.
This all feeds into a loop of creating custom loadouts that reward using certain combinations. As you progress, you’re given steadily more points to spend on a loadout consisting of active abilities and passive buffs. You could, for example, prioritise abilities that stun enemies, then equip a passive buff that gives you a damage bonus against those stunned enemies. There’s similar things you can do with bleeding, at least as the Dwarf. So, while it’s not all that exciting to swap out your tartan pants of righteous slaughter for an identical pair of revenge pants with a 2% damage increase, it is involving to tinker with your character then sit back and soak up the slightly more efficient mulching the game rewards you with.
The loot system opens up later with the inclusion of gem fragments, a collectible resource that has a couple of uses. You can use them to unlock permanent character buffs along an upgrade tree, and to customise your equipment. There’s something like seven different difficulty levels, and with the progressively better loot, it seems effectively set up to keep you under the illusion that using the same moves to mulch through same enemies in the same environments has purpose hundreds of hours later. If you’ve played Diablo 3, you know the drill. You know, the same one you used to bore a gigantic hole in your forehead until you decided playing Diablo 3 was a good idea. If not, congratulations on the several languages you picked up in all the free time you had.
Here’s a list of things Chaosbane does that don’t warrant their own paragraph. The online play is easy to set up but a tad jittery when I played with some people in America land. You can only hear your own character’s combat barks in multiplayer. I’m a big fan of Vermintide’s acerbic banter between characters, and feel it achieves some great world-building in an economic and entertaining way, so this is a bit disappointing. The matchmaking is smooth and works well. At the end of each stage you’ll fight a greater Daemon. They all look suitably awe-inspiring but the test skills that don’t really translate to the rest of the game, and feel awkward as a result. The game has couch co-op. Thank you, Chaosbane team. You did a good thing here.
Here’s a thing that does warrant its own paragraph. I said earlier that the best thing it does is the prioritisation of abilities over loot . I lied. The absolute best thing Chaosbane does are called archetype abilities. They’re bound to the right analogue stick or some such nerdy keyboard square I don’t care about, and each character has their own party trick . The wood elf has a roll and the soldier had a shield bash. These are fine, but they are not an axe on a chain with which you can propel yourself across the map into the collective face of shitmob, which is what the dwarf has. Even better, the high elf wizard can control the direction of his spells, which adds an entirely new set of mulching possibilities into the mix, like a spicy, explosive jar of delicious murder-prika.
So, if you feel like switching your brain off for a bit and doing some serviceable mulching then....maybe? I feel like Eko Software had a chance to bring back some of that dread and foreboding to the Diablo formula that Diablo 3 did away with. Warhammer is baroque and silly but it’s also rich with detail and tragic heroes, and Chaosbane plays the whole thing a bit straight, storywise. The environments, lavishly detailed as they are, lack any real sense of place. The forces of chaos themselves lack personality, or even much differentiation. It's still very well made for what it is, though. Sometimes, frictionless is just what you need.