Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, a turn-based tactical XCOM-like, is decidedly unsubtle. A colon and a dash! “Daemon” with an a! The excess! Like Games Workshop’s iconic pumped-up Space Marines, there’s something exuberant about this game. From the soaring cathedral spires of your battlecruiser HQ to your hulking, Grey Knight supersoldiers, Daemonhunters’ aesthetic is thunderously loud.
Only a few minutes into the tutorial mission, my gruff squad of four Grey Knights are shoulder-barging through blast doors and into a demonic lair in slow motion. A group of underlings linger in the corner, so I issue the command to hurl a frag grenade at their feet. The top-down tactical view suddenly and slickly zooms in on the projectile, the camera admiring the grenade’s contours for a split second, before doing a bullet time spin and zooming back out for a devastating overlook. On the same turn, I tell a second knight to slam into a pillar, thereby toppling it over and wrecking another congregation of enemies.
In my long campaign against the forces of Chaos, I witnessed these door breaching, grenade-throwing, and pillar-knocking animations countless times, and yet, after 40 long hours, I still haven’t gotten tired of seeing them play out. I haven’t gotten tired of watching my fully decked-out squad teleporting down to a planet in a flash of fibrous lightning. Nor have I grown bored with my favorite little toy-soldier man: the Interceptor. Like many of the game’s classes, he’s melee-focused — but he can also teleport. He functions as a bit of a one-man army, appearing behind enemy lines to massacre weaker foes, or keeping larger targets at bay with the Daemon Hammer’s knockback effect (he can also knock enemies off cliffs and into pits, which feels a bit like cheating in the best way possible).
Much like Gears Tactics, Daemonhunters is an aggressive simplification of the XCOM formula. Gone are the percentage-based miss chances, and with them, much of the complexity of Firaxis’ sprawling sci-fi series.
Instead, Daemonhunters deploys a fast-paced system of stuns and executions, where successive attacks drain a meter, force an enemy to their knees, and allow for a melee execution that awards additional Action Points to everyone in the squad. Used efficiently, it’s possible to keep your turn going almost indefinitely. My Interceptor, psychically buffed by his fellow Justicar and pumped with the Apothecary’s biomancy, blinks from one swift execution to the next, allowing the squad’s momentum to gather as they roll on and crush the enemy beneath them like an unstoppable juggernaut.
While the moment-to-moment combat is snappy, things begin to drag over the course of the wider campaign. As is the case in XCOM, Daemonhunters places a strategic layer on top of its turn-based skirmishes. This layer tasks you with upgrading various sections of the Baleful Edict battlecruiser, from the industry of the Manufactorum to the research of the Libris (as is often the case in the Warhammer 40K universe, the Empire’s proper nouns are Latinized.)
Using the map in your ship’s Strategium, you’ll bounce around a web of star systems, desperately clearing up the plagues and infestations wreaking havoc on the local cluster, like an elaborate game of whack-a-mole. Daemonhunters’ antagonists are the Nurgle — grotesque creatures obsessed with disease and mutation, but whose sense of humor makes for a fun contrast. At the micro level — with body-horror creatures sprouting extra limbs — Nurgle are the perfect foil to your sullen Grey Knights. However, in the big picture, having to fight off constant blooms of infection across the galaxy can quickly become tedious.
On top of this, a lot of Daemonhunters’ missions act as filler. Levels are a jumble of highly destructible chest-high terrain, purpose-built for Space Marine cover. You’ll explore dozens of worlds filled with nothing but sci-fi portacabins. And even when the environments look different, they unfortunately feel the same. The most annoying aspect is that many missions will force you to wait for your ship’s teleportation systems to come online before concluding. Suddenly, a quick 15-minute excursion spins out into something twice as long. Tactical repetition is, of course, part and parcel of this genre. But it feels particularly egregious here, where the tactical elements are so pared back, and the strategies on offer feel less like XCOM’s sprawling, variety buffet and more like a foundation for the game’s story to lean upon.
Daemonhunters’ campaign feels like it’s dragging its feet in part because the story is so good. In other words, the time-consuming combat and resource collecting eventually feel like an obstacle delaying the game’s finest attribute. This is a cutting space Gothic, dripping with appropriately purple prose about the grim bureaucratic and ecclesiastical details of the Grey Knights and their vast, unwieldy Imperium.
While you play an anonymous commander, there are three central characters on the Baleful Edict: a duty-bound veteran, a slightly unhinged tech-priest tuned to the whispers of the “Machine God,” and an ambitious young Inquisitor whose arrival kickstarts the plot. Each of them are superbly written, voiced, and directed, and they each reveal a surprising amount of nuance as the Nurgle spread across the galaxy. The three of them also bounce off of one another wonderfully as the tensions onboard mount and your campaign lumbers towards its epic conclusion.
Daemonhunters’ writing, story, and characters are easily its best attributes. I went in expecting scrupulous turn-based combat, but came out wondering whether I should read one of many tie-in novels. With mentions of “ancient archeotech,” “astropathic whimsy,” and “ruinous algorithms,” it’s exactly the kind of opulent, over-the-top stuff I love. Daemonhunters may only focus on a single faction, but by hyperfocusing on the Grey Knights, it manages to adeptly explore some of Warhammer 40K’s most interesting and expressive elements. From concepts of the “Warp” and the “Cult of the Machine” to thickly laden themes of corruption and heresy — this is that grimdark universe at its very best.
While there’s enough tactical depth and customization to sustain a playthrough, much of Daemonhunters’ battles feel like vehicles for getting across its great story, and not the other way around. For many, XCOM is as much about the long journey — failures and do-overs included — as it is the destination. And while I don’t think Daemonhunters offers that same kind of obsessive replayability, it does lay a crunchy, thrilling tactical base for its brazen aesthetic and brilliant story to tread upon.
Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters will be released on May 5 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Frontier Developments plc. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.