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Thursday, July 18, 2024

We asked a professional miniatures painter to try his hand at Moonbreaker

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It’s a question that’s captivated the most advanced minds of a generation: could painting pretend miniatures in a game ever be as satisfying as the real thing? It’s a proposition presented in Moonbreaker, a turn-based, tabletop tactics game from Subnautica developer Unknown Worlds. And to help to answer it accurately, PC Gamer teamed up with miniature painter extraordinaire and all-round good egg Emil Nyström from the Age of Squidmar YouTube channel. And he’d know: Emil’s channel has amassed millions of views with videos about things like brush care, beginner painting techniques, and colour theory. He’s even commissioned artists on Fiverr to complete Warhammer models, essentially making him the Mr. Beast of paying strangers to paint Imperial Fists.

You can see Squidmar’s detailed take on Moonbreaker’s painting mode in the video above—complete with demonstrations of some classic miniature techniques such as blending and chipping—but it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t just a gimmick. Moonbreaker is designed to feel like a game played with physical miniatures. There’s a satisfying tactility to the designs that recalls the wallet-bothering fervour which accompanies most new Warhammer releases.

The major difference here, however, is that instead of displacing the existing, half-painted miniatures languishing on your shelf (stay strong, Dankhold Troggoth), you can build your virtual collection with neither guilt nor judgement. That itch to get your hands on the latest model is scratched by the ability to unlock new characters, all of which come painted. And, when the time is right, you can dive in and create new colour schemes without having to scrub off existing paint jobs with meths and your partner’s toothbrush.

The interesting thing here is that the approach to customisation is deliberately limited. Yes, you can stipple, wash, and drybrush, but the range of tools echoes what you have painting the real thing, rather than offering an idealistic degree of precision. The result is something that captures the zen, time-devouring experience of painting Warhammer, without the peril of accidentally knocking over your Nuln Oil, and you only need to look at Emil’s finished paint job to get a vivid sense of what’s possible.

Part of the enjoyment of painting plastic legions, of course, comes from dense narrative fluff that surrounds every faction. They’re not just goblins anymore, mum; they’re Gloomspite Gitz. In this respect, Moonbreaker equals and perhaps even outstrips the level of world-building seen in most tabletop games. The lore and overarching story are provided by award-winning author Brandon Sanderson, creator of the Mistborn series, as well as the wider Cosmere universe in which it’s set. He’s also the man responsible for finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. 

Sanderson worked with Unknown Worlds for years to develop a rich, real setting for Moonbreaker. It’s a place of myriad planets, clashing cultures, and specific systems for technology and magic—something Sanderson knows plenty about, as the creator of a series of go-to laws of magic for application in fictional settings.

The way this information is imparted also sparks the imagination. Each character’s history is contained within their biographies, but it shows instead of tells: they’re presented as song lyrics, book excerpts, or personal creeds. This context, combined with the effervescent voice acting, give a more complete picture of who you’re playing with. The wider story of the game also works in conjunction with the painting mode. The broader points of the plot are detailed in audio dramas which are available in-game or as podcasts. The cool thing here is that you can listen to these while painting your models, which is the nicest way of imparting background plot points since someone realised the Mother Base struts in Metal Gear Solid 5 were exactly the right length to listen to one of the game’s voluminous collection of audio tapes. And there’s plenty to listen to: three audio dramas will be released during Moonbreaker’s first season, with more planned for later updates.

As anyone who’s ever felt a shiver of excitement seeing a fresh sprue of unpainted minis knows, however, the other thrill of the hobby comes from collecting. Moonbreaker includes an element of this, too. You start off with a limited selection of captains and crew from which to choose, but a few games against either the AI or other players will bag you enough points to start expanding your collection, and booster packs work as a shortcut to an expanded collection. As well as bolstering your rosters and providing new ways to play the game, you can unlock paint jobs, paint palettes, decals, and exclusive skins for free as you progress through the first season, adding yet more variety to your burgeoning collection. Moonbreaker is out in early access now, and registering for an in-game ID before October 31 will also bag you an exclusive paint job for one of the characters. 

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