Game name: Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground
Release date: May 26, 2021
Available on: Steam
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Developer: Gasket Games
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
I’m not the biggest Age of Sigmar fan, so I wasn’t too hot on Storm Ground when I saw the first few trailers. Thankfully, Focus Home Interactive is the sort of publisher that releases gameplay explanation videos before their games are out, and that gave me the chance to jump from the “not interested” camp into the “actually, this seems like it might have been made for me” team. Of course, that doesn’t mean much in a world where there’s a new game coming out every minute or thereabouts, so I’ve decided to share my thoughts on Gasket Games‘ turn-based strategy roguelite with you, dear reader.
Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground features three factions, the Stormcast Eternals (Sigmarines), the spectral Nighthaunt, and the rotten Maggotkind. Each faction plays differently, and all of them have their own full campaign, with lore entries, faction-specific wargear and units, etc. The story portion of the game isn’t anything special, and the voice acting for all the major characters can range between appropriately bombastic to “are you sure this isn’t placeholder audio?” levels. This is an issue that tends to affect Warhammer games for some reason, but out of the ones I’ve played recently, Storm Ground stands out the most in this regard. Thankfully, the lore pieces we can recover during battles are actually fun to read if you have even the slightest interest in the setting. Overall though, while the voice acting can leave a lot to be desired, the Gasket Games team did a pretty good job of introducing the Age of Sigmar setting to videogames.
Gameoplay-wise, Storm Ground mixes turn-based combat encounters with a roguelite element and adds a card looting system on top. I have some issues with the roguelite part of the mix, but at the same time I can’t deny that running the same campaign over and over can lead to wildly different encounters and quests, adding replayability in spades. I’m also quite happy that mid-run saves are present and accounted for (mid-battle saving isn’t possible, but I haven’t really run into any combat encounter longer than 15 minutes, so this is more than acceptable from my point of view). The punishment for death is severe (restarting the entire run) but you get to keep the units you’ve collected, and their level progress. Then, once you start the new run, you choose two of the units to take with you, and the rest get stashed. If you die again, repeat, etc. Wargear is also saved, so there is a sense of progression even when losing, in typical roguelite fashion.
A normal campaign run will take us through a number of combat encounters as we try to complete our hero character’s objective for this chapter. There is an acceptable amount of mission variety, and you usually don’t get the same type of objective twice in a row, which is nice. Stormvault quests can also pop up, leading to increasingly difficult battles that end up rewarding us with very powerful gear if we manage to beat them (though from my experience, they can also be a source for quick game overs). I’m not a fan of the system used to break up the campaign chapters for each faction, as it made me feel that I was being punished for winning, in a way, but it’s not an utterly horrifying mechanic, it just feels unnecessary.
Combat encounters start with us placing our hero character on a hex on the map (depending on the faction we are playing as, there will be different options) and then summoning any units we have using Aether, which is a resource that we accrue as the battle advances. Once again, our faction choice will be important here, as for instance the Stormcast Eternals get to spawn close to the hero, while the Nighthaunt and the Maggotkind have their own systems at play. The combat system doesn’t seem very in-depth at the start, but it actually features some interesting combo opportunities (I’ll never get tired of blowing up Nighthaunt formations with their own exploding units). Bopping enemy units in the head with a warhammer might seem like the obvious choice every time, but you’d be surprised at the amount of tactical options that can be created if you know how to manipulate your foe so they crush each other (and doing that doesn’t give the enemy the chance to counteratack!). The terrain in each combat area can also be used in our favor, with ranged units benefitting from higher ground, for instance (and conversely, if you catch an enemy unit chilling on a rocky outcrop, a well placed smash will send it tumbling down, dealing a sizable amount of damage and once again, not triggering a counter blow). All in all, the turn-based combat is probably my favorite aspect of Storm Ground. It has enough systems to let you discover new things after hours of playing, and at the same time, everything feels simple enough that battles rarely last more than ten minutes.
The art for all the units and wargear is excellent, and it really works to highlight the whole “tabletop game brought to life” idea that Storm Ground seems to be going for. All the units are very detailed and easy to tell apart from one another, something that many other games seem to get wrong. I also enjoyed the chatter you get when selecting each unit or executing a specific action, as it adds some welcome touches of personality for our minions (and our foes as well, of course).
New units are acquired as mission completion rewards or from loot chests that appear in the levels (the same goes for lore items). Should your minions die during battle, there is a system to bring them back to life afterwards, but it’s a limited use item and you won’t be swimming in it, so it’s better to try to avoid wasting units if at all possible. There is also an experience system (Tribute) and you can turn unused wargear into that, to grow other units faster. It’s important to note that as units become more experienced, they require more Aether in order to be summoned, so it’s best to keep a healthy balance because focusing on over leveling units could leave to quick losses due to our hero character being overwhelmed since they have to be alone in the field while they gather Aether. Aside from the units we normally get to place on the battlefield, there are also special Support heroes who get added to our roster, but they are single use cards, so it’s important to know when to use them in order to not waste them before getting to fight a boss encounter, for instance.
This progression/customization system gets somewhat turned in its head when we go into multiplayer/AI skirmish though, as the game has a hard separation between the single player campaigns and the PvP/practice modes. This means that all the unit/wargear cards we might have unlocked during the campaign will be utterly missing in action when it comes to multiplayer, and we’ll have to work our way through earning them again, something that doesn’t feel entirely right. I get why we can’t carry over cards into the “real” PvP mode, but it would have been nice to get some cross-progression going between the AI skirmish mode and the campaign, as the way things work now, the only way to get new cards for skirmish matches is to play real PvP (which isn’t currently working too well, as I’ve experienced random disconnections and XP losses).
Aside from that specific issue, I also dislike how slow combat can feel under certain circumstances. Getting new cards from a chest pauses everything until the animation is completed, and the same goes for mid-mission dialogue (which can be skipped, but then you end up missing story details if you haven’t heard this specific exchange yet). I’ve also encountered numerous bugs where dead AI units would still have their health bar even though my characters could freely walk over their dead bodies and occupy their hexes, and I’ve seen weird animation delays after explosions or after using abilities that displace units. Sound cues can also get stuck playing over and over again, but this seems to be a rarer bug, as I haven’t been able to reproduce it with ease.
Overall, Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground can be a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the turn-based tactical combat is deceptively complex and it can lead to some extremely interesting battles. On the other hand, the roguelite mechanics don’t always fit the game, and there’s way too many bugs that can creep up during battles, hurting players’ enjoyment. If Gasket Games can get those issues under control, this title will probably get a good following over the next few months, because it does a great job adapting the Age of Sigmar setting to videogame form. As things stand now, I can recommend it to single player folk, but multiplayer enthusiasts might want to wait a while.