Grim and gritty.
Coincidences are a funny thing. A few months ago, I was at a tabletop gaming convention and met Dan Abnett; the writer of the “Eisenhorn” trilogy – a series of novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe. Shortly afterwards, I got assigned to preview Eisenhorn: Xenos, based on Abnett’s aforementioned books. I mentioned this on our lovely Jay Petrequin’s podcast a little while ago, but when Jay asked me about my impressions of meeting Abnett, I honestly couldn’t remember a anything he’d said. He seemed like an alright sort of bloke, but he didn’t say anything that stuck in my mind. Eisenhorn: Xenos is quite similar: it’s slightly above par in some respects and slightly below in others, but never in any really notable way. It drags itself back from the extremes in one’s memory and into the easily-forgettable middle.
The story of Eisenhorn: Xenos is its strongest suit. The plot concerns the hard-done-by Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn: a man entrusted by the Imperium to purge the galaxy of alien infiltrators, and the heretical forces of Chaos. Any worries Abnett’s fans might have of the story not being grim-dark enough are immediately dispelled. This tale is skillfully prefaced with interludes where a broken-down, mutiliated Eisenhorn limps down a corridor filled with chains – following a flying skull – relating his sorry tale while he muses about how suffering is the cosmic price for humanity’s continued survival. I thought this was a great hook to start things off as I played through the levels, wanting to see how Eisenhorn had gotten into this hopeless state.
It’s quite admirable how satisfyingly grim Eisenhorn’s tale of perseverance and sacrifice is, when the hero’s journey is many such games is so often a glitzy wish fulfillment fantasy. One issue is that Eisenhorn and his companions can be stony-faced and stoic to the point of monotony. We really get a sense of the weighty burdens Eisenhorn is willing to shoulder for the greater good, but it’s difficult to get our emotional hooks into him when he never seems to show much of the warmth and humanity he has to suppress. The twisty-turny plot involving conspiracies of ancient and terrible origin kept my interest, but the characterization took the grim-dark ethos a little too far. Living in England, I encounter enough sour-faced, miserable people on a daily basis already!
Combat has been improved since I originally took a look at Eisenhorn: Xenos. There’s a good bit more “oomph” added to the proceedings now that Eisenhorn’s sword can carve off enemy limbs or savagely impale them – with blood gouting everywhere like a Quentin Tarrantino film about a clumsy surgeon. There’s an emphasis in chaining together combos of melee strikes. To do this, there’s a focus on hitting your next attack just as the previous one ends (much like in the original Witcher). You can also attack at range with your trusty sidearm (which can range from a skewering bolt pistol to a face-metling plasma gun). There’s also a “pause for breath” meter which – when filled – allows you to slow down time and queue up your attacks. If you’re thinking “Really? That hasn’t been original for over fifteen years. What makes it unique?” then I’d have to answer “nothing”. The combat in Eisenhorn: Xenos is generic and repetitive, repetitive, repetitive.
The upgrade system in Eisenhorn: Xenos is as basic as it is pointless. You can buy various weapons which are – apparently – effective against different types of enemies (though almost all enemies fall into the category of “dudes with guns” and “dudes with swords”). However, you can only switch weapons at designated points, and you’ve got no way of anticipating what types of enemies you’ll face ahead. In the end, you’ll just invest all your money in upgrading one melee weapon and one side-arm and wonder why you’re even given the choice at all.
There’s also the option to choose a combat buddy to fight alongside you. The inclusion of this though, seems ill-advised, as the mere fact it’s there just seems to advertise its own redundancy. You can buy better weapons for your companion and they’ll batter opponents alongside you, but you can’t give them any commands or execute any kind of combo attacks. They’re just a big blob of hitpoints to distract enemies while you hack away. Worse still, they’re not even with you the vast majority of the time, so spending your hard-earned cash buying better weapons for them seems like a huge waste. When my armour-plated ally: Arbitrator Fischig – with a square-jaw and a no-nonsense attitude to rival Eisenhorn himself – popped out of a drop pod to heroically rescue me from certain death, my response wasn’t “Thank God you’re here”, but rather “Where the hell have you been for the last five hours?”
It’s surprising how often stealth can be a viable solution for the big, burly inquisitor Eisenhorn. Strewn about your surroundings are a series of waist high walls which are perfect for crouching behind (but oddly give you no opportunity for cover-shooting). You can perform stealthy takedowns, sneaking up behind venal heretics to put them on a chokehold or give them a quick smack on the noggin. You can also lure them towards you with Eisenhorn’s psychic abilities, making it easier to pick off patrols one at a time.
The problem is that what’s on offer here is mind-numbingly simplistic compared to third person stealthy offerings. You can’t pull soldiers over desks, grab them from around corners, or leap onto them from air vents. You can’t shimmy along balconies and tug them off roofs or anything exciting like countless Assassin’s Creed games have conditioned us to expect. You just duck behind some cover, lure a hapless goon over and hit the execute button for one of a paltry three takedown animations. Rinse and repeat. There’s a sliver of complexity added, as choosing the astropath or scholar as your third party member will let you either hack marauding servo skulls or blind patrolling guards respectively. Other than giving you a couple hotspots to waggle your crosshair over, this really adds no new depth to the shallow gameplay.
Eisenhorn: Xenos is as somber as a funeral dirge performed by Radiohead on a cold day. The scenery around our devoted inquisitor can be quite beautiful – in a drab, low-tech sort of way. Gleaming gold-coated cathedrals and mansions basking in the dim light of artifical suns abound – all glossed over by a grainy, washed out filter that has subtle scratches on it; like you’re playing the game through a pair of weathered, dirty glasses. There’s a few glitches and niggles: Eisenhorn’s lips not moving properly when he speaks, his feet hovering above the ground or his necklace, but nothing serious. Like everything else in the game: presentation has its ups and downs, but these are only little bumps and potholes on the road to mediocrity.
Eisenhorn: Xenos was fun in parts, but sometimes it felt so rote, I just started to zone out and think about something else while playing – sometimes snapping back to reality when an interesting cutscene or a boss fight started. If you’re a devotee of Warhammer 40k universe, you’ll be pleased to find a loyal, straightforward adaptation of an acclaimed novel series from that world – which commits to 40k’s oppressive aura with religious fervour. If not, Eisenhorn: Xenos is a passable, but forgettable way to occupy your twitchy thumbs for a few hours.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) iOs; Publisher: Pixel Hero Games ; Developer: Pixel Hero Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 10th, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Eisenhorn: XENOS provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.