For a franchise practically overflowing with phenomenal fiction, stand-out characters, and exotic races, it’s utterly bewildering that we get treated to so few gameplay experiences that truly do the Warhammer 40,000 universe any kind of justice. NeocoreGames is the most recent developer to nobly attempt to correct that injustice with Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr, the first game to thrust the grim dark future of the 41st Millennium into the action role-playing (ARPG) department. Appearing on PC early-access in mid 2015 but only recently appearing on Sony's home console, was this genre left untapped for good reason, or have we got a brand new Warhammer franchise on our hands?
Welcome to the role of the Inquisitor, an all-round badass tasked with handling alien and heretical enemies with extreme prejudice in the name of the God Emperor of mankind. They’re a zealous and formidable department of the Imperium of Man and, thanks to their adaptable skill sets, are ideally suited for the many classes, subclasses, abilities and gear associated with an ARPG title. However, from the moment you don your Inquisitorial boots, things seem to unravel in Martyr. Thrust straight into the action, Martyr doesn’t supply any kind of in-game tutorial, and instead provides an encyclopedic array of mini text-tutorials in a vain attempt to express the many systems and functions you’ll need to know to stand any hope against the forces of Chaos and beyond. As you’ll come to see, Martyr is quite the complex title, and burying all the knowledge in menus and text-heavy explanations makes even the early hours feel frustrating and highly inaccessible.
These frustrations continue well into Martyr's main gameplay loop thanks to the loot and gear systems -- something that’s traditionally the heart and soul of an ARPG. Martyr implements a power system for its loot, not dissimilar to Destiny’s Light system, with each item in your loadout possessing a power rating that accumulates to provide your overall power level. If you embark upon a mission with a power level higher than your own, you suffer a penalty on damage dealt and damage received, which is then multiplied by your chosen difficulty for said mission. Better loot will raise your power level, but sometimes higher level items can have worse stats than lower ones, which defeats the point altogether and leaves you having to balance between the penalties or raw stats. Still with us?
This power system feels unnecessarily complex and unrewarding for what should be one of the main driving factors for Martyr, and it’s only accentuated by the stingy distribution of in-game chests and staggeringly clumsy inventory management UI. All the issues with loot condense down into a single design choice that’ll be sure to divide opinion -- you can only access your inventory while in the hub area. On one hand, this means you’ll stay focused on the action rather than constantly tinkering in menus, but on the other hand, it robs you of the instant gratification we know and love with loot while also penalising loadout experiments. If you pick a dodgy laspistol then it’s back to the hub you go -- well, after another exceptionally long loading screen that is.
In saying that, Martyr shines briefly but most brightly when you play with the odds stacked against you. Facing off against a towering Chaos Space Marine who’s powering towards you armed with a thumping machine gun is daunting and thrilling, but also requires a tactical approach to be successful. There's a wide array of weapon loadouts to choose from -- you can opt for close combat, armed with a Chainsword and shield, or you could opt for a heavy weapon like the wonderfully effective Heavy Flamer. You can carry two loadouts at once and switch between them on the fly, helping you adapt your armaments against hordes of enemies or the boss-like Champion targets. Unfortunately, all this choice is overshadowed by the strange decision to map camera controls to the right stick, leaving the left to handle movement and aiming at the same time, rendering accuracy the stuff of legend and weapons with decent spread - like shotguns and flamers - your best friends.
In addition to the varied weapon loadouts, Martyr provides three distinct classes that comfortably cater well to different play-styles and slot neatly into the typical roles associated with ARPG’s. Each class then has three sub-classes which provide a special ability, which can be changed regularly as you play. While each class provides unique abilities and gear, it's quite evident that the Crusader (Tank) class is the most fleshed-out and balanced, leaving the latter options of Psyker (Mage) and Assassin (Rogue) largely as unfortunate afterthoughts or excuses for additional breakthroughs. However, the neat trick of Daemons appearing when a Psyker overuses their powers is a lore-friendly nod that fans will appreciate greatly. And that goes for a lot of Martyr; it’s got fan service and lore appropriateness oozing from every gun barrel thanks to familiar characters, satisfying sound design, and environments that really nail the look and feel of the 40K universe.
This look and feel comes with a cost, however, as Martyr drops the ball once again in the technical department. Our time roaming Chaos-ridden hallways and snow-covered mining facilities was often marred with severe screen-tearing, regular entire loss of controller input, and a targeting system that can’t tell the difference between a giant Daemon and an article of cover. They’re obviously things that can be ironed out eventually - even during our review, Neocore seemingly released a patch that marginally reduced loading times - but issues like the controller input dropouts simply shouldn't even be in a shipped title in the first place.
Martyr is another ‘always online’ release thanks to its content-rich design, which is almost bursting at the seams with things to do. Co-op (local and online), a PvP mode, crafting, and social clans are all accessible from the hub once you progress a bit along the story campaign. It’s all a bit much to take in, really, with each peripheral aspect feeling incomplete and inconsequential to the core gameplay, but proving serviceable enough so that its inclusion doesn’t feel entirely out of place. Sure, they’ll help with the longevity of your time with Martyr, but with missions falling into a repetitive cycle and match queues in excess of 5 minutes a pop - is it longevity you really want? We're not convinced.
There’s a clear feeling of Martyr being spread way too thin across all the ideas at play, and pretty much every aspect of the game suffers as a result. If it could’ve trimmed some of the fat and instead focused on a select few features and mechanics, we might well have had a ground-breaking 40K release on our hands. Instead, what we’re left with is a half-baked example of what could’ve been. Buried under its own ambitions to be everything at once is a solid Warhammer 40K story and a slow-burning, serviceable ARPG experience whose shortcomings may be more easily excused by fans of the source material the developers so honorably follow.