Total War: Warhammer II The Shadow & The Blade review — A fantastic delve into the dark

The deadliest assassin and most feared Dreadlord are introduced.

Deathmaster Snikch is coming for Malus Darkblade
(Image: © Creative Assembly)

Since 2017, Creative Assembly has added several updates and expansion packs to Total War: Warhammer II, expanding the world with new playable races, units and locations. The latest addition, In Total War: Warhammer II The Shadow & The Blade, adds a new storyline revolving around two famous, edgy characters from Warhammer lore: Deathmaster Snikch and Malus Darkblade. As such, the master assassin and feared Dreadlord are set on a collision course.

The Shadow & The Blade adds some fantastic new lords, heroes and units for players to enjoy, while the unique campaign mechanics are quite distinct from anything introduced so far. It is worth noting however that Malus' campaign effects are very imbalanced — though thematically appropriate — and starting off his campaign is extremely difficult as a result. If you don't mind that, or you're only here for the Skaven side of things, this DLC pack is an absolute must-buy.

The Shadow & The Blade has sneaky Skaven assassins

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Deathmaster Snikch is the famed Clan Eshin assassin for the Skaven, feared throughout the entire world for his murderous abilities. Wielding triple poison swords (he holds one in his tail) there's no fleet he can't burn, no wall he can't climb, no throat he can't slit. Leading his scurrying brethren, Snikch is allowed to undergo schemes of sabotage against his foes, as well as take on contracts from the other four major Skaven clans: Mors, Pestilens, Skyre and Moulder. By taking on different contracts, you can build Clan Eshin's reputation and get special privileges. Eshin Triads are the main new unit the Skaven have, stealthy polearm-using assassins that are great at carving through light enemy infantry. There's also a new Eshin Sorceror, Master Assassins, Warp-Grinder Weapon Teams and Poisoned Wind Mortars.

Deathmaster Snikch feels incredible to play as and is a scarily-effective hero killer.

We're talking about Skaven here, so naturally that doesn't mean taking contracts on other races the ratmen so despise, oh no. The clans are all spying on each other and they'll pay Clan Eshin vast quantities of food and money, in addition to providing discounts. Of course, spying on a Clan tends to make them angry, so whoever you choose not to help will inevitably be more difficult to reason with in diplomacy and just generally make things more obnoxious for you. If you aid Clan Skyre, the insane Warlock Engineers will gladly hand you advanced technology at a reduced price but if they've asked you to spy on Clan Moulder, the flesh-shapers won't be pleased.

Snikch himself can undertake missions, but given that he feels incredible to play as and is a scarily-effective hero killer on the battlefield, it's best to assign schemes and contracts to his assassin underlings. When you've got assassins spread out, darting across the world hindering armies and spying on potential threats, it really does feel like you're at the center of a marvelous spiderweb, an intricate network of espionage all in your employ. It's a really nice change of pace from the way Skaven usually play and actually got me invested in a Skaven campaign, something that's never happened before.

Coinciding with the release of this DLC, Creative Assembly also released a patch that has greatly optimized the turn times. Running on a Samsung SSD, end turn times in the Eye of the Vortex story mode have gone from about fifteen seconds to less than ten, while the ambitious Mortal Empires grand campaign only needs twenty seconds as opposed to previously requiring well over a minute. This patch isn't part of the DLC but because of the timing, it's worth mentioning.

The Shadow & The Blade also has divisive Dark Elves

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Meanwhile, over on the Dark Elf half of the DLC, Malus Darkblade has become partially possessed by the Greater Demon Tz'arkan, the Drinker of Worlds. This has resulted in a fractured mind on the edge of a knife that can cause discontent among Malus' troops — and immense power mortals only dream of. Malus' campaign revolves around trying to find a solution to this, balancing the strengths and weaknesses it causes him to develop, drinking ever more-expensive potions to temporarily quell the demon. In terms of new units, the Dark Elves now have access to the Bloodwrack Medusa, an extremely powerful creature with surprising range capability. The Bloodwrack Shrine, High Beastmaster, Master and Scourgerunner Chariot further fill the roster.

In gameplay terms, this is represented through a meter showing how strong Tz'arkan's hold on Malus is. The weaker the demonic influence, the better a leader Malus is, gaining replenishment benefits for his army and decreased construction costs. As Tz'arkan gets stronger however, these benefits turn to negatives, your generals become increasingly disloyal and you take massive replenishment penalties, in exchange for seriously increased martial power and the ability to fully transform and let the demon rage on the battlefield, with destructive results that you can see below.

While I appreciate the kind of risk-reward mechanic implemented here, right now it feels imbalanced. The replenishment penalty means that without some work put into your buildings, you won't be able to replenish your army at all without constantly chugging the expensive potions. Either this penalty should be slightly loosened or Malus needs to become even more ludicrously powerful than he already is, in order to make up for the dwindling army reserves using him in his demonic state will inevitably result in.

The risk-reward mechanic feels imbalanced.

There's also some neat fluff work that makes this campaign feel more accurate and immersive. Usually, browsing the war map simply provides an ambient overview of the campaign. Not so when you are playing as Malus. As the demon increases its hold, the screen tints purple and Tz'arkan laughingly mocks Malus' struggle. When you've previously played this game for over 250 hours, it's a legitimate shock and a neat way of reinforcing how torn Malus is.

Should you buy Total War: Warhammer II - The Shadow & The Blade?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Total War: Warhammer II keeps on going strong as one of the definitive RTS games available right now and this new DLC has only further heightened that strength. Deathmaster Snikch and Clan Eshin steal the show here and make for an absolutely fantastic new Skaven faction, one that might win over players who previously weren't interested in the sneaky ratmen. The new units the Dark Elves get are appreciated and the thematic work put into Malus Darkblade's mental struggle against Tz'arkan is some of the best in the series, though it is in dire need of some mechanical fine-tuning.

For those who have the main game and other DLC packs but are pondering grabbing this latest addition, I can wholeheartedly say it'll be worth your while. If you haven't picked up the main game at all but it looks interesting, I recommend checking out some thoughts from Cale Hunt, one of our staff writers, who talks about getting into Total War: Warhammer II years after release.

Samuel Tolbert
Freelance Writer

Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.