The grimdark sci-fi fantasy world of Warhammer is a product of the era in which it was conceived. The original tabletop game features burly space marines in an clash with extra-terrestrial life, the supernatural, and the arcane. Mid-90s FPS romps like Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake are all properties that kindle the flame of nostalgia for a bygone era in gaming. Three-dimensional worlds where players see through the eyes of the protagonist and inflict punishing deaths via a hail of various artillery on their enemies was a fledgling concept during the final decade of the 20th century. Now, the genre has since vastly expanded and branched out in a multitude of directions all thanks to games like Wolfenstein 3D.
It’s 2023. Enter Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun – a purposefully pixelated Warhammer world where players can once again relive the glory days of the fast and frenetic FPS genre the ‘90s gave birth to. And while this game will easily fit right at home on the PC like the aforementioned inspirations of yesteryear, my particular experience is with the PS5 version of the game. You are the fabled Space Marine who lives and fights. From the start, your Space Marine is outfitted with a Chainsword. Holding your melee attack button slows time giving you a brief respite to get the lay of the land and the enemies surrounding you before rushing in for the kill. Quickly, you’ll find the eponymous Boltgun that will shred the demons you’re up against into gory chunks.
"Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a purposefully pixelated Warhammer world where players can once again relive the glory days of the fast and frenetic FPS genre the ‘90s gave birth to."
The game plays exactly as you’d expect, but with a tinge of modern comforts. The controls are tight and highly responsive. As fans of these heyday FPS titles are accustomed to, the player movements are quick. You might feel like the Space Marine is running with basic movements but holding the sprint button will show you that’s not the case. Despite being outfitted in clunky armor, this Space Marine can move! The complications of modern gauntlets have been stripped in this classic experience. Every action can be taken without the need for menus. Swapping weapons is as easy as a press of the D-Pad (for those using a controller). Forget aiming down the sites. That’s a precision maneuver best left to other shooters. We’re back to the basics running and gunning via hip fire. Ammo pick-ups, gun upgrades, and hostiles are everywhere. So, there’s no sense in being conservative here. It’s an experience crafted just the way Uncle John Carmack would’ve intended.
Run-and-gun corridor and arena shooters often employ a standard structure for progression. That is, you must find keys to advance in any level. Explore the sometimes-labyrinthine depths of the neo-gothic urban sprawl or a desert compound to find the next key to advance. Also littered throughout each level’s map are a series of secrets and boost pick-ups for your guns or character. Don’t hesitate to explore.
When you first begin, Boltgun offers the sensation of a real power fantasy. Obtaining the actual Boltgun and slaughtering enemies with ease is a real trip. But keep in mind, that the early moments of the game might give you a false sense of security. Soon, you’ll begin encountering Purge events throughout each level. These are the moments that will test your mettle. You’ll be locked into an arena and expected to clear the onslaught of enemies before advancing.
The best advice that can possibly be given here is to keep moving. Purge events will also eventually include boss fights to up the ante. While it might feel like total chaos and that the moment calls for a trigger-happy plan, the strategy here boils down to managing your weapons. Save the harder-hitting firearms like the Heavy Bolter or the Plasma Gun for the tougher enemies while you shred the smaller ones with melee attacks, the Boltgun, or your shotgun. Believe it or not, amid the frenetic onslaught, you can employ strategies to stay alive. Focus on picking up med-kits and contempt boosts (basically armor) for the right moments to maximize their effectiveness. By the time all is said and done, you’ll have painted the arena with the bright-red guts of your enemies.
"The worlds of Boltgun are striking and unmatched, even by classic ‘90s FPS standards."
Of course, if everything becomes a bit too overwhelming, Boltgun offers an olive branch to the players who aren’t as adept with arena shooters. If you find that you are stuck continually being eviscerated in a particular spot, there is an “invulnerability” switch in the accessibility options from the pause menu. That’s right. There’s no cheat code or anything of that nature. You can be invincible simply by using a switch in the settings. If your pride can take the blow, flip the switch, push through the problem area, and then turn the invulnerable mode off while you continue on your way. I won’t judge.
The worlds of Boltgun are striking and unmatched, even by classic ‘90s FPS standards. In an age where Unreal Engine 5 exists and we have killer new technology in the gaming space like ray tracing, pixel art is a style choice. Boltgun could’ve easily gone for sleek realism. However, its pixelated corridors are a breath of fresh air opting for something both vibrant and rich in heavily-saturated colors but also simplistic. In fact, the visual appeal is both striking and wonderful. It’s the very element that brings players closest to their fondest memories of classic arena shooters.
Enemies are flat sprites with rigid and fixed attack and death animations. Despite all of this, Boltgun confirms that there’s a timeless quality to this particular design. Modern indie and triple-A titles like Celeste have shown us that what was once the result of creating video games due to technology limitations is now an artistic choice. Boltgun ultimately does the same for first-person shooters. Not to mention, there’s something refreshing about a game these days that is quick to download and runs as smoothly as slicing butter without any performance issues or technical hiccups.
"Fans of the classic arena shooter genre will undoubtedly be thrilled with this bloody fever dream that recreates the experiences of a past era in gaming."
While I could gush about Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun for hours, there’s only one critique that I can truly offer here – maps. Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake have the option to view the map of a level, even as the player moves through its halls. This aids in exploration, discovery of secrets, and, well, not getting lost. Boltgun didn’t appear to have any such option. Perhaps, with any luck, the developers will provide the option in a future update. Regardless, there is plenty to love in your time with Boltgun.
Fans of the classic arena shooter genre will undoubtedly be thrilled with this bloody fever dream that recreates the experiences of a past era in gaming.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.