I've been watching the Angels of Death animated series on Warhammer+. This post is a review of the series, from the perspective of someone who's mainly read Horus Heresy books, along with the odd rulebook here and there. There are minor spoilers here.
The series is primarily about the Blood Angels chapter of space marines. This chapter was founded by the primarch Sanguinius, who I remember from the Horus Heresy books. It was Sanguinius who fought Horus in an attempt to stop the traitorous Warmaster from attacking Terra. The attempt failed, and Sanguinius fell to Horus. The Blood Angels have this historical martyrdom as a driving inspiration, and of course, as with all space marines, there's staunch brotherhood and loyalty among them.
The episode and series opens with a lone Blood Angel deep within maintenance tunnels. He's fighting something. Zombies? Infected mutants? It's unclear.
Anyway, in the end we assume he's fallen to the horde.
On the command centre of a battleship, Ship Mistress Livia Solken, contends with a Warp Storm raging outside and around the civilized world below. Solken is exactly what you want in a sci fi captain, and she's even better for existing in the Warhammer setting. She's a Goth who went to Starfleet Academy in the Bioshock world, utterly no-nonsense and always at her post. Probably the most fascinating part of this episode is the glimpse we get into the running of a Warhammer 40K starship. At the helm, there are augmented humans, and elsewhere there are astropaths in charge of navigation. And, in general, it's just a bunch of humans. Just like you and me, except most of them have augmetics probably to integrate with the ship.
And then there are the Adeptus Astartes, along for the ride. I love the sharp difference between humans and Astartes, and seeing the dynamic between them I think never gets old.
The problem is, there's no word from Captain Orpheo (presumably the lone Astartes we saw at the beginning of the episode). The Blood Angels are getting restless, and so they finally decide to go down to the planet in their fancy drop pods to search for him.
What the viewer doesn't know yet is that this is actually the second story in the series, but for a clever re-arrangement of the episodes. Episode 5, as you learn later, flashes back to how the ship got here (and what ship it is), why Captain Orpheo descended to the planet, and so on.
This is a strong, albeit confusing, opener. It doesn't feel like it's starting mid-story, but you figure out that there are big chunks of story missing the farther you get into the series.
The reddest of all space marines drop to the surface of the planet and discover that there's a proper city there. However, it appears to be completely abandoned. It's eerily quiet and lifeless.
Until, of course, it isn't. It doesn't take too long for a horde of hostiles to emerge from around the corners of buildings and from the recesses of dark alleyways, attacking the Adeptus Astartes head on. Battle ensues.
I've got a little army of space marine miniatures for my tabletop wargames, and they usually hold up pretty well to individual threats. They're well armoured, they're sturdy, and they carry powerful weapons. I consider space marines a good steady reliable resource I can put in front of undead or demonic forces, and pretty often they hold the line. It's one thing to play with the miniatures on the table, and it's another thing to see it on screen.
They're similar. They're even complementary of one other. But I think they must be most effective when combined. You can see space marines in combat, or you can read about them, or you can play it on the table, and all of these convey the brute force of the Astartes. But when you see them and you've read about them and you've played with them, then you actually feel that power.
The Blood Angels on the planet surface continue to follow the signal from Captain Orpheo's beacon, fighting evil cultists along the way. Big explosions, lots of gunfire.
It's still not clear what cult this is, at least not to me, but that's what the space marines call them.
The ship, way up in space, has in the meantime been boarded by thees cultists. Luckily not all of the Blood Angels were deployed to the surface, so there's hope.
What's really cool about this episode are the space battles. Ship Mistress Livia Solken is aboard the Sword of Baal (Baal is the homeworld of the Blood Angels), and it's still caught in a docking bay. So it's fighting a stationary battle against a whole flotilla of enemy ships. It's exciting and spectacular, and the only complaint I have is the usual one: Why are there sound effects in outer space? It doesn't by any means spoil the episode for me, but it's just one of those things.
We also learn who and what the baddies are. It's a cult of Genestealers, which I know nothing about. I know they're playable miniatures in the tabletop game, but that's it. I gather they're a cult of genetic splicers who create mutations for themselves and for others.
There are some chilling moments when the Astartes on the planet discover some of their missing captain's team, fallen to the heretic cult. But what happened here? What went wrong? There are clues, but no really answers.
As it often does, the plot thickens. In a flashback, we see the-guy-whose-name-I-dare-not-try-to-spell (edit: it's Ancaeus) entering a temple, praying for strength. It turns out that he's been ordered to leave the Blood Angels, on a loan to the Death Watch. He harbours a deep, dark rage, and he struggled with his obligation to leave the "crimson armour of brotherhood to don the black of duty".
Back in the present, it's revealed that this is his first mission back with the Blood Angels. He's loyal to his chapter, but he's changed somehow. He says it outright: "I fear the darkness will take me."
At that moment, inconveniently, fighting breaks out. The Astartes are overrun by mutants. There are casualties. It's not clear just how bad it is, but there are hordes of genestealers. Space marines are big, solid, and nearly impervious, but only nearly impervious. Throw enough at them, and they can be taken down.
It's not looking good, frankly, and that's where the episode ends!
So this episode is the actual episode 1. I'd be shocked if someone from Warhammer TV could honestly tell me that this wasn't moved to episode 5 in post production. It's the literal and, I think, fairly obvious introduction to the series. Everything becomes clear here:
We see Captain Orpheo on the Sword of Baal bridge, and more importantly we see what actually happens to him and his deployment when they go down to the surface.
As much as this provides answers, it also generates lots of new questions. It's still unclear why the planet surface is ravaged by genestealers. And I swear I thought I heard someone say some other key words that I won't spoil here.
This is a really important episode, and provides a lot of context for the series but also for the rest of the Warhammer universe. I knew that a great rift had formed across the Empire, but I didn't know how or when. I still don't know how or when, but through this episode (and this series), I'm getting the chance to be in the room while it's happening. I couldn't tell from this episode whether Ship Mistress Solken and Captain Orpheo know about the great rift yet or not. She reacts to the revelation that they've possibly lost a few years through the warp, but I couldn't tell whether she knew what the Niades communication meant by the "great rift".
All in all, this one is very exciting, and makes the rest of the series all the more appealing.
I'm not normally a fan of 3d animation or of visual gimmicks like desaturation with a single colour highlight. Angels of Death employs both of these things, and it works brilliantly. I love the bleak black-and-white render, with only the red of blood, explosions, and the armour of the Blood Angels, getting colour. And the 3d animation works surprisingly well. Admittedly, I think awkward uncanny-valley 3d models have been mostly normalized thanks to video game cut scenes, and this basically looks like a really good video game cut scene. However, it also takes place way in the future and most of the players are either heavily augmented or completely alien from our perspective. The 3d animation almost accentuates the cultural separation between us in the 21st millennium and those in the 41st millennium.
As more and more gets revealed in the episodes, I suspect it'll be more and more difficult to avoid meaningful spoilers. I'll continue my review in a later post, partly to avoid serious spoilers in this post, and partly because I haven't watched all the episodes yet.
If you've got a Warhammer+ account, or you're considering getting one, I highly recommend this series.
All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.