If Dark Souls is the playground bully, then Mordheim is its abusive father, or at least that’s how the games starts out. Metaphors aside, it can be a brutal, maddening foray that faithfully recreates the cult tabletop hit of the same name. Having come out on PC earlier this year, it no brings that cruel difficulty to consoles.
Among Warhammer fans, Mordheim is mostly revered – a dark and complex offshoot that swaps huge armies for ragtag warbands, set in its titular City of the Damned. Once a sprawling city that prospered under the Empire, malice and greed attracted the attention of wrathful deities. From out of nowhere, a twin-tailed comet tears is cast down from dark skies, wreaking havoc upon Mordheim and its denizens. Abandoned and mostly obliterated, the ruined city is now home to mercenaries, zealots, and all kinds of strange, mutated creatures. They all vye for remnants of the comet, an arcane substance known as Wyrdstone.
Selecting one of the four warbands, Mordheim’s campaign is centred around the acquisition and delivery of these corrupting gemstones. Although there’s a heavy focus on tactical, turn-based combat, warband management and Wyrdstone shipments are equally as important. Even those blessed with lucky dice rolls may still come undone by spending their gold frivolously and failing to deliver their quotas on time. Losing warriors in battle can have a devastating impact, though failing to appease those bankrolling your expedition will end the campaign outright.
With this niggling thought in the back of your mind, Mordheim throws you right in at the deep end. Its tutorials are well-paced and very informative, but nothing can prepare you for what lies ahead. No matter which faction you choose, you’re presented with a frail gang of squires and underlings who each have a coffin already sized up. Although some will grow into battle hardened veterans, many will either perish or succumb to a shopping list of ailments.
In battle, beneath the fog of war, you come across a tangle of ruined buildings, with each blind turn often harbouring a trap or enemy ambush. In one of my first Mordheim campaigns, my leader manage to fall from a ledge into some toxic sludge before being set upon by three attackers. Needless to say, they made short work of him, placing a dire morale penalty on the rest of the warband who, after two more losses, simply routed.
Back at camp, my leader died of his wounds alongside another of my warriors. The third, meanwhile, had lost an eye, resulting in a permanent stat drop. To make matters worse, I had lost all the Wyrdstone gathered during that mission, as well as the equipment of my fallen mercs. With no money to recruit a new leader or buy weapons, I found myself at a dead end with no other option but to start another campaign.
In games like this, where a dodgy dice roll can cause all kinds of problems, I like to have a rewind button close at hand. When playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I shamelessly abused its save system, dialling back missions whenever something terrible had occurred. In Mordheim, however, developer Rogue Factor takes that crutch, snaps it in two, and uses it as kindling for your funeral pyre. You have no real option but to play in so-called Ironman mode.
Every action or decision will trigger an autosave – if your warband is about to be wiped out by the tiniest misjudgement then there’s nothing you can do but watch. That’s unless you have a USB stick handy, or access to cloud saves. Call me a cheat or a sore loser, I don’t care. If I need to covertly import/download save files to make progress then I will. If I hadn’t been so crafty, I’d no doubt be stuck on that same first mission, unable to explore much of the game’s content.
With a dozen or so successful mission under my belt, I now have a warband I genuinely care about. Again, as in XCOM, their feats in battle become tiny nuggets of emergent narrative. For instance, one of my longest-serving fighters, Klinger Ohnacker, has a ferocious charge that can tear just about any foes life bar in half. That’s pretty impressive, considering he hobbles around on a peg leg – a grim reminder of his encounter with Spinetaker the rat ogre.
When those stabilisers eventually fall away, Mordheim becomes a much easier, more enjoyable game to play. Gathering Wyrdstone becomes less of a chore, money quickly pours in, and the need for cheaty saving almost fades away entirely.
However, the way Mordheim is currently set up, most will be scared off by its imposing difficulty. On one hand, it’s easy to appreciate Rogue Factor’s hardcore dedication to the original tabletop game, but the barriers in place are needlessly taxing for newcomers. Having just a handful of difficulty levels that tweak income, mitigate damage, or influence dice rolls, would certainly go a long way.
Despite all this negative chat, I have to admit that Mordheim has me hooked. Now that I’m over the hill, I find myself consumed for hours at a time, honing my warband and revelling in each successive victory. Not everyone will have the time or patience to take the same path as I did, though, and that’s a major setback I hope Rogue Factor will try to address.