Did you hear that? The chiming of the midnight bell, the chitterling of bats, the groaning of the crypt door… The Vampire Counts, once a staple of Warhammer Fantasy, are rising from the grave and they’re doing it in style!
It’s been a while since I wrote one of these reviews for a big wave of AoS or 40k models. I almost did one for the new Lumineth Realmlords but it would have been easily summed up with the sentence “They’re alright but I preferred the first lot”. Likewise I planned to write one for the Slaaneshi mortals but that would have boiled down to “I love all of it” followed by a string of double entendres – so it’s probably a relief all round that I restrained myself.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do one this time though – I bloody love vampires and this was a release I could really get my teeth into. I fell under the spell of the Vampire Counts many years ago, back when Sylvania was the capital of the dead, Shyish was a wind and the Von Carstein family ruled the night. I started an army of them several times but never really got it off the ground although with each attempt I accumulated more – some of which were eventually painted and some of which still linger in dusty obscurity even now. Maybe I’ll start a Soulblight Vampire’s army and finally get them painted up – or maybe they’ll be stuck in their tombs a little longer. Time shall tell – today, let’s grab our shovels and head down to the nearest graveyard to take a look at the new models!
First things first, and where better to begin than with this undead general; the Vampire Lord.
What can I say – it’s a beautiful model ruined by, for some crazy reason, having bats in their hair. There’s a time and a place for being a bit OTT but this just comes off as daft to me, and plays to that silly superstition that bats get caught in ladies’ hair. If I get this model, and I might, those will either be getting snipped off or I’ll be giving them a headswap from elsewhere in the range. Otherwise it’s a damn good model, and its simplicity is its greatest strength, which makes adding a silly flourish in the form of the hair bats even more foolish. Mind you, a female friend did comment “Who hasn’t been running late and wished a few bats would turn up and do your hair? This is Warhammer’s answer to a Disney Princess!” I’ll never look at this particular miniature quite the same way again…
Vampires may be at the heart of this wave of releases but there are other undead shambling forth alongside them, not least of which is the magnificent Wight King.
Skeletal steeds can be hard to pull off but they haven’t put a foot wrong here. He’s a very detail heavy miniature but they’ve shown the sense not to add lots of extraneous flourishes so that every one of those details feels necessary and adds to the personality of the model overall. The result is a very conservative design, rather than one which is littered with unique “Games Workshop only” elements, the kind of thing which doesn’t quite work in practice but which no-one else is doing which they so often allow themselves to be tempted by. What’s particularly impressive is the way in which this model is an almost perfect copy of the old Wight King model (a theme which we’ll be revisiting time and again as we look through these releases).
However whilst the old one was well past retirement age the new one swaggers out of the gate looking like the royalty he is. I can’t wait to see him leading a spearhead of Black Knights as they thunder down upon the hapless living. Nor is this the only undead cavalry to come galloping out of the gates…
If you’d asked me a few months ago to come up with a wishlist of models I’d like to see in this release then the Blood Knights would have been second only to the Zombies (more on them below). The old Blood Knights were nice enough models but, and I know this is just personal taste, I never really liked them that much – which is unfortunate because I loved the concept behind them and the artwork which often made them look brooding and terrible to behold.
The price was also a pretty big sticking point, the old models were always phenomenally expensive. The new ones aren’t exactly cheap but this is a rare case of GW’s prices actually going down.
Having set the bar very high by imagining how good these could look for at least the last decade or so these vampires were going to have to work hard to impress me – but they rose to the challenge with aplomb.
Forcing myself to be objective, and putting my personal prejudices aside, the old ones weren’t bad models, especially for their time – but they just don’t match up to the new breed at all.
The new kit appears to contain a range of options, including lances, swords and a variety of heads, allowing you to personalise your own vampiric elite – or put together large numbers of them without having to include any duplicates. Certainly there will be those who build their army around a core of Blood Knights and create all-vampire armies, something that I think will be an impressive sight to behold.
Next we have the zombies, and if ever there was a kit that deserved a do-over it was this one. These newcomers are nice, straightforward walking-corpses, with a sufficient mix of sexes and appearances to suggest a whole town of people have suffered an unfortunately demise, only to be raised again in service to their vampiric lords.
The outgoing zombies kit (below) was hard to love. Like all zombies it kept shambling on long after it should have been laid to rest but at long last it’s suffered the metaphorical headshot to put it in its grave (and this time it can damn well stay there!).
It’s replacement meanwhile is a joy to behold, although that might in part be a reaction the years of suffering that we fans of the undead have endured at the cold dead hands of its predecessor. The zombies therein appear to be both full of character and fairly versatile – perfect for building up an undead hoard.
Being a bit more generic these should appeal to anyone who found the Cursed City zombies a little too gimmicky. Not that I have anything against the Cursed City zombies, who totter around with their graves on their backs, but I do acknowledge that they’re not to everyone’s taste. As an aesthetic unique to the Cursed City game I think it works but for every zombie in the Mortal Realms to look that way would be overdoing things – not to mention making it harder to find alternative uses for these models as kitbashing and conversion fodder – so something a little more generic was definitely in order. And if you do happen to want a zombie in that style but missed out on Cursed City you can still make a few from the contents of this box.
The roots growing through the corpses is an interesting touch, although I can’t help but wonder how they’ve managed to grow so quickly before the bodies rotted away entirely. Probably the blame lies with dark magic, regardless I think it looks cool. That said I’m sympathetic to those who’re not so keen, especially as this means they’ll need a bit more work if you want to use them as generic zombies fit for any setting. However just as part of me wants to snip those branches off and turn these into Necromundan Scavies, so another part wants to incorporate some Sylvaneth spares and make the woods come alive in the most horrifying way possible.
Nor is this element entirely unique, my first thought when I saw them was of the Tribe of Sarrassa from the game Hate, although those guys really were more tree than corpse.
Unlike the old zombies which were well past their best the old skeleton kit had aged fairly well. I still have a fair number of them which I’d accumulated over the years and which I really ought to get painted and although they may not be the best models around they’re a very long way from the worst. I’m also rather fond of the Grave Guard, another older kit which has stood the test of time very well (and, I’ll confess, another which I managed to snag at a bargain price years ago and which has been languishing unpainted ever since). These new Skeleton Warriors fall somewhere between the two aesthetically, with a bit more armour and greater bulk giving them a significantly more imposing appearance than their predecessors. A subtle wrongness to their postures emphasises their undead nature (as if that was needed on a warrior already stripped down to their bones) and adds a creepy, unnatural element that the old kit lacked. Overall I’d call this an improvement, and although at first glance I dismissed it the longer I look the more tempted by it I become.
Now I don’t actually own any of these new skeletons (of course – they’ve not even been released yet) but what I do have are the Cursed City skeletons which, to all intents and purposes, are basically the same models, so let’s line them up next to some of the older skeletons in the range and see how they compare.
Running from left to right we have; a grave guard, a new skeleton warrior, an old skeleton warrior and a mortek guard from the Ossiarch Bonereapers. Before we begin I should also note that, in a moment of silliness, I used a slightly altered model for the old skeleton warrior rather than a standard build. He’s exactly the same as any normal skeleton warrior apart from his head, which I took from the Black Knights kit. The pointed helmet echoes the new skeleton warriors (I was ahead of my time there because I kitbashed him long before these were previewed) but doesn’t add anything to his height – so long as you measure to the eyes rather than the point of the helmet. Anyway, consider my wrist slapped and let’s get on with looking at these models.
The first, and most obvious point here, is how tall the new skeletons are. The pose helps here, they stand a lot straighter than their hunched predecessors, I reckon if the old models had worked on their posture a bit there wouldn’t be much difference. Of course it’s worth remembering that skeletons should be smaller than their flesh and blood allies, strip away all your meat and organs and you’d be considerably smaller too. Back when these guys were alive they must have been giants! Marching alongside the old skeleton warriors however they actually work quite well, looking like professional soldiers in their rusted armour, with the old skeletons appearing more like undead militiamen. If, like me, you still have old skeleton warriors in your collection I reckon you can add in some of the newcomers as well and the results will still look cohesive.
The two warriors on the ends of the line-up are where things get a bit more complicated however. It wasn’t until recently, when I sat down and painted a pair of mortek guards for myself, that I realised how short these guys are. The Ossiarch Bonereapers are presented as Nagash’s elite, an army build from the ground up for war rather than simply harvested from whatever corpses happened to by lying around by a plucky necromancer in a hurry. These are the death god’s counter to Sigmar’s Stormcast Eternals, crafted from the near-infinite supply of bones he has access to, so why did he decide to make them so stunty? However the mortek guard are at least part of a different army, albeit one loosely allied to the Soulblight. The grave guard however are supposed to be the Soulblight’s elite infantry, yet once again we find them to be shorter and less imposing than the new rank-and-file. As I noted above I’ve always been very fond of the grave guard but standing next to the new skeleton warriors you wouldn’t immediately pick them out as the tough veteran troops in the way that you would have done if you’d been comparing them to the old skeleton warriors. Had I been looking to refresh the range of Soulblight models I think my inclination would have been to leave the old skeleton warriors alone, and update the grave guard instead. As it is I would suggest that anyone who wants to really invest in a Soulblight army that stands out from the crowd should consider kitbashing grave guard and black knight parts with the new skeleton warriors to make their own grave guard (and in fact this is something I might play around with myself once I get my hands on a few bits – I’m not sure I have the enthusiasm to put together a whole squad but it would be a fun way to add some skeletal muscle to a Warcry warband). As a cheaper alternative you could always use the old skeleton warriors as skeleton warriors and the new ones as grave guard – but gamers should keep in mind that’s likely to be confusing for both you and your opponent.
Another kit from the Vampire Counts era that has been desperately overdue for a refresh is the monstrous Fell Bats. Once again, let’s take a quick look at the old models…
… and then compare them to these newcomers who have come flapping out of the gloom to carry off the townsfolk and their livestock.
I’ve always felt that bats get a bad press and I’ve never been able to follow why a small, insect-eating mammal inspires such terror (unless you’re a moth of course, in which case you have my sympathies). For the rest of us though so long as you don’t go around eating them and starting a pandemic there’s really no cause for alarm. That said they’ve been a staple of nocturnal horror since long before Bram Stoker hammered out his overwrought prose and have a well established association with vampires. Plus, let’s be honest here, absolutely no-one who took a sane and compassionate view of bats prior to seeing these models will be transformed into a chiroptophobe just by looking at them. If we accept, and I think that most sensible people do, that painting a unit or two of Afrika Korp Soldiers won’t turn you into a neo-Nazi as osmotic pressure draws evil out of the miniature, up the brush and into your hand, then it stands to reason that painting these little horrors won’t lead you into the shady world of batophobia. No matter how much I might have preferred to see a more innovative monster here rather than pandering to anyone daft enough to fear death by echolocation bats are what we got, and they deserve an honest appraisal. And if I’m honest I like them. I probably won’t go rushing off to buy them but if you want some leering, furry gargoyles for your collection I don’t think you can go far wrong with these.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record the Dire Wolves are yet another kit from the old Vampire Counts era that was overdue for replacing. I must confess that I actually rather liked the old version, and even painted up a squad of my own (see image below), but I know I was in the minority there.
Although I was a fan of the old Dire Wolves I’m not blind to their flaws. Time for them to shuffle off into woods unknown and be replaced by the new dogs on the block.
Much like bats wolves get a bad press. Despite being pretty much harmless unless you’re a sheep wolves have carved out a special place in European nightmares, ready at any moment to set upon hapless peasants, blow up the houses of little pigs or dress up as people’s grandmothers. These wolves navigate neatly around the debate over whether we should live in existential dread of these animals by being zombies – and everything is scary once it’s a zombie! Personally I like these new wolves, they have a nice sense of movement to them and the poses look suitably hungry and predatory. Games Workshop have really struggled to sculpt decent looking wolves in the past but with these, and Belladamma Volga (below) they’ve at last managed to pull off something quite stylish. All the trailing drool is a bit unnecessary and over-eggs things a bit but it’s nothing a hobby knife won’t cure.
Kritza the Rat Prince
Games Workshop’s vampires tend towards the bestial, with even the more human looking ones snarling with talons raised, ready to tear their victims apart in their bloodlust. Kritza on the other hand is extremely restrained and reserved. There’s something resigned, almost mournful about him; you suspect he would apologise before and after biting you, and possibly during as well.
It’s only after a second glance that one spots the sinister tide of rats scurrying beneath his long cape, and recognise exactly what kind of animals he’s used to decorate his robes. They seem to be quite dead now of course, just stuffed heads with glassy eyes – but are they? These are the vampire lords after all, and no-one is quite as dead as they ought to be.
As a vampire Kritza doesn’t really do it for me, there are plenty of other new lords of the night which to my eye look a lot more powerful and vampiric, but I am tempted to pick him up and turn him into a Necromundan crime lord.
Whilst the Rat Prince tends towards an appearance of civilised melancholy Lady Annika appears to be a much more vicious creature indeed. If you like your vampires to keep their murderous inclinations beneath the thinnest veneer of civilisation then this could well be the girl for you.
Her big hair-do is a bit OTT of course but it suits the model. Taken as a whole the miniature combines barely contained savagery with faded grandeur, and of all the vampires in this wave of releases she looks the most undead – the bloodlust and decay only just masked, and only for now…
Unlike the Nighthaunt or Ossiarch Bonereapers these new Soulblight and their minions would for the most part fit seamlessly into the old Warhammer world as well. If you’re still marching around on square bases and flying the banner of Sylvania as the Empire burns then this release looks like a welcome opportunity to refresh your collection. Equally – and unlike the aforementioned Empire models – these appear completely at home in the Age of Sigmar. A corpse is still a corpse after all, regardless of where you raise it, and with the possibility of a dwarf no-one clings to the old ways like a vampire.
However it’s at this point that things start to get a bit bloody weird. Quite why someone decided that a part-bat, part-dragon, part-woman was the centre piece the army needed but needless to say it’s been divisive. Enter Lauka Vai, the Mother of Nightmares.
I’m not going to lie to you, I think she’s really damn cool. She’s a truly weird and unsettling creature who has crawled forth from the same dark pits of the human imagination that HP Lovecraft once indulged. She speaks directly to the part of the human mind that recoils at death, and doubley so at undeath. As our civilisation has grown so the undead have been made safe, gathering around spooky clichés, fun-loving ghosts, Halloween parties, sparkling vampires. An age of reason, science and enlightenment has taught us that there is nothing to fear here. Lauka Vai reaches out and touches the inner medieval peasant lying alone in his hut, heart racing and ears straining to hear the creak and rustle of something lurking just beyond the door, the part of us that knows that reason is for daylight hours and lies awake when all the lights go out.
I’m not terribly keen on the rosary, or whatever it’s meant to be, that Lauka is holding, it seems like the kind of unnecessary detail that GW sculptors have a habit of including purely to avoid leaving a space, without actually adding anything to the narrative of the model. Apart from that however there’s a lot to like here.
Despite all this enthusiasm however I do see why she might not be everyone’s cup of tea. What’s more although I think she’s great I actually prefer her as a special character, a one-off horror rather than part of a whole bizarre species. Much though I like her I struggle to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for the Vengorian Lord, the generic version of the same kit.
The Vengorian Lord isn’t a bad model, although the Nosferatu vibe is perhaps a little heavy handed and that distracts from the model’s other qualities for me. Beyond that he echoes her quite closely, they’re just different ways of building of the same model at the end of the day, so if you particularly like or dislike one you’ll probably feel the same way about the other. If I hadn’t already seen Lauka I’d probably quite like him, but I have and so I can’t help but see him as an inferior version.
One thing that I don’t really like on either version of the model is the head. Lauka works well enough but I think I’d probably replace it with one from elsewhere in the range (with the plethora of spares on the Blood Knights being the first contender) in order to put my own spin on it. I’m still trying to judge the exact size of the head however, it may be a little larger than the other vampires in the range but it’s hard to tell exactly with only photographs to go on. Again however I do have a few demented ideas I’d like to explore here…
Indeed the longer I look at Vengorian Lord the more I start to think of the ways I’d tweak him (a new head for starters!) so perhaps, should I decide to get this kit for myself it’ll be an altered version Vengorian Lord rather than Lauka Vai by the time that I finally put brush to plastic. Of all these releases this is the one which has my creative juices flowing the most as a converter so don’t be surprised if some twisted nightmare comes crawling up out of the dark depths sooner or later.
Radukar the Beast
The central villain of the ill-fated game Cursed City (surely a case of nominative predeterminism if ever I heard one!) was the vampire lord Radukar the Wolf.
Now I’ve not played through the game yet and I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone else but I think it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that, if you win the game where the central objective is to defeat the vampire then the vampire will end up dead(er) at the end. However that fails to account for one of the central tenants of horror, that the baddie always come back. Horror movie bad guys, much like action movie heroes, have a phenomenal ability to come crawling back from the verge of death, shrug off apparently mortal wounds and get all murderous on those who done them wrong. Poor old Radukar has been very wronged indeed, having been “cancelled” by Games Workshop (perhaps he held the wrong opinions?) he’s come back swinging, having swapped rulership of the Cursed City for a gym membership and a lifetimes’ supply of protein shakes. Better yet he’s got a new miniature, which replaces the old one that was available for all of about 15 minutes just a few weeks ago. Seeing all the other replacements for old models that form part of this release actually only serves to make this more striking – the first Radukar having been on sale for about as many minutes as the old zombies outstayed their welcome in years.
The new incarnation is a muscular brute and as subtle as a brick, and I love him for it. As well as being an awesome model in his own right I can’t help but think that he could be converted into a Khornate lord, or a Space Wolf who has succumbed to the curse of the wulfen. Kritza the Rat Prince will undoubtedly take one look at him and start twittering about toxic masculinity, bless his little soul.
Scampering around his feet we have a pair of little Vyrkos Blood-Born. These diminutive vampires were once the nobility of the Cursed City who swore themselves to Radukar and were reborn as these half-feral creatures. Seeing them on Radukar’s base is a nice touch, providing a nod to the Cursed City game whilst also serving to emphasise how big the vampire lord has now grown. However I can’t help but wonder if, in the future, they might look a little out of context. Without the game from which they originated, and with it having remained on the shelves for such a brief time, there’s very little that looks like them elsewhere in the range. Who knows though, maybe someday the little scamps will get their own kit?
Prior to this release I certainly wasn’t expecting the sheer number of vampires that have been revealed, nor the range of styles. Truly there is a vampire here for every occasion, from Kritza, who I feel might actually sparkle if you catch him in the right light, to the murderous Annika or the Lovecraftian strangeness of Lauka Vai. I must admit however that I certainly wasn’t expecting Radukar to bring his gran along.
There’s a wonderfully subtly to this model that to me makes her one of the best things in this release. At first glance she could almost be a fairly normal old woman, albeit one with an unusual choice of steed but allowances can be made for riding around on wolves in a fantasy setting. Then you spot her feet pocking out the bottom of her dress and have to suppress a shudder as she slips across the border into the uncanny valley in search of a gingerbread cottage to lurk in. What sharp teeth you have grandmama…
Anyway, if you haven’t gathered as much by now I think this is an excellent set of releases and I can’t deny that I’m thinking very seriously about raising some dead of my own. As I mentioned above I’ve already got a whole heap of undead knocking around that I’ve gathered over the years, and this is giving me the itch to get stuck in about them at last. I don’t know how many of the new kits I’m going to rush out to buy (metaphorically of course – who goes out to buy things these days?), especially given the aforementioned stack of corpses in the spare room (and there’s a line you don’t want to hear quoted out of context…). At the very least I’m going to treat myself to a set of zombies though, you can never have too many of them, and then we’ll take it from there.
One thing that does strike me though, especially as I look at the new vampire characters, is how much old Neferata and Mannfred feel out of place. For the uninitiated these were two of the most powerful vampires in the old Warhammer setting and when the great necromancer Nagash became a god in the new Mortal Realms he raised their souls once more and bound them into his service, reasoning that as their miniatures had only been released in 2014 it might be premature to kill them off without giving people a proper chance to buy them – a fate which Radukar the Wolf can only envy. Now I’m certainly not complaining that the models are still available, both of them are excellent miniatures and I certainly intend to paint one or other of them someday – probably Neferata (sorry Mannfred, you’re a much more interesting character and your devious villainy is a hoot to read about, but I have a secret love for Neferata so she jumps the queue).
I’ve always felt however that they don’t really belong to Age of Sigmar, they’re borrowed from old Warhammer and ever since the setting was created they’ve felt like a fish out of water, allowed to linger on in the new setting because we’re all too polite to tell them that the setting they belong to burned to the ground six years ago and they weren’t on it. Whilst some of the other old world survivors, Morathi for instance, or Nagash himself, have really grown into their new roles these two old timers never really seemed to fit. Introducing new vampire characters has only emphasised this divide. I suppose Belladamma Volga could almost come riding across the steps of Kislev and perhaps Lauka Vai might lurk on some lonely island off the coast of Lustria or Naggaroth, but really these are creatures of the new Realms – and Neferata and Mannfred belong to the old. Perhaps as the new range beds in I’ll change my mind, or perhaps they’ll just be allowed to live out their days quietly on the shelves of Games Workshop stores until the Old World project is finally unveiled and they’re able to find their way home at last.
Death has had a strong showing over the past few years, with the arrival of first the ghosts of the Nighthaunt, then the skeletal legions of the Ossiarch Bonereapers and now the old fashioned undead of the Soulblight Gravelords. I suspect, and I’m happy to be proved wrong, that we might not see a great deal more from the forces of undeath over the next few years, as Games Workshop switch their focus to the savage hordes of Destruction currently gearing up to take their turn as the big baddies of the setting and give those Order gits a propa kickin’. That said I think there’s still a lot of creative potential to be explored here, as and when Games Workshop get around to it. Most deserving of a little attention are the Flesh-eater Courts. The ghouls are nice models, and the background – which describes them as deluded, Quixotic knights who believe themselves to be noble and heroic rather than degenerate cannibals – is very clever. It’s unfortunate however that the background has no visual link to the models whatsoever, there’s not a single miniature in the range which so much as hints at knightly qualities. What’s more I really like the available models but I’m put off from even considering an army of them because the range leans so heavily on just a handful of kits, with many units differentiated from each other simply by having a slightly different head. If I had a seat amongst Games Workshop’s team of designers I’d make sprucing up the ghouls my next priority, and I’d want to emphasise the knightly aspect whilst I was about it.
Anyway, the sun is creeping over the horizon so it’s time for me to slink back to my crypt to wait out another day. I may lie in my coffin, my flesh as cold and white as marble, but I am not dead – nor am I sleeping. I’m waiting, specifically to hear what you might have to say about all this. As even, my fellow lords of the night, the comments box is all yours…
All images of models or artwork belong to Games Workshop – apart from the photos of my own models of course. No garlic was harmed in the production of this post.