Warhammer 40,000: Daemonhunters – Chaos Gate looked like a promising slice of turn-based grimdark goodness when I got a glimpse at its broader gameplay loop earlier in February. Its blend of strategy and tactics sees you leading squads of Grey Knights against Nurgle’s pestilent followers, while its gory, fast-paced battles involve less hunkering down behind cover than other games in the genre.
I was, thus, excited to get my hands on a work-in-progress build of the game back in March, as part of a press event during which I played through three missions taken from different parts of its campaign. If you’re unfamiliar with how Daemonhunters as a whole plays, it’s a good idea to give the hands-off preview linked above a read, since this article is mostly dedicated to the title’s turn-based tactical battles.
After a short introductory tutorial taught me the ropes, I went straight into a mission which revolved around recovering Bloom seeds for one Inquisitor Vakir. This meant that I had to engage enemies designated with a skull icon in melee, as only close-up kills allowed me to obtain the precious resource.
Missions usually start with a few turns of exploration as you edge closer to the general direction of your enemies. Afterwards, you inevitably engage them, and this is where things quickly kick into gear.
Despite taking place in a fairly open environment, debris and sandbags littered the ground, funneling troops down tight corridors while providing ample opportunity to use cover which reduces incoming damage.
After easily dispatching a small squad of Chaos Marines whose plague abilities did little to stop the full might of the Emperor, I encountered several cultists already waiting in defensive positions.
As I worked my way towards them, taking them out one by one, an enemy surprised me when he suppressed my Apothecary with a continuous barrage of gunfire. This meant that moving my healer during that turn or even keeping him in place until the next would result in him taking damage.
It also happened shortly after a swarm of additional opponents swooped in from behind – courtesy of constantly rising Bloom levels –, so I had to send one of my other Grey Knights to break the suppressor’s focus. Getting attacked from multiple directions means that units inevitably get hurt, even if you do use cover to mitigate some of the incoming damage.
Furthermore, the Grey Knights’ more aggressive approach to combat means that you’ll often voluntarily put them in the line of fire. Thankfully, the power armor they don is fairly resistant and enemies don’t tend to deal much damage post-dismemberment.
The chaos of battle made me miss the first opportunity to extract a Bloom seed, as I ordered my knights to blast its carrier to pieces from afar. Extracting the second from its bearer meant that I could call in extraction, shifting my focus from methodically making my way towards my target through multiple enemies to simply surviving for three more turns.
When they passed, my units were instantly pulled out – without having to reach a certain spot in the level – just as the Bloom spawned plague zones that would have hampered my units’ movement, had the fight continued.
Warhammer 40,000: Daemonhunters – Chaos Gate’s combat always requires paying attention to multiple things yet focuses heavily on clarity. The number of buttons on screen can be a bit of a handful at first, especially as I was jumping right into things without the gradual accommodation period of the early game, but the only confusion stemmed from not quite knowing that the Teleport Strike ability required me to pick a destination tile after selecting my targets.
Units move on a grid and the user interface clearly shows how many action points you’re left with even before committing to a move. You always know how much damage your attacks deal and there is no hit chance to worry about – if you can shoot or stab an enemy, they’ll feel it.
Aside from the cover, Overwatch is another staple of turn-based tactical games found in Daemonhunters, and you can layer it by assigning multiple Knights to guard an area, essentially creating a corridor of death for enemies bold enough to charge through it.
You can press the middle mouse button to zoom in on enemy units, getting a detailed breakdown of their stats, active mutations, and abilities. Before the mission, you also get an idea of the enemy types and Bloom effects you can expect.
Your Knights’ four classes each have their own abilities that clearly differentiate between them. Multiple cosmetic options then let you give recruited knights unique looks by swapping faces, headgear, individual parts of their armor, as well as voices.
While I didn’t get to fiddle around with upgrading class abilities during my hands-on time with the game, the tree is split into multiple clusters that bolster different skills, potentially altering a unit’s playstyle.
I controlled optimized squads – down to the equipment and weapons they wore – and their roles felt quite distinct right from the start. The Justicar and Interceptor both have ranged and melee options, but the latter’s Teleport Strike ability really stood out, letting him blitz across the battlefield, striking multiple units before relocating.
The Purgator’s heavy weaponry shreds enemies from afar, while the Apothecary uses servo skulls and his Narthecium device to heal or buff friendly units but also apply bleed – one of several available status effects – to opponents.
The second mission I played revolved around destroying a pox plant hidden deep within an industrial facility. This map was fairly large, involving multiple encounters on the way to the target. Marines can effortlessly jump over obstacles, bust through massive doors, or crash through windows, nailing that mixture of weight and mobility.
The game’s tutorial level also taught me how to destroy and angle pillars to maximize damage dealt to grouped-up enemy units, but I didn’t make much use of this during the three missions I played.
There was a good sense of scale to this second level, although it never felt prohibitively long. It also introduced the Myphitic Blight-hauler, a mobile unit capable of launching long-range missiles and spewing putrescent fog when threatened in melee.
I had to chip off its armor before damaging its health, although certain Knights can circumvent it. When fighting up-close, your units can use Precision Targeting to slash off limbs, rendering enemies unable to attack using their main weapon or disabling their abilities altogether.
You can also opt to stun them, which opens them up to an execution move that instantly kills them. Needless to say, this counts among the most powerful tools in your arsenal and it also comes with a gory visual reward.
Entering the map’s final area, my squad had very little safe space to navigate, as a Blight-hauler was preparing to carpet the entrance with missiles while two Chaos Marines had Overwatch prepped.
I had to carefully move my units using the limited space at my disposal and resort to damaging enemies with ranged attacks before closing the distance with a quick Teleport Strike.
During this mission, I also saw one of the Bloom’s other potential effects, which gave foes the ability to immobilize my Grey Knights with their attacks. This added a sense of urgency to proceedings but, thankfully, I didn’t get to see how badly it hurts, because focusing down the pox plant I came to eradicate in the first place instantly finished the mission.
I then went toe-to-toe against a Great Unclean One in what felt like a proper boss fight. This is a massive enemy that not only dwarfs your Grey Knights in size but also easily sends them flying both when simply moving its hulking form around the map and when smashing its massive bell weapon into them.
The fight also involved multiple Plaguebearers – that could mutate when shot and which he could resurrect – alongside Nurglings spawned by nests spread around the map. Plagues were also at home there, pressure coming from multiple sources.
The smaller amount of cover also gave the battle a different dynamic – there were no safe spots from the hulking monstrosity I had to kill and which could take quite a bit of punishment.
The three action points available to each Knight alongside the ability to attack after they move grant lots of flexibility in terms of how you approach encounters. Your Grey Knights can line up three attacks, potentially alternating between powerful abilities and regular strikes, which is enough to make them feel like veritable powerhouses.
It really does capture the feeling of your units being walking tanks whose sole purpose is the eradication of the Emperor’s enemies. When you need an extra bit of damage, you can imbue attacks with psychic powers. Doing so lets you hit harder or reach enemies in an area around your target.
This was the first mission during which I got to use a flamer and, while it’s certainly a good way to attack stuff in an area and deal damage over time, you have to account for your units’ positioning. The last thing you want to do is create hazards your troops then have to move through, since the enemy already tries to do quite a bit of that.
The two and a half hours I spent with Daemonhunters were far from enough to delve deep into all the minutiae of its classes, but seeing my squad work in harmony to mow down enemies and support or heal each other was a joy.
Its encounters always have you considering where to move, when to weaken opponents, and when to go in for the kill while keeping things dynamic thanks to the different Bloom effects that automatically trigger after it reaches certain thresholds.
I only spent a bit of time on the Baleful Edict, talking to its crew and looking at my squad’s loadouts. There are quite a few options in terms of gear, ranging from daemon hammers to force swords, storm bolters, and many others. Each weapon also comes with its own set of bonuses, from applying extra afflictions to replacing a raw damage bonus with a higher critical strike chance.
I could, sadly, not interact extensively with all the other systems that let you research new stratagems and information about the Bloom, requisition equipment, recruit and level up troops, build up your ship, and traverse the sector in search of missions – which the developers previously described as somewhat of a race against time.
My one major complaint, after three battles, is aimed at Daemonhunters’ art style. It’s certainly cohesive throughout its levels, but it feels a little too cartoonish to my eye, which takes away from the gravitas of the campaign.
At its core, the tabletop might involve moving miniature figurines around and there is an element of joy to Nurgle’s bountiful, disgusting gifts, but there’s almost a sense of lightheartedness to the visuals. This felt a bit off to me, given how I was fighting towering monstrosities who casually vomit out of their belly-mouth.
The three battles I played left me optimistic for Warhammer 40,000 Daemonhunters: Chaos Gate, especially if it manages to keep its tactical part as gripping throughout the majority of its campaign. At the same time, the full experience will encompass more than just these turn-based sections.
Its strategic element alongside the pacing of its campaign and story will ultimately play a big role in how engaging the full package will turn out. Thankfully, we don’t have that much left to wait until its May 5 PC launch comes around.