Mordheim: City of The Damned
An example of turn-based RPG Mordheim: City of The Damned’s cruel nature is that collecting its main resource, Wrydstone, may result in the receiving of curse and injury. Touted as a hardcore experience, this difficulty is both intended and unintended…
Staying true to its tabletop heritage, Mordheim is a city in the Warhammer universe that’s plunged into chaos after being struck by a twin-tailed comet. This corruption is manifest in congealed flesh fused to decaying townhouses, toxic miasmas hidden in compact streets and singular eyeballs glaring from the shadows. It’s into this fraught locale you must venture and either assert dominace or perish.
After selecting a faction, you start with enough gold to recruit a fledgling warband and purchase some supplies. Initially comprised of a leader, champion and henchmen – the warband’s ranks can be bolstered if you survive, progress and gain XP. Unless you’re familiar with the Games Workshop generic unit stats, the range of information pertaining to your customisable units can be overwhelming (menu navigation on the controller is also taxing) – but their functions are gradually revealed like layers of a noteworthy onion.
Besides online skirmishes against fellow players, you’ve access to campaign missions that are either generic or story based. The generics are outlined with a basic scenario (one warband is split up whilst the other isn’t etc.), difficulty and the quality of the map’s loots – allowing a glimpse into what lies ahead.
Real variation is unfortunately minimal. In 20+ hours grinding against the AI, the missions largely played out identically – after the briefest window for scavenging Wrydstone whilst trying to avoid the city’s traps (see fused flesh and miasmas), the warbands fought until enough units were put out of action to force one side to take a ‘route’ test, determining whether they’d the mental fortitude to fight on or scamper away into the shadows. Given the limited number of combatants, implementing a cautious strategy is key.
The action-point based turns allows your warband to move around the map and partake in offensive or defensive manoeuvres such as charging opponents or lying in wait for an ambush. Once two or more units are engaged in combat, stats are factored in and virtual dice are thrown to determine if blows are landed, parried or dodged. Lines of sight matter but don’t seem too accurate – I had characters hit by arrows whilst under cover and enemies able to preternaturally sense my units’ whereabouts. Units can become easily obstructed by the terrain, sometimes completely blocking off sections of the map in the process.
Herein lies an effective tactic – surround an opponent whilst they’re cut off from help and they’re imperilled. Despite early tactical play determining who engages first – once the clanging of steel breaks out, the combat favours the side who can overwhelm the other with greater numbers. And on that previous note, the sound design is outstanding; a cinematic score underpins the onscreen action and the thud of a mace swung into an embattled unit provides a pleasing sonic boom.
Post-mission, you assess damage incurred, spend XP on unit upgrades and determine the value of your spoils. Any of your warband who were put out of action or took excessive harm may make a full recovery, suffer an injury or three, or die outright. It’s at this point that you may realise you’ve become somewhat attached to your brigands, and the brief moment before their fate is deciced can be intense. Injuries may take a unit out of play for days or result in effects such as stat-diminishment and XP loss. Some injuries can be healed at a cost of gold/time but others may force you into ending the unit’s employ or simply leaving their wounds untreated, hoping they expire as punishment for their combative cretinitude.
Your warband requires payment after every mission, and whilst meagre coinage can be looted – the lion’s share comes from fulfilling Wrydstone shipment requests sent by your faraway superiors and allies. Requests of high import require a specific weight of Wrydstones and come in around once a fortnight, with unfulfilled requests meaning the end of your exploits.
Early wins are crucial to progress as losses can be irrecoverably crippling. As such, after a few false starts, I had a string of successes and, with an upgraded and expanded warband, attempted the Skaven story mission. Midgame, the inventory system became troublesome; I couldn’t swap out or even drop an unrequired item for one vital to the mission. I looked this up and found others had similar experiences whilst the game was in early access in 2015. The developers had chimed in with a workaround but, as this hasn’t been resolved at the time of writing, one must assume the user interface won’t allow this basic action to take place. In a slightly more legitimate level of difficulty, the mission requires you assassinate an enemy special unit whilst preserving the life of your own special unit. Your special is the only one who can put a dent in theirs, but theirs can kill yours in a single turn.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Mordheim’s deep systems and intricacies – most of which are only grasped and appreciated over hours of slog. Rogue Factor has achieved a feat in adapting the cult tabletop experience into a videogame, but its grinding gameplay and functionality can make it feel like a work in progress.