Fun fact: origins of the term ‘grimdark’ can be directly traced back to the original Warhammer 40k tabletop game. Suffice it to say, the cynical and nihilistic world of Warhammer 40k sucks. Despite the highly advanced and amazing intergalactic society that mankind has built, to live in this universe is to live in a bleak place where humanity exists in a state of total war as it fights hopelessly to delay its inevitable demise at the hands of all manner of eldritch space gods and aliens. Nobody is ‘good’ in this universe, and nobody is going to make it out okay, which makes Warhammer 40k and the boomer shooter genre feel like a match made in hell. Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun may not be the best entry in this genre, but it gets enough right that we’d recommend it to anyone looking for a solid retro FPS.
Boltgun is set after the events of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. You're a marine sent by the imperium to pacify a group of tech priests who are experimenting with a dangerous power source on a distant planet. You’re initially sent with a squad, but your drop pod rather conveniently crashes and burns on the planet’s surface, violently killing everyone except you. Left with no other choice and armed with nothing more than a sick chainsaw sword, you press on into the den of heretics to carry out the mission in the name of the glorious Emperor.
As you could probably guess, narrative doesn’t play much of a role in Boltgun, which is slightly disappointing given the absolutely cavernous depth of the existing lore. Even so, the relative absence of story here doesn’t really detract from the overall experience, as the sugar rush of killing an arena full of heretics quickly erases any concerns over the hows and whys of what’s going on.
Gameplay follows classic boomer shooter game design wherein you explore the winding corridors of mazelike levels, picking up upgrades and ammo while ripping and tearing through a concerning amount of baddies in the bloodiest ways possible. You start with just your titular, trusty boltgun, an automatic weapon that packs a heavy punch, and you’ll pick up more weapons—such as a plasma rifle or a shotgun—as you progress. These each have key strengths that make them shine more in certain situations, and while you’re encouraged to make use of your full arsenal, you can reasonably just stick to your favorites and not have to worry too much about how you’ll perform—this isn’t DOOM Eternal where you need specific weapons for specific enemies.
No matter what gun you’re using, everything has a delightfully crunchy and brutal feel to it as the screen and controller shakes with each slug you fire, coating the surrounding area in viscera as your unfortunate foe erupts from the impact. Blasting away yet another cultist or plague toad into a fine pink mist with your shotgun remains amazingly satisfying all the way through, and the challenge quickly ramps up as you get deeper into the campaign. On its base difficulty, Boltgun never feels like a hard game, but we ran into more than a few scenarios where we had to break away from the enemy hordes to scrounge up armor and health before finishing them off. It feels mostly balanced, then, but the main thing that throws it off is the somewhat finicky controls.
The issue here is that you never feel like you have complete control of your space marine; sometimes he doesn’t turn fast enough, and other times he turns way too quickly. Tweaking the sensitivity in the settings can help to take the edge off, but it feels like this is more a consequence of the Switch hardware. The Joy-Con sticks don’t have enough travel to give you that sense of being precise with your inputs, and the lack of an option to compensate for this via aim assist or gyro control means that it can be difficult to get mid-range or distant enemies into your sights consistently, especially when you’re running and strafing like crazy. Luckily, most of your weapons are more akin to hammers than scalpels, getting a shot ‘close enough’ usually means you’re still pulverizing your enemy’s face, but we’re still hoping that gyro controls will be added at some point in a future update. At this stage, they should be standard for any FPS on Switch.
Going along with the finnicky controls, level design really needs some work. The shooting action itself remains electrifying and exciting every time you get pulled into another skirmish, but the environments these battles take place in are often vast and confusing. There’s nothing wrong with extensive levels loaded with secrets—the recent Doom games used them to great effect—yet we found ourselves getting lost quite frequently in some of Boltgun’s larger stages. Corridors tend to loop back on themselves and there’s a general lack of notable landmarks to help with wayfinding, which can make it quite difficult to determine the way forward when all the dank stone walls and rooms look almost exactly the same. There’s no map, either, so you’re truly left stumbling around in the dark until you happen to find the nondescript door that you need to step through.
Graphically, Boltgun utilizes a fascinating visual style that merges modern 3D with the old-school 2D spritework of games like the original Doom. Everything has a delightfully pixelated look to it, from the many horrifying enemies you face to the equally terrifying weapons you use to put them down, but you can tell that most of the environment is 3D ‘underneath’ the pixel filter. The locales themselves fit the characteristic grimdark aesthetic perfectly, with all kinds of bleak, vaguely religious settings that perfectly blend science fiction and fantasy.
All this is paired with a collection of unremarkable, but fitting industrial tracks that hit hard and underline the frenzied action quite well. The soundtrack can feel a little one-note, but it fits well enough with the gleeful and unadulterated violence on display. Special praise is due, too, for the sound effects. Everything from reloading your shotgun to thundering down to the ground after jumping from three stories up sounds crisp and confident, which adds a crunchy, satisfying extra layer to the stimulating combat.
It may be confusing to navigate, but Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun has definitely got it where it counts. When you aren’t busy trying to remember how many times you’ve been through a certain room, the comically violent combat sequences offer up consistently thrilling engagements with just the right amount of difficulty. We wish that it controlled a little better, but it’s impossible to deny that Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is just a plain fun game to tear through. We’d recommend this to anyone looking for a solid boomer shooter to add to their library; it’s not a game that you need to rush out and play right away, but you’ll probably be satisfied once you get around to it.