Turns out in the grim dark future of the 41st millennium, there is actually more than just war. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is vast and the lore that surrounds it incredibly rich and vibrant. Which is why I find it a little sad that pretty much all of the videogames adapted from Games Workshop’s venerable IP boil down to Space Marines Vs. Orks or Tyranids and occasionally Eldar. Which is why I was very happy to check out PixelHero Game’s Eisenhorn: Xenos. A game which for once allows players to see a part of the 40k universe which isn’t either the inside of a space hulk or another war ravaged battlefield.
Adapted from Dan Abnet’s novel of the same name, PixelHero Game’s third person action adventure puts players in the well-worn Ceramite boots of Gregor Eisenhorn; an Imperial Inquisitor tasked with protecting humanity from plots to overthrow the Imperium from within, be they alien, demonic or heretical in nature.
Acting as judge, jury and executioner (think Sherlock Holmes meets Judge Dread and you won’t go far wrong), Eisenhorn and his cohorts track a known recidivist to the ice planet of Hubris. After catching the bugger, and dispensing justice down the barrel of a gun (though sadly not soon enough to save several thousand citizens that were brought out of hibernation early), Eisenhorn uncovers an insidious plot to overthrow the emperor, and sets off on a crusade across the Imperium to bring the heretics to justice.
Sounds pretty awesome doesn’t it? From the little I’ve read of the book thus far (the game inspired me to give it a punt), it is. If you have even a passing love of 40k I would highly recommend checking out the novel that inspired Eisenhorn: Xenos. However, sadly I cannot do the same for the game (on PC anyway).
On iOS I have no doubt that Eisenhorn is probably one of the best action titles on the app store. It’s a full-fledged action adventure squeezed onto a device that rarely ever sees anything half as ambitious. However, on PC it’s cracks begin to show and then some.
Let’s start with the graphics; getting unreal Engine 3 to run on an iPhone is quite impressive. On PC it is archaic. Eisenhorn looks like a game from 2007, it doesn’t look like a game that should be on the Xbox 360/PS3. It looks like a launch title from last gen. Even with all the graphics settings rolled up to high it still looks fugly. The local populous of the planets you visit must have all been conscripted into the Imperial Guard, as the large halls and gothic structures of the Imperium are vast, empty, and pretty much lifeless structures and spaces that fail to impress. Meanwhile, the animation of the characters left behind to prop up the tale is poor, with facial animation particularly terrible; I’ve seen more expression from a glove puppet. Dialog is poorly synced and characters look awkward in cut scenes.
On the plus side though, the main cast deliver their lines really well and Mark Strong (who also played Titus in Space Marine) does a superb job of bringing Eisenhorn to life despite the limitations of the game. In fact, if they ever got around to making a live action film of this tale, he would definitely be good pick to play him.
The same cannot be said of the supporting cast, especially whoever they rounded up to do the VO for the games identikit guards and minor players that yelp and scream in the most comical of ways when you sneak up on them, and hunt for you in the shadows like some kind cyber cockney copper saying “what’s all this then?”
Speaking of sneaking, Eisenhorn’s stealth sections feel like they’ve been ripped wholesale out of the Arkham series, as does the combat, and to a lesser extent, using Eisenhorn’s hacking device. Actually, the easiest way to describe Eisenhorn: Xenos is as a second rate Arkham Asylum clone with a 40k paint job, with the occasional obnoxious minigame or QTE thrown in for good measure.
Stealth is fairly straight forward, you press B to crouch and then wander up to a guard from behind and hit the assassinate button. You don’t have to worry about being in the dark, or cover, or making noise as the enemy AI is as dumb as a box of rocks. So long as they don’t have a direct line of sight you are golden. Hearing their pitiful yelps as you curb stomp the buggers never failed to make me chuckle either. Mostly because the VO from the guards is so bad and so out of step with the action on screen that it’s amusing.
You can keep a bead on the guards by using Eisenhorn’s psychic powers, which (you’ve guessed it) is basically Batman’s detective vison except it actually makes it harder for you to spot guards unless they’re already aware of you. At which point they’re go from blending in with the rest of the blurry white mess that fills the screen to an angry red. It’s also occasionally used to help solve puzzles, though in these instances I found this out purely by accident. So if you get to a door and you can’t figure out a way forward, try pressing the snowstorm button.
Should you be unlucky enough that one of the guards spots you, all bets are off as they rigidly point a finger and every other bastard from what feels like a five-mile radius will come running; to stand around in a circle and wait for their turn to be killed, except the guys with lasguns, they’ll just shoot you in the back of the head. Combat follows the basic principle of the AA series without any of the finesse, rhythm or adequate parrying system. One button attacks, another fires your currently equipped weapon, which, to its credit, can be useful for softening up foes. Less useful is Eisenhorn’s psychic blast attack (used to knock over foes), but being the honourable sort Eisenhorn has no way of kicking the buggers in the head while they’re down. So you have to wait for them to get back up before resuming the fight. What’s more, rolling will save you from everything; gun pointed at your head? Roll. Guy about to hit you with his sword? Roll. All fights can be won, regardless of the horde of bastards you face, by liberal rolling, a little shooting and frantic mashing of the attack button.
To spice things up though, they’ve also added in a weird VATS system that allows you to target enemies and shoot or attack them in slow motion. Like the psychic blast, it is absolutely pointless in practice. Unless you really like seeing puffs of red pixels and awkwardly animated grunts rag dolling.
There’s also a small selection of weapons that Eisenhorn and his cohorts can buy and equip that do change the flow of combat a little, with you being able to trade your standard power sword in for a chainsaw or a Thunder Hammer (I wouldn’t recommend it though, as awesome as it looks, the damn thing is so slow that it’s a bloody liability, a terminator might be able to easily wield one, but Eisenhorn cannot) and your standard stub gun for a Laspistol, combat shotgun or (iconic and incredibly handy) bolt pistol.
When you’re not fighting hordes of identical guard characters, you’ll be hacking doors and the occasional laser or electrical barrier with Eisenhorn’s hacking thing (which looks a little like a gothic punk spectrometer from ghostbusters). It beeps when you’re close to something which needs hacking, so you get all the fun of metal detecting without any kind of material reward. If you’re really lucky though, you’ll be treated to Eisenhorn’s irritating hacking mini game in which you have to successfully remove blocks from a meter by pressing the hack button when the little triangle lines up with them. Get rid of all the blocks, and the hack is successful. Fail, and you just have to do it again, and again and again until you do. Success is based on luck rather than judgement and the game’s horrible habit of occasionally frame skipping makes it even harder.
Aside from hacking meters there’s also an odd psychic mini game where you either have to protect your mental fortitude or find a psychic presence on items by spinning them around and scanning them in a manner oddly reminiscent of the mining mini game from Mass Effect 2. You know, the most boring part of the game. Like the aforementioned hacking, these are mandatory and add nothing of any value to the experience other than to slow the pacing to a crawl and pad out the game.
However, despite this roster of problems, there is a part of me that has a soft spot for Eisenhorn: Xenos. Maybe it’s Mark Strong’s dulcet tones or the fact that I’m a huge fan of the setting, but I still found myself pressing on through the annoying minigames, repetitive combat and borderline broken QTEs to see what happened to Eisenhorn and his intrepid crew.
If you want something a bit more substantial to show off on your iPhone, Eisenhorn: Xenos is probably worth a punt. But on PC, where there are far more deserving titles, begging for your time and money, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you desperately NEED another Warhammer 40,000 themed game in your life to tide you over until Space Hulk: Deathwing comes out, AND it is heavily discounted.