It’s all kicking off in the Age of Sigmar. A whole new edition has arrived, bringing with it a stack of new models, which I’ll be gushing over shortly (or reviewing them dispassionately like the cold and emotionless agent of the grave I am, depending on your perspective). Once again we’re also seeing the timeline moving forward as Nagash makes his play to replace Chaos as the biggest baddie around. After all he’s been around for millennia and, despite being burdened with a truly terrible hat and getting murdered by the Skaven on a semi-regular basis, he’s risen to attain a well deserved godhood. Until now however he’s been stuck with the same bunch of minions he commanded back in the Old World, minus the Egyptian-looking ones. Of course, never one to back down from a fight or miss out on the merest hint of limelight, Sigmar has sent his Stormcast Eternals to give the agents of his old frenemy a good kicking. Don’t worry, it’s all in fun, none of them can really die.
A new edition means a new boxset and this time we get Soul Wars, the successor to the rather unimaginatively named “Age of Sigmar Starter Set”. Naturally lots of intelligent, literate people who actually have the box in front of them have already shared their opinions about it so you might be forgiven for thinking I wouldn’t bother, but of course you’d be wrong because here I am.
Most excitingly of all I can now look forward to some nutter raving in the comments section about how much he hates AoS and what a truly terrible person I am because I personally murdered Warhammer and ruined everything. If you’re out there mate, the reason I don’t publish your comments is because I genuinely believe you’re unwell and need help and in a rare moment of frankness from me to you I would beg you to consider what this obsessive rage is doing to you and your life. Of course I’ll add that the misplaced bile you pour in my direction also brings a warm glow to my heart and makes me feel that I’ve truly arrived as a reviewer and commenter because I can’t imagine that a busy man like yourself has time to rage at every two bit blog around and you save your burning rage for those platforms where it will garner the most attention. Plus as you are happy to tell me, a stranger, that you hate me, I’m not above mocking you for a cheap laugh.
So, having agreed that Age of Sigmar is responsible for every unpleasant and terrible thing that has ever happened, from flicking a cigarette butt towards the Hindenburg to producing the music of Shania Twain, let’s acknowledge our shared infamy in still being interested and take a look at the new models.
Faced with a rising tide of ghosts, and discovering that the Scooby-doo gang were unavailable, Sigmar has called in the support of another chamber of Stormcast Eternals; the warrior-mages of the Sacrosanct Chamber. Apparently he heard about the Grey Knights and decided that an army of armoured wizards were just the thing he needed to tackle an incorporeal adversary.
Of course, with tiresome predictability, some sectors of the internet are positively electric with self-satisfied outrage that once again Stormcast Eternals are featured in the boxset. It’s a bit like the people who complain constantly about there being Space Marines in the 40k starter-sets (indeed, it’s probably exactly the same people). Have the courage to admit that you’re just a tedious moaning bore rather than stretching for a silly complaint, especially when that complaint is one that you know will be fulfilled. “I’ll be upset if they put Stormcasts in the starter set” they bleat, smugly knowing that this is as inevitable as if they said “I’ll not buy it if they put the words Games Workshop anywhere on the packaging – after all that’s an anagram of Shag Pokes Worm!” Do you see a giant statue of an Idoneth Deepkin or a Bride of Khaine outside GW HQ in Nottingham? Neither do I – although there’s no denying that the latter would send a powerful message to Games Workshop’s competitors and local burglars alike.
Still not marrying Khaine
When the first Age of Sigmar starter set was released the Khornate half represented something fairly traditional and familiar. Swap out the round bases for square ones and it would have fitted in nicely as a 9th Edition starter set for Warhammer. Korghos Khul would have made a fine lord of Khorne, the Bloodsecrator a champion with the battle standard, the blood warriors could have been chaos warriors with the mark of Khorne – and likewise the bloodreavers as marauders. Even the Khorgorath could have been a chaos spawn with the mark of Khorne. Alongside this the Stormcasts were the radical choice, making it indisputably clear that here we had something new and different, that the old world was gone and the new was defined by more than round bases and silly names.
This time things are different. This time it is the Stormcasts who are the conservative choice of faction to showcase in the starter set. Like Space Marines for 40k it’s safe to assume that for decades to come each new addition of Age of Sigmar will contain Stormcasts in the boxset.
The core of those Stormcasts are the rather stylish looking Sequitors. I’m not always that keen on Stormcasts, there’s something a little too uniform and faceless about them, but I’ll give the Sequitors two thumbs up. The robes help of course, giving the designers more to play with than plain armour would, but overall these have a lot more individuality and character than previous Stormcasts, whilst still maintaining their cohesiveness. After all, each one is a storied hero – a champion even before Sigmar raised them up – not a clone or another faceless soldier. Early Stormcasts were accused (often rightly) of being a bit repetitive but with these GW have got into their stride. Rather than lacking character each one is a character, and one could imagine oneself ascribing traits to them, identifying them from battle to battle and coming to regard them as individuals in their own right, more like Necromunda gangers than, for example, the twelfth ork in the unit.
I keep telling myself that I don’t need to buy the boxset because I’ll never paint an army of Stormcasts but if I ever do these will form the bulk of it.
There’s no denying the visual impact of the Castigators. Stormcasts with grenade launchers? What did the poor followers of Chaos do to deserve this?! As with the Sequitors the robes look great and there’s a real sense of power and weight to the models.
It’s also good to see more female models as Games Workshop responds slowly to repeated reminders that women have a place in fantasy and science-fiction too (somewhere a fat and unhygienic Star-Wars obsessive is crying into his keyboard at this baldy-stated news but I’ve never sugar-coated anything and I’m not about to let the creepy lard-arse down gently). By subtle narrowing of the masks, waist and legs, and softening of the brow, the designers have rather cleverly managed to incorporate female Stormcasts into the ranks of the Castigators and Sequitors without needing to go down the road of form-fitting armour, boob-armour or even bare heads.
I was never the biggest fan of Stormcast based truescale marines, finding that the sleeker armour shapes left them looking more like Stormcasts in space than Space Marines. The arrival of the Primaris marines has generally rendered them a thing of the past, as marines of most chapters can be kitbashed with ease from the Primaris chassis. The exception of course is the Sons of the Lion. Now there are plenty amongst the First Legion who go around dressed in plain power armour, and there’s no reason not to just paint your models green and have done with it. However to really capture the Dark Angels you want long monastic robes and between them the Castigators and Sequitors provide a lot of potential. The hammers, lightning bolts and other Sigmarite flourishes would need trimmed away but a virtue could be made of all the lion iconography.
As I say I’m not that keen on Stormcast based truescale marines, nor do I particularly like the Dark Angels (those filthy traitors!) but I might just pick up a few Sequitors to experiment with.
After the excellence of the Castigators and Sequitors the Evocators prove to be a bit of a disappointment. The weird looking armpit robes are a bit too odd for my liking, whilst the tabards starting at the rib-cage makes the torso look very short. The tempest blades meanwhile look rather too long and heavy to be wielded one-handed.
In the early days the Stormcasts were often accused of looking rather blade, a charge which can now be firmly refuted. The Evocators however seem to be trying too hard to put a flourish on the Stormcast aesthetic and the result is a little half-baked and falls short of the elite warrior-wizards these are intended to be.
This may sound a little overenthusiastic but I think the Lord-Arcanum is pretty damn magnificent. It showcases the glorious heroism of the Stormcasts and the fantastic richness of the Age of Sigmar in one fell swoop. My love of gritty realism and the “aesthetic of the pathetic” is well known but Age of Sigmar is big, bold and bombastic and this model encapsulates that perfectly. If we’re going to replace the toothless, shoeless Empire soldier as humanity’s defender with an immortal golden giant then let’s do it in style and give that giant a glorious haughty half-horse, half-eagle beast to ride around on. No half-measures here, no implied moral complexity, just over the top heroism through and through. Cut this man and he’ll bleed one-dimensional wholesomeness and moral fibre.
Many people – and I include myself here – took one look at the first Stormcasts and feared that Age of Sigmar would be dumbed down, simplistic and lacking the moral depths of old-Warhammer. Needless to say the likes of the Idoneth Deepkin and Daughters of Khaine have put paid to that, leaving the Stomcasts to encapsulate the goody-two-shoes heroism that they’ve become known for. Given that it’s only right that they be allowed to do it well and to the full extent of the designers’ abilities. Criticising this chap for being a bit OTT and overtly heroic would be like criticising the Idoneth for hanging around with fish.
Being harsh I’ll admit though the model does have a few flaws; the staff is a little top-heavy and cluttered with superfluous detail (just give him a hammer – it wouldn’t make him any less of a wizard) and there’s really no need for every beast in the Stormcast army to have two tails, but these niggles aside he’s still excellent.
Second in command to the Lord-Arcanum is the Knight-Incantor. Even at a glance it’s clear she’s a mage of some kind, the outspread arms, subtly upturned gaze and windblown, billowing robes neatly conveying her connection to the storm. Again her staff is a little top-heavy, as is her crest, and the silly armpit capes continue to look uncomfortable and impractical, but overall she’s a fine model who works in spite of her flaws. The sculpted musculature of the torso is an unusual, but very welcome, choice for a female miniature and would have been far better than the layered tabards of the Evocators. We can expect to see plenty of clever Inquisitrix and Cannoness conversions from this one I suspect.
The forces of the Stormcasts are diversified further by the arrival of their first artillery piece, the Celestar Ballista. No longer just clones in gold armour the faction has grown, chamber by chamber. Sigmar has unleashed legions of heavy infantry, flying warriors, knights on dragons, even adorable mini-gryphons and, finding his enemies are still going strong, now he’s rolled out the big guns. To my mind this model encapsulates a very Sigmarish, bullish attitude to solving a problem. One can almost hear him saying “Ghosts now you say? Have you tried shooting them?” The Stormcasts must be wishing they’d had access to this back when their enemies were a little more corporeal.
A lot of the elements of the model are a little obvious, indeed this is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a Stormcast artillery piece, but as it’s their first that’s no bad thing and very much to be expected. Plus it may well be the case that this is setting the template for further artillery and warmachines to come after.
What is interesting is that here is a glimpse of Stormcasts who’re not straight-forward fighters. Whilst previous Stormcasts have clearly been chosen by Sigmar for their combat prowess or tactical acumen, these follow on from the Lord-Ordinator, bringing more to engineering the future of the Realms than just hitting things with a hammer.
Overall I’d call the Stormcast half of the boxset a success. Games Workshop could have used it as an excuse to just churn out more Stormcasts, just as the 40k starter-sets of yesteryear always contained plenty of tactical marines. Instead they seized the chance to broaden the Stormcast range, bringing in mages and artillery and putting a new spin on an already ubiquitous army.
All the usual Stormcast characteristics are present, with hammers, anvils, masked helms, lion faces and more lightning bolts than a Harry Potter convention. Ultimately if you like the look of the Stormcasts then these will add further variety to your collection. If, on the other hand, you’re not so keen on the slightly different style might just sway you.
Another common complaint from the first edition of Age of Sigmar centred on the lack of mortal threat to any of the participants. Chaos lords were reborn by the gods, Stormcasts and Seraphon were reforged, even the Sylvaneth got in on the act with their soul-pods. Add in the Idoneth and their soul harvesting and a death god like Nagash starts to get seriously irritated. Indeed the situation has now become so grave (sorry – I couldn’t help myself) that he’s unleashed a whole army of ghosts to make his displeasure felt in no uncertain terms.
A number of vocal scoundrels have been calling for Age of Sigmar to give up the ghost since it was launched and, to my personal excitement, now it has. This is what they were wanting right?
Front and centre of the Nighthaunt half of the boxset is the glorious looking Knight of Shrouds. Earlier in the year Malign Portents brought us our first look at a Knight of Shrouds, a magnificently creepy and well executed model which, it is now apparent, was just the precursor to the deathly horde now descending upon us. So impressive is it that even if I wasn’t already a fan of the Death alliance I would have picked one up just to paint. Unfortunately the model was wildly overpriced for a single miniature, a product of Games Workshop’s location (both geographically and philosophically) in the UK’s deeply skewed economic landscape, so I never stumped up the cash for it. Never mind, a nicer one has come along now, and he’s on a horse.
Once again I may sound a little effusive in my praise here but the Nighthaunt are generally excellent and none more so than their undead general. For the ghosts the pressure to impress was always high. The Vampire Counts range was a well loved staple of Warhammer and for a while new releases were a regular occurrence, with each one including models even bigger and more impressive than the last. The culmination came at the beginning of the End Times with the arrival of the Mortarchs and Nagash himself – the latter being a model I’m not a big fan of but which is otherwise generally well loved.
After the triumph however came the fall. In the purge of Warhammer factions that followed the End Times the Tomb Kings, the Vampire Counts’ sister race and the other branch of the undead in GW’s stable, were swept roughly into the dustbin of history. There followed three years of near silence. The beginning of 2018 saw the arrival of the Malign Portents, something many of us assumed to be Death’s triumphant return. Of course it turned out we were right, just a little premature. Instead of a new army, the undead got an army book and a single overpriced model – but then so did everyone else. Only after two elven factions had appeared did the dead rise at last.
Thus I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who went into this release desperately hoping it would be good and fearing the outcry that would come if it was anything less than perfect. Luckily when it comes to the risen dead GW are still very much on top of their game. If the Knight of Shrouds is suffering from any kind of performance anxiety he doesn’t show it and as a general he can stand proud alongside vampire lords, ghoul kings and Mortarchs alike. Death is back in style, top marks Games Workshop, I should never have doubted you!
There’s something slightly frail about the Knight of Shrouds, a whipped look in his thin arms and hunched shoulders which only adds to his sense of spiteful danger. Here is a ragged and wiry warrior, a pauper general, the very essence of his steed sloughing away in echo of its long rotted flesh. He’s a long way from the wall of golden musculature sent by Sigmar yet one suspects his sword would cut the deeper for the bitterness behind it.
Alongside the Knight of Shrouds Soul Wars spoils us with three more Nighthaunt characters. First up we have the Lord Executioner, an overenthusiastic headsman in life now bound to eternally serve Nagash. The elements are relatively simple; an executioner’s hood, a gallows and a great big axe. Nonetheless the model does a lot with these few ingredients and the result is delightfully sinister and imposing. A small group of ghosts swirl around him, framing the model’s face and helping to tie these newer models in to older figures like the spirit hosts and mortarchs.
Back when I reviewed the Lord of Blights from the Nurgle release (in January) I described the gallows worn on his back as “a good idea amateurishly executed”. With the Lord Executioner we get to see it done properly.
An executioner never has to rush around chasing after victims and thus the model encapsulates a sense of slow-moving power. He calmly stares ahead, picking out his next victim, and the model’s golden angle has him looking directly at the viewer. Meanwhile his greater height above the base implies a potential for downward movement, he’s not racing into the sky but preparing for a powerful decapitating downswing. I’m also no fan of sculpted smoke, fire or magical effects, something you would think would put me off the Nighthaunts in general, but here it’s been done with such aplomb that it’s impossible not to be impressed.
The Guardian of Souls is the first Nighthaunt wizard (you can tell by his staff, pointy hat and beard). Apparently his role involves guiding the spirits of the dead back into the Mortal Realms, a story that is subtly but skilfully told by his pose. His sword is held low – he’s not really a fighter after all – and his lantern is outstretched overhead to guide others, with wisps of ethereal flame coiling back behind him.
Whilst the Guardian of Souls and Lord Executioner clearly convey their mortal origins the Spirit Torment looks more like a cross between a deep sea fish and one of the bridges over the Seine that people cover in padlocks. The result is deliciously creepy, the eyeless face and gaping mouth creating a strong impression of something utterly without compassion, driven only by instinctual hunger.
Furthermore whilst most ghosts look soft and ethereal this one looks heavy, it’s pose hunched and bullish, it’s arms pulled low by the weight of the locks it carries, its thin flesh poking from beneath a shell of heavy iron. And whilst the locks are so heavy they almost scrape along the ground the keys float out of reach, hidden from the creature directly behind its sightless head.
Indeed the head itself deserves a special mention, an excellent bit which would prove handy in adding an extra level of creepiness to all kinds of characters, from tech-priests to archons. The only flaw is the padlock earring, a tiny bit silly and a detail too far I feel.
The rank and file of the Nighthaunt contingent is made up of the chainrasps, of which we get 20 in the box. These are the middle of the road souls, criminals and bad ‘uns but not evil enough to have sold their souls to Chaos. For those who’ve been crying out to see the normal folk, the great unwashed of the Mortal Realms, this is them – it’s just unfortunate that by the time GW got around to them they were already dead.
Once again the undead maintain the theme of a mighty host of the risen slain at the core of their armies. Now we can choose between skeletons, ghouls, zombies (if you like really ugly models) and now ghosts as well. There’s nothing wildly unusual or creative with these but that’s no bad thing. If you want straight-forward ghosts, or a chassis upon which to build more unusual ghosts, you’ve got it. Whatever the setting, so long as the spectral dead wander around in a sheet moaning, these will have you covered.
It’s safe to say that the Inq28 community will be having a field day with these (not that those geniuses couldn’t make gold out of anything). Expect plenty of little tech-thralls ahead.
If the Chainrasps are the rank and file of the Nighthaunt then the Grimghast Reapers are the shock troops; blindfolded spectral berserkers sent to reap a fresh crop of souls for Nagash. Overall these are the closest to the cairn wraith, the spiritual forefather of the Nighthaunt. Indeed anyone still playing Vampire Counts in old-Warhammer would do well to consider these as a great way of making cairn wraith squads, alongside the Myrmourn Banshees as, well, Banshees.
The stereotypical Death archetypes are out in force here, from the tattered black robes to the long scythes. There’s a real sense of speed too, a darting, almost fish-like motion, combined with a sense of savagery in the sweeping blades. The unfortunate exception is the one holding his scythe directly overhead. The sense of motion is still there but the sense of direction isn’t, so whilst the others appear to have just made a killing blow he’s either indulging in some purposeless scythe waving to no real effect or he’s just blindly charging and probably about to suffer a comedic collision with something unyielding.
I also wonder if it’s strictly necessary for one of them to be wielding a bell on a stick? In old Warhammer pretty much every squad, regardless of how small, featured an optional command group comprising a leader or champion, a banner and a musician. This practice has declined in Age of Sigmar and so a musician feels as unnecessary here as a banner would. It’s clear the ghost isn’t using it for its intended purpose, he appears to be smacking someone over the head with it, so why give him a musical instrument at all if he’s just going to break it by using it as a weapon? Plus although bells are closely associated with death in the real world, in the Warhammer universes they’ve become much more closely tied to Nurgle and the Skaven so if GW really wanted an instrument in the squad – presumably to some in-game effect – then why not pick something else? Wind instruments, not usually great for creatures without lungs, could be great here – how about bone pipes sticking out of his back that howl and moan as he flies around with his mouth open, turning the whole model into a giant set of bagpipes?
In spite of these minor quibbles there’s a lot to like about the Reapers. They may be the most obvious and least original concepts in the Nighthaunt range but they do it with such style that I’m more than happy to forgive them.
Creativity and weirdness are becoming the trademarks of Age of Sigmar and although GW have been a little less wild with Soul Wars than they were with, for example, the Idoneth Deepkin or Kharadron Overlords (this is still stormcasts vs ghosts after all) they’ve still managed to sneak in some wonderfully innovative models all the same. Perhaps my personal favourites, and the models that first drew me to the Nighthaunt faction, are the Glaivewraith Stalkers.
Hunters in life the Glaivewraith have been fused in death with their steed creating bizarre hybrids, the hunting beasts of Nagash. I may have poured praise on the Nighthaunt rather exhaustively by this point but here GW have done it again, pulling another star out of the bag.
In theory one presumes a sufficiently powerful necromancer can resurrect almost anything, with the possible exception of a dwarf. In the old Vampire Counts era however the bestial companions of the undead were lifted straight from Bram Stoker’s rather hammy writing, with giant bats and wolves predominating. Sadly the superstition of the dark ages still seems to be associative with these creatures and unnecessary persecution has been heaped on them as a result (and yes, I did have to rescue my neighbour from a bat once whilst she screamed hysterically, and rather imaginatively, that “everyone knows they’re poisonous!” I restrained myself from pointing out that there was only one mad old bat in the room and it wasn’t the unfortunate flying mammal…).
Now I’ll forgive the later edition dire wolves which were suitable terrifying zombies (and even the most gentle of creatures becomes frightening once it’s a zombie as these lovable farm animals painted by Alex of Leadballoony prove). Regardless of how rare or endangered a species becomes I’m all in favour of killing it once its risen as a zombie but until then there’s really no reason for a hobby with its foundations in imagination and creativity to keep repeating the short-sighted ignorance of medieval peasants. Thankfully Nagash, and his mortal servants in Nottingham, have proved themselves capable of shrugging off the hackish prose of old Bram to invent a bestial pack of a rather more creative kind.
Wolves – majestic wild animals… until they rise from the grave…
Releases like the Kharadron Overlords and Idoneth Deepkin have really cemented Age of Sigmar as a setting in which Games Workshop can let their creative hair down and indulge their talents. With Soul Wars they’ve naturally been a little more restrained, Stormcasts are Stormcasts after all, but that hasn’t stopped them showing off a little on the ghostly side of the set. The Glaivewraith Stalkers are exactly the sort of thing one imagines skulking in the corner of a Blanche painting, or popping up in the margins of a rulebook.
I’m also tempted to a couple of pairs of human legs emerging from beneath one of them to create a macabre carnival beast, pantomime horse or suitably weird steed for an Inq28-style knight.
Unfortunately the Easy To Build Glaivewraith Stalkers released to expand the set in Soul Wars don’t bring much more to the unit than was already present on the models in the core box. They do add a drum of course and a crow with a skull for a head, which is probably the cutest thing GW have ever come up with, but neither, to my eye, merits a whole new kit (and separate purchase) on its own when those two items could have been included in the core box just as easily. That said the Easy to Build sets are so cheap, and the models in them so nice, that it seems churlish to make a fuss about this.
The drummer is apparently called a Deathbeat Drummer which sounds like something a music journalist would come up with to name a sub-genre of death metal. Really they should have gone the whole hog and called it a Deadbeat Drummer, which is after all what everyone will call it anyway.
More exciting are the Myrmourn Banshees which are without a doubt one of the best bits in a release already full of wonders. Much has already been said about the clever use of negative space and the way that the greater part of what should be the model’s flesh is either hidden or absent. The torsos are hollow, the mouths screaming gaps which, in the absence of the model’s eyes, draw in the viewer’s gaze, and the models writhe and twist as though boneless, like cloth tugged by a breeze.
Soul Wars picks it’s themes and sticks to them with an unyielding vigour. If you like heroes in shiny armour or lots and lots of ghosts you will not be disappointed. If, on the other hand, your predilections for the undead are more diverse and you’d like a skeleton or two, perhaps a zombie, or even – heaven forbid – a mummy, then you may find this something of a letdown.
I make no secret of my own bias, I started out as a vampire counts fan several editions of Warhammer ago and I’ve been tempted to join the undead legions of Nagash since Age of Sigmar began. I even painted a vampire count just the other day and, like the Lord of Undead himself, I fondly remember the World-That-Was, I have a healthy distrust of Stormcasts and I look silly in a big hat. I’ve tried to remain neutral in this review but if my praise for the Nighthaunts has been a little more emphatic than for the Stormcasts that may be part of it.
That said I really do feel that the Nighthaunt half of the box outshines the Stormcast half by a sizable margin. It doesn’t help that a Stormcast in a robe is still a Stormcast and so the look of the models was very much constrained by what had gone before, whereas with the Nighthaunt the designers were able to create something a bit stranger, darker and more creative, and thus more to my taste. Furthermore whilst the Stormcast set contains models both good (the Sequitors) and less so (the Evocators) the ghosts are consistently top-notch. Needless to say between this and the models already revealed I’m very much looking forward to the full Nighthaunt army when it arrives.
Ultimately I don’t think I’ll be running out to buy Soul Wars, partly because I’m not that excited by Stormcasts (no matter how beautiful the Sequitors are) and partly because GW are bombarding us with other releases more to my taste. I will however be seeking a good bargain on the ghosts, and plotting a spiritual awaking in Shyish. And of course it’s always possible that I’ll change my mind, those Sequitors really are pretty lovely, and I really want to read all about the realms in the new rule book and sometimes it’s easy to forget that I’m trying to save my pennies for all the other lovely things Games Workshop have been previewing lately…
So what about you? Are you already preparing yourself mind, body and soul by wandering the house with a sheet over your head making “woooo” noises, or are you a valiant servant of the God-King ready to take the fight to the dirty deadies? Or perhaps your sympathies lie with the somewhat under-represented forces of Destruction, in which case here’s hoping that with Stormcasts vs Chaos in the first boxset and Stormcasts vs Death in the second I’ll be reviewing a box of Ogres (and Stormcasts!) in three years or so. You heard it here first folks!