I like to see a familiar setting reinterpreted in different art styles. Rachel Harrison’s Warhammer 40,000 novel Blood Rite was once published as a Japanese light novel complete with bishi illustrations of Sanguinius and Astorath the Grim (opens in a new tab), and it made me want a whole 40K manga drawn in the same style. So I don’t mind when 40k games look like they get their art from unexpected places, whether it’s web series and Flash games like Shootas, Blood & Teef, or sprites from 90s shooters like Boltgun.
Still, there is something to be said for fidelity. The 40K universe is famously the origin of the term “ugly darkness”, a place that is gothic, baroque, industrial and heavy metal all at once, as characterized by John Blanche’s artwork. (opens in a new tab). And Darktide holds true to it, right down to the purple Cadian eyeballs.
The universe is a big place, and no matter what happens, you won’t be missed
I should explain. In 40K, Cadia is an Imperial planet on the edge of a giant hole in reality called the Eye of Terror, which leads directly to the demonverse of Warpspace. The people who settled there developed violet eyes, probably as a result of being neighbors to borrow the sugar with the reality-warping Eye of Terror. Cadia was the first line of defense against invasions from Warpspace and survived several incursions before finally falling, but only after a heroic last stand by the Astra Militarum troops. In Darktide’s character creation, the ability to have purple eyes is locked unless you choose Cadia as your birthworld, and if you’re also playing a veteran, you’ll reference Cadia’s fall in the dialogue.
The previous watermark of allegiance in a 40K game was probably Space Marine. There’s a moment in Relic’s third-person assassination ballet where you, an eight-foot-tall transhuman warrior, walk through an infirmary full of regular Imperial Guard soldiers. One of them repeats the imperial mantra “Only in death does duty end” while another screams that he can’t feel his legs, and as you pass a third sighs reverently: “I got to see a Space Marine before the end.” It’s grim, but at the same time it makes you feel like a giant. Hours later, you arrive at a factory where the Titan Invictus, a machine roughly 108 feet tall and capable of winning wars by itself, is being stored. Suddenly you feel small.
Scale is important to 40K, a setting that looks at other science-fiction robots, weapons, spaceships and population numbers and then says, “We can make all that bigger.” The Imperium boasts a million worlds and the hive cities have a population in the billions. You get a sense of it in Darktide when you break out of the narrow corridors of hab blocks that used to be people’s homes and look up to see the Tertium Hive hovering beyond the edge of the draw distance. Or in the level where you protect a train in a shipping yard, from which you can see a void under construction. A vessel that is kilometers long and will need thousands of souls to man it, dangling from the ceiling by chains.
It’s common enough for science fiction to point out that space is vast, but 40K really leans into the feeling of insignificance that comes with it. When there are so many people spread over so many worlds, our modern ideas of individualism must seem ridiculous. In a world like this, believing that one person matters is like believing in feudalism today. The Inquisition responds to a world under threat, in a system where decent military forces are remote – the best of the local regiments, the Moebian Sixth (opens in a new tab)have turned traitor and become the relatively well-armed Scab enemies – throwing “rejects” like you at the problem.
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We are disposable, because of course we are. How could the Empire’s machinery look at the billions and billions of people it has and see the unique individuals? What it sees is a resource that is virtually unlimited. The metal produced on Atoma Prime, which makes the slightly better than average tanks that tower over Darktide’s map, is worth cherishing and protecting. We are not.
So Darktide is right. But the Catachan Devil is in the Catachan details, and Darktide gets them right too – from the moment in the prologue where you see paper attached to an air conditioning unit with a wax seal, as if there’s an inspector out there checking the machinery and leaving notes on parchment . It gets the juxtaposition of modern industrial and sacred antiquity spot on. A medieval church blares propaganda from loudspeakers; the spaceship’s windows belong in a cathedral; the equivalent of a server farm is a “servitor array” which turns out to be an ossuary (opens in a new tab) with skulls and ribs piled to the ceiling.
The grittiness is there, too, in the worn-out faces that are the only available options (I’ve never seen a character creator so reluctant to let you look pretty), and the worn-out weapons that have all clearly been used for years, probably by people who died while holding them. But it also contrasts with the conversations between the Rejects, who make fun of the Zealot’s song, refer to Lord Commander Roboute Guilliman (opens in a new tab) as “big guy”, gossiping about the Inquisitor’s crew. They joke and bond and share stories. The Empire may not see them as individuals, but we do. It’s a big and terrible place, but the little details matter, just like the little people do.
I hope Space Marine 2 manages to do as well as Darktide and the original Space Marine did. I think so perhaps. Revealing trailer (opens in a new tab) refers to the infirmary scene from the original game, with three marines jumping down from the sky to save a group of Imperial Guard soldiers in the courtyard of a ruined cathedral. The marines’ armored feet leave cracks in the stone, the camera pans them like statues of saints, and a surviving soldier sees them and whispers “His angels” with wonder in his eyes.
His purple eyes.