Two outsiders approach a towering door of plated gold carved into the visage of an Aquila. Its custodians fail to greet the new arrivals, only for their bloody corpses to be found moments later. Drawing weapons, the two advance inside as the dying screams of thousands of innocents begin to resonate through the gothic corridors.
“Come,” Eisenhorn narrates, “and let me show you how I killed Eyclone.”
It’s a scene almost every fan of Warhammer 40,000 would recognise, iconic to one of Black Library’s most venerated trilogies. Often serving as the story all future novels are to be measured against, the character arcs and gradual downfall of its protagonist allows it to remain in high regard over a decade after its official release. As a result of this reputation however, there was naturally some resistance when a mobile video game adaptation was announced. Having been handed over to a relatively unknown studio, the lingering memories of Storm of Vengeance and other misfires led many fans to immediately write this off as Deus Ex: The Fall 40,000. Thankfully, upon being offered the chance to sit down to play a pre alpha of Eisenhorn: Xenos, it was quickly evident this couldn’t be further from the truth.
From the very start it’s obvious that Pixel Hero Games are working on a universe they love. Despite the vast difference in budget, the attention to detail on hand rivals that of 2011’s Space Marine, with many concepts having been drawn from John Blanche’s surrealist imagery. This is obvious as much from the piles of old artbooks littering the studio as it is the industrial, grimy design of the game’s opening environment, carefully matching the descriptions of oddly archaic futuristic technology.
While it would have been easy to simply replicate more traditional science fiction scenes, add a few skulls and call it a day, each location screams tales of the Grim Darkness of the Forty-First Millenium. This is more evident than ever when the game breaks out into the vast, sweeping cityscapes and towering artificial canyons of the Imperial worlds. While retaining a few of the usual tropes of a futuristic metropolis, the player is granted a look at a world more akin to a feudal civilisation granted technology far beyond its comprehension. The gothic aesthetic of Gudrun’s stonework and spiked railings speak of a more war hardened 16th century society, while the frozen world of Hubris seems to be Blade Runner as if envisioned in the 1920s. It brings about a sense of real wonder and atmosphere, and you can often find yourself stopping to admire the grim beauty between caving in the craniums of heretics.
In what is sure to be a surprise to many naysayers, the Xenos’ graphics are far from inferior. While certainly stylised, in many respects the texture quality outstrips that of the last major Warhammer 40,000 releases. Rather than the painted look many of Space Marine’s characters retained, the use of HDR lighting and physically based rendering with the Unreal engine throws a few grains of realism into the world. Small details such as how cloth, armour, leather and plated metal catch the light or their signs of wear and tear show through in each cutscene. Whether it’s through looking at the longcoat of Eisenhorn’s civilian disguise or the massive suits of powered armour worn by the Deathwatch, there’s a real sense of age and character to hostiles and friendly NPCs alike.
The aesthetics on display assist in giving Xenos a tense atmosphere which surpasses most other games set in this universe, and helps to distract the player from its linearity. Despite the detail present, you’re often going to find yourself walking down a set route with little opportunity to veer off to truly explore the world. There’s a few secrets and side passages to be sure, but there’s usually only a single way forwards with little room to truly manoeuvre. However, it’s handled in a manner akin to Bioshock: Infinite, using a mixture of cutscenes, fast pacing and open environments to hide that fact. Every time you start to realise you’re running down a glorified corridor, some new element will quickly emerge to distract you from this detail.
When the game does break from its more linear format, opening up into broader maze-like environments, it’s often to take greater advantage of Xenos’ stealth system. The mechanics and level design at these points retain shades of an Arkham title intended for handheld gaming, with Eisenhorn quietly subduing his foes and using the occasional air vent to his advantage. Well, Arkham with the added bonus of playing a telepath of course. Atop of yanking guards over walls and hiding bodies, there’s the added bonus of Eisenhorn’s telepathic abilities wreaking havoc with the sentries. Along with the option to briefly blind them, the Inquisitor can coerce certain figures to move about the room to his will. As you’re sneaking about areas such as the Glaw Estate, this can assist in dragging certain guards out of formation or pulling them into a corner so you can quietly kill them.
The stealth segments of Xenos sidestep the all too common mechanical crutch of instant failure states, and there is always the option to fight your way through crowds. This will make life far more difficult, and while it might result in anything from having to hack through a dozen elite guards or resisting having Eisenhorn’s mind shredded, it’s ever an option on hand. However, because of this there’s never a point where you become overly comfortable with one approach to challenges. The moment you do settle upon one fix all solution, the game adds some new spin upon its core mechanics which can render it useless. It’s more engaging than simply shifting scenes or switching around guard movements, and helps to ensure you can’t overcome every single problem via chain-axe. Well, not without some considerable resistance anyway.
Speaking of the combat mechanics, no single element seems to have drawn more scorn from Games Workshop’s fandom. This in no small part thanks to an unfortunate trailer, which seemingly presented combat as a sequence of QTE challenges over true control. Thankfully, this is hardly the case and Xenos has more in common with Dark Souls than it does Ryse: Son of Rome in this regard. You’re rewarded for waiting for openings, taking advantage of counters and launching precision strikes rather than blindly hacking away. A massive part of this is down to the game’s stamina meter, which gradually drains with every blow until you need to pause and recharge upon hitting zero. This naturally leaves you unable to attack for a few seconds, and open to any maniac with a hand cannon within striking distance. While avoiding Assassin’s Creed syndrome of having counters overcome all obstacles, it transformers combat into a surprisingly methodical sequence of timed attacks.
While the bulk of the combat is handled via Eisenhorn’s power blade, his pistol serves to keep a foe off balance or dispatch weakened enemies. Nailing a cultist with half a magazine will not have half the effect as a short combo of sword swipes, yet combined with a kick to keep them at bay it can allow the player some breathing room when at low health. Eisenhorn’s own psychic abilities are ever in play and can be used for a few distinct attacks, most notably briefly turning an enemy to your side mid-battle. It’s admittedly simple approach in some regards, but combined with the companion system, equipment and Pause For Breath mechanic allows for a far more tactically diverse experience than many give the game credit for.
Said Pause For Breath mechanic freezes combat momentarily in place. Serving as a more elegant version of Fallout’s V.A.T.S. system, it drains the stamina meter but allowing the player to launch a series of powerful controlled strikes into his foes. Quickly shifting the nature of the battle, it allows you to refocus your attacks and quickly wipe the floor with a foe before they react. It’s hardly an instant kill system, but it means you can lay down a barrage of attacks before the enemy can fully react, and plan out your next moves between frantic battles. Of course, this overrides the few dozen executions the developers have lined up, so it’s sometimes more beneficial to handle finishers personally.
As mentioned in our prior interview, there are various companions which will accompany Eisenhorn throughout his investigations, some combat focused while others are more passive in their effects. Bringing Lowink, an astropath in Eisenhorn’s retinue, will boost the impact of his psychic effects, while the savant Aemos will lessen the difficulty of the hacking minigame. At the other end of the spectrum there are then bodyguards assigned to help directly in combat, ranging from Arbites to soldiers, each wielding a variety of armaments from across the Imperium. Their impact in battle will vary, but those displayed were good, solid options for tailoring how you want to approach a mission.
Speaking of armaments, Pixel Hero Games delved deeply and greedily into the lore, grabbing just about every kind of gun and weapon possible for the setting. More than one cultist seemed to be clutching a bulky Necromunda era autopistol, but even Eisenhorn himself can be set to carry an astounding number of weapons. With a good sixty items on hand, it really allows players to tailor the character to their needs from a warrior to a detective, with many inflicting his speed, stamina and sheer stopping power. You’ll need to purchase further upgrades as the game goes on rather than accessing them directly, which can be accomplished via the shop front found at save points.
Still, more so than the mechanics, many fans have been left wondering just how the story will hold up. In truth, it’s more an adaptation than a direct translation, but before those reading pick up their torches and pitchforks you might want to hear how.
While the majority of the story in question aligned well with what was needed for a video game (especially the opening chapters, which introduce his abilities bit by bit) others were more difficult. Large chunks of the plot go without much in the way of action, or often boil down to fighting one or two foes at the most. As such, rather than removing or rearranging key events, certain examples have been exaggerated. Say in one fight book mentioned only five or six foes; instead the game might be a good twenty, up-scaling the battle for a more challenging experience. Take for example the Inquisitor’s early raid on a criminal held apartment, which in the novel came down to fighting a small handful of things in one or two rooms. Instead, here the size of the gang has been increased alongside the grandiose scale of the building.
Certain plot points are also skimmed over or elongated for the sake of a smoother overall experience. While breaking into a criminal manor is now a far more extensive task, requiring multiple operations to just get inside, other events such as a bike chase are mentioned but not shown. As such, the script plays fast and loose with certain developments, but ultimately sticks to the core essentials of what’s needed. This is especially obvious when you realise a large chunk of the dialogue has been directly lifted from the novels, from exchanges between the villains to Eisenhorn’s narration. In the few minor alterations, Pixel Hero Games made it clear that they were in contact with Dan Abnett to smooth over certain fine details; notably the pronunciation of half the daemonic items which cropped up in the novel.
A few other discrepancies exist thanks to alterations by Games Workshop itself, from omitting any mention of the Imperial Guard in favour of Astra Militarum to the removal of Eisenhorn’s power sword. Well, not the complete removal, it just looks a lot more like a traditional blade and less like a lightsaber. While such details might rub some fans the wrong way, it is partially justified by the game’s framing device. Excusing his narration, Xenos opens up revealing an aged Eisenhorn reflecting upon his life. What the player is experiencing is less the detailed records of old cases down to the minutest bits of information than it is his personal memories; ones perhaps somewhat warped by age and his personal involvement. This isn’t to say it’s detrimental in any way, and does help to expand upon certain areas the novel left largely unmentioned such as the nightmares haunting the Inquisitor.
If there is an issue to be found in the storytelling, it’s one which is sadly inherent within the source material itself. For all the times he’s called an Inquisitor and the story shows him delving into mysteries, Eisenhorn himself rarely engaged in true detective work. Often veering closer to Die Hard than Sherlock Holmes, much of the book’s meat was focused upon the big battles and often skimmed over the actual investigative processes. When you had his retinue following a trail, it either led to a fight in some way or it was used to time-skip between events. As a result, those inspecting the opportunity to piece together crime scenes or the like will be sorely disappointed.
When all’s said and done, is Eisenhorn: Xenos the game everyone is hoping for? No. It’s certainly no Witcher and definitely not anything on the same scale as Dragon Age. However, does it do the source material justice? From this first impression, the answer is a resounding yes. While it might have been made with handheld gaming in mind, this was done without compromising its quality. Going from this early look, we’re going to see a final product which is less Mass Effect: Infiltrator than it is Resistance: Retribution or Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.
If you’re one of those who wrote this off as quick cash in, definitely give it another look upon release. This writer went into the development studio with more than a few lingering doubts but, after seeing the obvious care put into bringing the Inquisitor’s story to life, he walked away with a broad grin on his face.