Mechanicus video game


video game review

Several years ago, a video game called Mechanicus was released by Bulwark Studios. I found the game before I'd started playing tabletop wargames, but after I'd discovered Black Library, so my main question was whether the video game would accurately reflect the cult as it was presented in the books. And also, was the game fun to play?

Mechanicus the game

I work in IT, I grew up playing with Man-at-Arms and pondering the ineffable nature of RoboCop, poring over as much sci fi as I could find. I was destined to love the Adeptus Mechanicus, and predictably they're one of my favourite factions of Warhammer. But it's not all prophesy and fate. From a storytelling perspective, I don't see how anyone can help but join cult Mechanicus. They're cyborgs from Mars, which is relatively (astronomically) near holy Terra, they worship technology, and they habitually delve into ancient tombs and dungeons.

Dungeon delving is comfortable for me. It's a game structure I'm used to, it reassuringly limits the scope of gameplay, provides clear goals, encourages exploration and discovery, and it's often got an irresistibly mysterious atmosphere.

Apart from that, I also enjoy strategic turn-based combat. It's not that I don't like real-time combat, but I do enjoy the ability to sit back and consider the most strategic ways to overcome the obstacles in my path. I love getting to choose what equipment to use and which special abilities to activate, and I enjoy having multiple characters to control so I can utilize several different strategies all within the same game.

Mechanicus combines dungeon delving and strategic combat along with RPG-like character leveling. The game has three distinctly different modes:

  • You start in your ship, and you return to it between missions so you can level up your characters. These interludes are entirely menu-driven, but a pleasure to look at. The interiours of the ship are appropriately sci fi Gothic combined with glowing tactical views of the planet below.
  • When you choose a mission to go on, you switch to a dungeon crawl. This presents itself as an isomorphic view of an ancient Necron temple, but actually it's just a fancy flowchart. You move your kill team from one room to another, you're given a text description of what you find in a room, you interact with it, and then move on. It's simple, randomly generated, and effective.
  • When you encounter Necrons, you enter turn-based strategic combat. This is a detailed isomorphic view of a specific setting within the temple. In this mode, you have digital "miniatures" to move around the battle map, a toolbar at the bottom of the screen with all your wargear and special powers, and you work to defeat the enemies or to fulfill a specific objective.

The way I see it, it's a combination of all the best parts of tactical D&D or Pathfinder, in the Warhammer setting featuring the best faction.

I feel like paying special attention to just a few "good" points might suggest that they're the only good things about the game. I really like this game. And there are a few things I noticed about the game that seemed especially considerate to the player. I'm a hobbyist game designer, so I like to notice especially clever mechanics or design.

Variable difficulty

Most games have difficulty settings that adjust how many hit points enemies get or how many enemies you encounter. Mechanicus doesn't have to bother with that. The difficulty of the game is essentially "adjustable" by you, the player, each time you accept a mission.

When you accept a mission, you must choose who you want to deploy to the planet surface. If you deploy mostly Tech-Priests, then you'll find the mission relatively easy because Tech-Priests have weapons and augmetics and lots of health points and experience and canticles and advanced knowledge. For more of a challenge, though, you can choose to deploy just one or two Tech-Priests along with a troop of Servitors and Skitarii (and even a Kastelan robot, late in the game!), which have just single attacks and only one or two special features.

It's really smart design. The game doesn't ever have to change the baseline for you, because you're in control of how much force you use in each scenario.


What Mechanicus doesn't provide is a story-only mode, but that's because there's honestly not really that much of a story to the game. There are some Magi characters whose communications you read throughout the game. They debate over the best course of action, and they have some theories about what's happening in the temple. There's a story if you insist on following the threads, but I think the best the Magi provide is atmosphere and insight into the lore of the cult. If you've never encountered an Adeptus Mechanicus character in a Black Library book or in a Warhammer show like Hammer and Bolter, then by eavesdropping on their chatter, you get an accurate impression of the culture and goals of Mars, and of the 41st millennium.

Exploration mode

I'll admit that the exploration mode was, sadly, my least favourite part of the game. In a dungeon delve done well, progressing from room to room fills you with anticipation. What's around the corner? What's beyond the next doorway?

Exploration in Mechanicus isn't really exploration, it's a literal flowchart of choices you must make on your way to combat. You have a bird's-eye-view of the entire map, and which ones contain narrative "choices", which ones contain traps, and which ones contain combat.

  • Narrative choices: A paragraph of text presents a description of the room, and then gives you three choices of how to respond. One choice usually provides you a benefit, and the other two provide the Necrons a benefit. It's essentially a game of cups-and-balls. Even after reading the chatter of the shipboard Magi, you might think that studying the ancient relic you've stumbled upon might be the "right" answer, but then it turns out that nope you should have destroyed it. So then you start to think that destroying everything is the right answer, but the next time you try that the Necrons are alerted of your presence by all the fires you've started. The one thing I haven't tried yet is to match my choices with the tendencies of the Magos giving the quest, so maybe on my next play-through I'll have more data.
  • Traps: Some encounters are what D&D calls traps. They're choices you have to make, but there's no way to know what you're choosing. The game presents you with some meaningless glyphs, and you pick one. You get rewarded or punished based on your choice.

You enter combat either stronger or weaker than you started, based on the encounters you had on your way in. The problem is, you probably don't really feel like you had any agency in those choices. And in fact, the game actively discourages you from exploring in hopes of finding more boons. There's a countdown timer that triggers bad things, so the longer you explore the weaker you enter combat.

Game play

Even though it was my least favourite component of the game, exploration is still sufficiently fun. Once you accept that it's probably arbitrary (or a really big puzzle that you haven't solved yet), then it's a reckless and carefree stroll through the valley of death on your way to deadly combat. I wouldn't want to play this game without the exploration mode, so it's definitely a net benefit to the game.

Blackstones and leveling-up and skill trees

I play games. I love imaginary gold pieces and XP just as much as the next gamer. In Mechanicus, you play for blackstones (as in the fortresses), and then you spend blackstones to level-up your Tech-Priests.

All of this is calculated between missions, when you return to the ship, and it's supremely satisfying. I love loud and flashy reward screens in video games. Yes, I will happily sit patiently as the game tallies up, one by one, each and every enemy I killed during the mission. I want to see a gauge fill up with blackstones. I want the stats of the combat. And I want it all in glowing text, with shimmering sound effects and bouncy animation.

The time spent in the ship is exactly what I want to do between missions. It's just the good stuff. Sure, the game designers could have constructed an interactive spaceship set with Tech-Priests wandering around handing out missions, and a few NPCs with atmospheric one-liners. But I don't need that and the game's better without it. This game provides all the necessary components without any of the tedium. You get a steady flow of upgrades and missions, you get rewards, you get to explore, you get to fight.

Leveling up in the Mechanicus video game

Annoyingly, you're expected to remember the special abilities of your Tech-Priests. When choosing Tech-Priests for missions, the UI doesn't remind you of what their abilities are. It shows you their wargear, but not the abilities that go along with their class, or even what their class is. It's a minor annoyance that you can overcome by taking notes or having a better memory than me, so by no means a deal breaker.

Cognition points

Your Tech-Priests get some "free" actions during combat. You can swing your basic Omnissian Axe once a turn, you can scan an enemy to see their HP and shield ratings, you can move a specific distance. If you want to move farther, though, or use a heftier weapon or augmetic, then you need cognition points.

You get cognition points from computer systems within the temple, and then later you learn to gain cognition by studying your enemies. You can only hold so much cognition at once, though, so you're constantly looking for more cognition and then spending cognition to performs some vital task. And frustratingly, there are times when you'll have wargear you haven't used yet on your turn, but you won't have the cognition to use it.

It's a brilliant mechanic, probably the star mechanic of the game. Here are the variables at play:

  • You can only have 9 cognition at a time
  • The better the weapon, the more cognition it costs
  • You have special abilities to boost cognition, but they have a cooldown period of 2 or 3 rounds
  • You have a mechadendrite that gain cognition from enemies, but it has a cooldown period of 2 or 3 rounds
  • There are computer systems around the battle map you can hack into for added cognition, but it costs movement to get to them and they can only be used once per round

Most of the game is you weighing the benefits of cognition cost. Do you equip a Tech-Priest with powerful wargear that costs several cognition points for each use? Or do favour weak wargear that's free to use? Maybe you equip one Tech-Priest as your cognition point miner, with lots of mechadendrites and movement and canticles to boost cognition. But what if that Tech-Priest goes down during a battle? You need another Tech-Priest to focus on healing. Then again, maybe it's a better strategy to equip everyone with ways to boost cognition points, and just try to get through battles quickly.

It's a major facet of the game's strategy, and it's up to you how to play it.

Praise the Omnissiah

The tabletop games of Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar both have the concept of "narrative play". It's a mode of play that focuses more on the story of the battle rather than the hard numbers and strategies. Of course, if you're used to playing a tabletop RPG and you're used to sitting around for 8 hours constructing shared fiction about the precise recipes of magic potions, then it's comically light on actual narrative. It's a spectrum.

The Mechanicus video game is a skirmish game in narrative play mode. There's a pretense of a story. It has a beginning and an end, and there are choices you make along the way. It's no RPG, though, and whatever RPG elements it does have are used in service of combat. For instance, you can level up your Tech-Priests along several different tracks, each class focusing on a different strategy. The result is that there are lots of ways to play this game, even though the game's scope is relatively small.

I guess Mechanicus is a little like the tabletop game Blackstone Fortress. It doesn't belabour the details, and cuts to the chase. That's a trick that doesn't always work, but Mechanicus gets the pacing exactly right.

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