Many developers have attempted to capture the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium (and the high fantasy of the Old World) in video game form. Every Tuesday, Jonathan “Crion” Bernhardt will be diving into the games that use the Warhammer license and talking about what works, what doesn’t, and which ones are worth your time. This week, he’s tackling the most recent entry into the digital 40k pantheon, Inquisitor – Martyr.
The videogames of the Warhammer 40K universe likely need only some introduction at most in this space; when Games Workshop finally stopped dithering and made the plunge into fully licensing the tabletop product out to game studios almost two decades ago, there were two flagship titles: the entirely forgettable Warhammer 40K: Fire Warrior, a T’au-focused first person shooter, and the legendary Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War.
They weren’t the first video game titles that Games Workshop had given their blessing to, not by a long shot; Warhammer 40K had a title out as early as 1992 (Space Crusade, no official Warhammer titling) and Warhammer Fantasy in 1995 (the original Blood Bowl and Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat both came out that year). But there were nine total Games Workshop-licensed properties in the Warhammer space before 2003, and there have been some 70 games or substantive expansions to existing games since then, attempting to cover most of the tabletop play modes (especially in the 40K brand) as well as putting out a steady stream of games using the 40K license to inform more traditional playstyles and genres; for instance, Warhammer 40K: Space Marine was an excellent take on the third-person cover shooter, while last year’s Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus was a turn-based, action point-based isometric tactical game taking generous inspiration from the new XCOM games by Firaxis and older titles like Fallout Tactics.
This piece won’t concern any of the above games; we’re going to start this feature a bit humbly, with a wonky, overproduced title from 2018 that despite a massive overhaul in a 2.0 patch still doesn’t quite hit the highs its price point hopes for. Warhammer 40K: Inquisitor – Martyr released last year to mixed reviews at best, and just recently soft-relaunched itself during Steam’s summer sale with a 50% off price point and a comprehensive update that took into account the community’s critiques of the game.
Inquisitor is an action RPG, which is a bafflingly generic term that nevertheless has come to identify the genre of real-time third-person character and loot-based hack-and-slash games that the Diablo franchise helped codify and which is best represented in 2019 by games like Path of Exile, Grim Dawn, and Diablo III (though Blizzard’s last entry into the franchise is beginning to show its age). Inquisitor, even after its 2.0 patch, is not a game on that level. More appropriate comparisons might be found in 2015’s Victor Vran or The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing trilogy, which released from 2013-2015. Both Vran and Van Helsing brought a spirit of experimentation to the genre which was welcome but didn’t always quite work. Both were released post-Diablo III while the game foundered on the rocks of the Auction House model; not until the Reaper of Souls expansion in 2014 did that game find its real footing, and the season system wouldn’t come together until six months or so after Reaper released.
It’s not particularly surprising that Inquisitor plays like Van Helsing, of course — NeocoreGames developed both properties. But where Van Helsing experimented very heavily with tower defense elements (so much so that a game based on the tower defense mechanics in Van Helsing would be released in 2015 under the title Deathtrap) and focused its main pitch to players on a character and story-based single player experience which rewarded side-questing and engaging with its pulpy, Eastern European aesthetic, Inquisitor has a much tougher time finding an identity.
To the extent that it has one on the top level, Inquisitor’s main claim is that it’s an always-online experience with somewhat-seamless multiplayer on a variety of procedurally-generated maps. There are a dozen or so star systems in the game which range from low to high level play; each planet has an arbitrary number of missions at any given time, and completing those missions increases your reputation with the system. This means certain loot or stat rewards once thresholds are met, but it also means leaderboards: the player with the most reputation in a certain system gets a shout-out on the system select screen. Players can also apply additional difficulty modifiers to these procedurally-generated missions in order to increase the rewards they gain for completing them (along with increasing the difficulty in general), but a recurring problem is that the suggested mission level usually tells you very little about how hard a mission actually is — that depends on what character class you’re playing, how you’re built, and whether the faction you’re fighting in the mission spawns any hard counters to what you’re playing. For instance, a level 17 melee crit Assassin might find a level 14 Purge mission (kill all enemies) against the Rebel Imperial Guard or Dark Eldar (Drukhari, now) much harder than they would against a level 17 Chaos Purge, due to the elite enemy spawns for the Guard and Dark Eldar being far more likely to be armored and ranged tanks with armored and ranged adds. Chaos, on the other hand, prefers to overwhelm with volume of tiny adds and high HP elites, which ranged Crusaders might find hard to handle given the ammo or overheat bars they have to manage for their ranged weapons.
No level-matching system is perfect, but in Inquisitor your fortunes are much more predicated on who you’re fighting, which of their pieces spawn, and what tools your build has to deal with them than what ‘level’ the map is. In a way this is preferable, and for veteran players, leads to deeper gameplay — but it also means you can’t trust the game’s main shorthand for describing a mission.
While the story was a major selling point of the Van Helsing series — despite the constant corny jokes and five-years-outdated pop culture references, the games had a strong, well-plotted throughline and the two main characters, Van Helsing and his ghost ally/nanny Katarina, were charming and fully realized — it’s difficult to say the same of Inquisitor – Martyr. There is a fairly substantive campaign arc, and those missions have their own special, lower difficulty levels so that players still going through the story don’t have to deal with the problems described above quite so keenly, but the game can’t escape the fundamental fact that it’s a hack-and-slash starring an Inquisitor, and that is absolutely an issue.
It’s very difficult to make an Inquisitor a compelling main character in the first place; the men and women of the Inquisition work much better as foils and secondary characters than protagonists, primarily because the nature of their order is fundamentally opposed to both character development and interiority. Perhaps the worst thing to be said about Inquisitor is that it represents these characters faithfully: they run about space hulks, stations, and planetary surfaces, murdering most everyone they come across and revelling in it when they think about it at all. This is perfectly fine for a character in a lore book given a few lines of fluff or a side character that your Space Marine or Imperial Guard protagonist distrusts, fears, or disdains as is appropriate; it’s quite another thing to spend 30+ hours with this person. The voice acting for all three Inquisitor class “chassis” is workmanlike but ultimately unfulfilling; the voice actors seem skilled but told to fully camp it up at all times, and while that might sound like how a 40K character should be approached, it actually isn’t how the voice direction in games like Space Marine or Dawn of War played out. The ridiculous bombast was always offset at points by sincere character moments, usually for other members of the command squad or party. Inquisitor is full bombast, and it isn’t helped by the writers being unable to resist inserting sarcasm, understatement, and hyperbole into the lines of both the Inquisitor and the NPCs they converse with. While that worked to great effect in Van Helsing, it falls flat in a setting entirely unfriendly towards first-order quipping. Most of the time, the voice actors don’t seem to know how to handle it.
There are other odd bits — the game is almost unplayable on keyboard and mouse instead of gamepad, in my opinion, and for some reason the UI for the gamepad has the abilities activated by the Right Trigger and Right Bumper on the left side and the abilities activated by LT and LB on the right — and there are genuinely interesting mechanical choices, like the addition of a cover system and an ablative “suppression” shield-like resource which has the upshot of making you more vulnerable the more ranged fire you sustain while standing in the open. In the end, however, Inquisitor is an intriguing mediocrity, and it’s hurt by the fact that when the game ends its life cycle — and it will be a rather short one — the always-online nature of the product means that those who do find it rewarding will only be able to play it so long as the public servers are maintained. It’s worth a purchase on sale, and if you love ARPGs (I, personally, play way too many of them) it’s a good change of pace once you’ve finished Grim Dawn’s latest expansion and Path of Exile’s new season. But it was the wrong developer to tap for the wrong corner of the 40K universe. To be honest, It’s hard to imagine a faction that NeocoreGames’s sense of humor would work for in the grim darkness of WH40K’s far future. The good news is, you can always reinstall Van Helsing.
Final verdict: If it’s on sale and you’re a sucker for ARPGs, this is worth the buy at a 40-50% off discount. Otherwise, just not enough there with not enough polish to really justify the purchase.
Next time: We’ll go positive and take a look at a game that perfectly executes on its premise, starring some unlikely heroes: Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus.