Mankind must suffer, so mankind can survive. These words are a maxim for one of the greatest of Imperial Inquisitors, Gregor Eisenhorn of the Ordo Xenos!
Genre(s): Action Adventure
Developer: Pixel Hero Games
Publisher: Pixel Hero Games
Release Date: August 2016
Purchase At: Steam
Source: Review Copy provided by Publisher
I previewed Eisenhorn: Xenos, the video game adaptation of the Dan Abnett Warhammer 40.000 novel, a few months ago. I had a few criticisms on gameplay at the time and I was happy to see Pixel Hero Games had addressed some of those, particularly in terms of combat, but we’ll get to that.
Eisenhorn: Xenos, as I mentioned, is an adaptation of the first of the Eisenhorn trilogy books by Dan Abnett and not only introduces the grim Inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos—the branch of the inquisition seeking to quash any alien influence on the human-only Imperium of Man—and his companions but also sets him on a quest against a deadly conspiracy with ties to the Imperium’s greatest enemy, the forces of Chaos.
The game opens with Eisenhorn arriving on Hubris, a planet where most of the population enters cryostasis for about eleven months, pursuing the recidivist facilitator Murdin Eyeclone, a talented psyker and Eisenhorn’s prey for years. After vanquishing this foe once and for all, he finds ties to another world and an infamous family in the sector. His investigation leads to a civil war, a Chaos-morphed alien race and strange surreal landscapes that no man should ever witness.
Between my preview and this final version of the game I read the novel, couldn’t resist really. The preview copy sparked the desire in me to know more about the character and the events. After reading it, I can say that Pixel Hero Games did the best it could do to adapt the story in a coherent fashion, being very pragmatic in the way they cut stuff out, so that their adaptation still hits the necessary story beats that makes the plot work but cutting scenes that might have essentially been minutes-long cutscenes. The downside however is that it robs the audience of the chance of getting to know the cast, so when Eisenhorn narrates how a certain character has grown there is nothing to show for it. Same as when someone meets a grisly, you won’t feel anything.
A problem I have is that Pixel Hero Games tried to use as much of the source material as possible, which results in many sections where the script feels shoehorned, where the dialogues don’t match what’s happening onscreen. For example, early in the story, when we meet Fischig, he interrupts Eisenhorn a few times, prompting the Inquisitor to reply, “If he speaks again without me knowing who he is, I will throw him out of the window. And I won’t open it first.” In the novel, they are talking privately in a small office and Fischig is standing near a window. In the game, they’re in an auditorium with a large crowd.
Another example is when Eisenhorn meets Alizebeth, he tells her to get dressed, and while in the novel she’s completely nude, in the game she’s fully dressed, making the dialogue rather odd. And another scene with Alizebeth is when she runs away from the Chaos Space Marine and Eisenhorn concludes that she’d gazed too intently at the blasphemous runes on his armour…that the character model doesn’t have.
I would have preferred it if Pixel Hero Games had changed the dialogue to match their game, instead of trying to force the novel to fit their gameplay experience. In the above examples, they would’ve been subtle differences to match their game design. This would also have prevented some of the inconsistencies between gameplay and story such as a dead NPC still appearing as a secondary companion later in the game.
I liked having old-man-Eisenhorn narrate the entire thing whilst walking through the dim hallways of some strange structure, with only a Servoskull to light his path. These sequences act as a break between chapters and focus on Eisenhorn’s reflection of events. I prefer a game and novel show me things instead of telling, but it works here.
The greatest thing Pixel Hero Games does in Eisenhorn: Xenos is giving you complete freedom in how you want to approach a given situation. In the novel, Eisenhorn uses stealth and subterfuge, often talking his way through things but when a fight ensues, he draws his weapon and just jumps into the fray. In this game, however, you can do it all stealthily, assassinating your enemies or go Barbarian on them. For the first few sections of the game, I favoured stealth, particularly because a successfully takedown gave me a good handful of gold to spend on weapon upgrades, but then got tired and just went nuts with the combat, even in sections where Eisenhorn should be stealthy for plot-reasons.
This degree of freedom made me forgive the rather bland inventory and gold system, which feels unnecessary and adds very little to the experience. Eisenhorn only ever uses his custom Power Sword in melee, which has no physical blade but one of pure energy, yet in this game you have multiple unlockable weapons, none his signature weapon. You have power swords, but they’re the normal variety. It’s the same with the guns, the Scipio should’ve been enough.
The Saruthi levels are annoying. I get what the developers were trying to do, give you the same disorienting and maddening experience that Abnett describes in the novel but the result is an overly-long, confusing level that just isn’t fun. It killed off whatever goodwill I had for the game up until that point.
Also, the cutscene quick-time events. I don’t know what possessed Pixel Hero Games to add these, but insta-kill-on-failure quick-time events on two cutscenes was a horrendous idea.
As for the combat itself, I had some issues in the past with how weightless it felt, how weapons didn’t even have a proper thudding noise when you struck opponents and how its combo and stamina bar systems were inherently flawed. I was glad to see they revamped the entire thing and the combat is now better. I love tapping towards an attacking enemy and see Eisenhorn clash blades with them, parrying and trying to force open their defenses. If they get too hard or there are gunners, I just whip out the pistol and fill their noggins with hot lead. There are still moments where it feels like you’re hitting air, but they’re not that common anymore.
The inventory and equipment system might be flawed, but the combat does its job at making you feel like a badass Inquisitor. Having said so, the combat-capable companions are worthless and with a game with such linearity, an experience system for the secondary companions is a waste of time, as there is very little chance to level them all up or even do so for a single of them.
Another issue is with the Children of the Emperor bosses, the Chaos Space Marines. They are laughably easy, when in truth these are hulking monstrosities that no sane man would face in combat. I killed the first one with a few shots of my upgraded gun and the second one even faster.
The soundtrack is minimalist, meaning you won’t have background melodies at all times, but when they hit, they do so strongly. I still have the theme song of the final level playing in my head. It’s frankly epic and suits the assault on the alien planet perfectly.
Mark Strong is phenomenal in the role of Eisenhorn. He’s not just good at portraying him, he IS Eisenhorn, because every line is believable and you can hear the strength and conviction of the character in his voice. That is impressive.
Sadly, the rest of the voice acting is between humdrum and atrocious. Most of them mumble their lines and the others just don’t put any emotion in their characters. Midas Betancore and Alizebeth Bequin’s actors are the worst of the bunch. I couldn’t believe a single thing they said, even if they were just screaming in panic. They’re just terrible.
Eisenhorn is one of those game where you can tell the developers put most of the effort in creating environments, because whilst these look fantastic overall—though there is a great deal of asset recycling, forgivable in the very uniform human architecture of the Warhammer 40.000 universe—the character models are plastic and lifeless. When you control Eisenhorn, his movements are fluid but cutscenes are clumsy and take you out of the experience completely. The ‘standoff’ scene in Qualm is the worst of all. It has shockingly bad animation. And lip-syncing is all over the place. I would’ve preferred it if the characters didn’t move their lips at all. As I always say, don’t ad lip-sync if you can’t pull it off.
In the novel, Eisenhorn and his retinue wear casual clothes while on Gudrun, to hide his real identity but in the game he wears the same thing he does while out on missions. The only times he changes clothing are when he wears his official Inquisitor uniform and when he disguises as a soldier to prevent the Saruthi deal. It broke my immersion to see Eisenhorn infiltrating the cabal’s manor whilst pretending to be a merchant and not even bothering to put on a disguise.
Eisenhorn: Xenos is a flawed game, and to be honest I could write another article just picking it apart. It’s fun when it works and does a good job at adapting Dan Abnett’s novel, but there are too many issues that drag the experience down.
3/5 – Alright