Saturday, 21 February 2015

Harlequins: Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review)

Of all the codices we've covered so far on this site, this was easily one of the hardest to judge based upon its lore. In many respects it does so much right, and avoids many of the failures plaguing Games Workshop books and the game as a whole. It sticks to the lore, expands it and has a few good ideas of its own, but at the same time, it's all too often written as if the design team were playing it safe. Not a bad thing given what the last writer did with an eldar codex, tying down the canon and violently beating it until it was tenderized enough to suit his needs, but it results in a very odd experience. Still, let's start by focusing upon what worked.

The foremost thing which needs to be praised before getting to the writing is the artwork. A big problem with many past codices good and bad has been their willingness to recycle or re-colour old images and pass them off as new. We've seen this done with everything from trying to pass off Raven Guard forces as Iron Hands (seriously, closely examine the interior cover of Clan Raukaan sometime and look at the pauldrons) to photoshopping Dawn of War artwork pillaged from THQ's rotting corpse. Hell, as great as the lore was, it's hard to miss the Blood Gorgons taking up Codex: Chaos Space Marines' front cover. This time though? All of it is new from beginning to end, and the Harlequins have never looked better.

The variety of work on hands is astounding, with more new images than I have personally ever seen in a book, displaying the Harlequins in combat against all comers. We see Troupe Masters mid battle, Death Jesters walking away from explosions 80s action hero style, and even individual art pieces for seemingly every kind of foe. Orks, Eldar, Tau Empire, even a rather highly detailed work shows them slaying Ultramarines, probably a first for any work featuring that chapter. After so much disappointment, it's truly heartening to see that Games Workshop actually listened to fan criticism and went the full mile to bring this army to life.

Things only get better once the book opens up and it immediately takes the first steps towards fully establishing the army for a new audience. Despite having a unit in Codex: Eldar for the past few years, the Harlequins as a whole have largely been stuck in the background so we get a brief introduction to them here. This is delivered across several pages, detailing first the Fall before moving onto the role of the Harlequins over the millennia, and the Laughing God himself.

Sticking with what was established a few years ago in Codex: Dark Eldar, it outlines how the race's pantheon was weakened as their race descended into depravity. Many turned their backs on their kind, with only Cegorach seeming uncaring, laughing at their acts. This helps to establish perhaps his reasons for survival while keeping things short. It gives just enough information to allow new players to get up to speed without going over every little bit of info already seen in past books. It also quickly leads into the passages which will follow. As Cegorach himself is detailed, it's made clear that he finds pleasure in causing the downfall of those with great pride. While it's not spelled out, this gives strong suggestions that he might have allowed the eldar to fall of that time and why he would flee rather than assist the members of his pantheon. It also shows why, given his somewhat closer nature to the depraved kindred of that time, why the Harlequins would be able to bridge the gap between Commorragh and the Craftworlds.

This is perhaps one of the best aspects of the book - Such information is delivered in bite sized chunks but leaves enough suggestion and information to keep the player intrigued. It's a very back to basics style of the kind we saw during the Third Edition, and it sort of works here. Going into too much information would dispel half the mystery behind the Harlequins and rob them of their great advantage, that they are unusual even among the eldar. At the same time just enough information is given to build an image of what the army is like in the heads of player. It's enough to build fan theories off of and make them invested to know more about this force. After so many heavily lore centric books trying to fully flesh out factions have only resulted in canon defilement of the worst kind, this caution with a reintroduced army is perfectly understandable.

Another reason this plays into being an asset for this army is that the Harlequins are far more individualistic than other forces. Rather than whole units or a standing military, their role is one of performers in every respect. We see this in the unique way their army is structured, focusing upon single figures performing entire roles unto themselves, so much of the book focuses upon them. What we do get is a solid impression of each and every one, with a few simple paragraphs outing their roles and the way they see warfare as a performance. A personal favourite is how the book handles the morbid mockery of the Death Jesters:

"Death Jesters possess a grisly sense of humour that leads them to seek new and inventive ways to terrorise , torment and eventually kill their victims. They can sometimes be heard chuckling or humming softly in the midst of battle, and will occasionally pause to sketch a deep bow or offer mocking applause to foes whose horrible fates have especially entertained them.

Killing the foe is not enough for a Death Jester. To make war worthwhile, they must intersperse death with ironic humour. Slaying an offider at the crescendo of a rallying speech, panicking enemy sappers so they flee into their own minefield or wounding a heavy weapon trooper so that their shot flies wide and destroys the very objective they were defending; these are the kinds of cruel deed in which Death Jesters find their amusement."

Short and to the point, it still offers great insight into their ways and shows imagination when it comes to describing their nature beyond simply "She's a Shadowseer who kicks arse, he's a Solitaire bent upon killing all others - They fight Chaos!"
This actually carries over to many of the vehicles as well thankfully, and the book fully embraces the more spiritual and ancient aspect of this old race. Many of the old names behind the vehicles such as the Skyweavers and Voidweavers have mythological meanings linking into their natures. Each and every one has a distinct connection to the Laughing God in some way, and it helps to better emphasise upon the reader just how what we see of the eldar are remnants of a much more powerful race.

The further detail for the army revolves around the various masques which are better known among their kind. These are presented in brief one at a time and there is some effort to put some variation when it comes to these forces. Unlike Codex: Imperial Knights and Codex: Tempestus Scions, both of which had the issue of making certain armies little more than pallet swaps of famous space marine forces, the ones here are very distinct and quite unique. The self-destructive war against Chaos by The Midnight Sorrow follow, the hyper xenophobic Frozen Stars and smaller forces such as The Dance Without End are written to be forces unto themselves. They're not always the most fully detailed or truly unique, but they stand out far better on their own than other forces.

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects stems from the timeline, which covers four pages and cites famous instances from the beginning of M31 to the end of M41. These range from the small disappearences of forces to the running wars with Ahriman and even (and it's sad this actually needs to be pointed out) probably the only outright Ultramarines defeat ever recorded in a codex. Unfortunately, as great as this is, this also summarizes the book's greatest failing - It's only telling us rather than showing.

Unlike the many, many others books of its kind, many key areas are outright missing from the codex which would otherwise help make the army very distinct. Beyond a few brief extracts, we are never fully shown things from the Harlequins' perspective or have any in-depth details citing any alliances among their forces. While the book tells the reader about key events and cites major victories, it lacks the usual several pages or in-depth descriptions one would expect to compliment this. Every codex has always benefited from this, even the worst of the biased disasters we've seen criticised on here, because it really shows the army at war. Without it, what the reader is left with is only a few general suggestions of events but without any solid basis to really inspire them to follow the army.

To make matters worse, Codex: Harlequins goes infinitely too far when it comes down to trying to keep things hidden in shadow or details held back to help with mystery. While off to a promising start by showing the reader only as much was needed, it never manages to really go into greater detail with the Harlequins. We're never given any greater bits of information surrounding the Black Library, and the actual text box detailing the great archive fails to even mention it is a craftworld trapped within the Webway. It's poetically written, but it lacks any additional substance or new spin on old ideas.

Well, actually that's not being entirely fair, as there is one truly new addition.

Continuing with their ever greater emphasis upon the end of M41 being midnight on the doomsday chronometer for just about every faction, the Harlequins get one new bit of lore. Despite being one of the few eldar gods left, and supposedly being so active that he is rumoured to secretly move about the masques in person, Cegorach mysteriously left a book in the Black Library. It was said to contain some final mystery, and as M41 drew to a close, the bindings on the book opened. It's not revealed what was written, only some frustratingly vague hint of some impossible way to trick Slaanesh into expending all of her/his power to save the eldar race. It sadly never goes beyond this so all we're left with is a couple of vague paragraphs about another millennia long gambit to save the eldar after someone decided to bugger over the Ynnead gambit.

Really, there's just not enough here to actually cover the whole army as a full, and the only reason it takes up ninety-six pages is thanks to severe padding. While truly outstanding, far too often the artwork is used as an excuse to have full splash-pages with minimal information, a few parageaphs and then nothing but art. The same goes for the units, with many having an additional full page to show what they look like in flat, colours, when the full illustration just to the side was more than enough. 

This issue with padding only becomes more and more clear as the codex goes along, as it not only wastes space but starts to actually repeat itself. All of the formations are expanded with massive images to try and excuse them taking up two pages when they could easily be fitted into a single one. At the book's centre, we have sixteen pages displaying the same models over and over again, and finally an explanation of the datasheets which is downright pointless at best. The datasheets themselves are then expanded with massive images and additional bits of lore which have already been listed in the book, causing the army section to take up three times the size it could have been covered in.

Finally, and most frustratingly, the codex never takes any actual time to show a depiction of one of these dances. Unlike what we were offered to the build up with the original Codex: Necrons, having a Harlequin masque retelling how the Laughing God deceived the Nightbringer into consuming so many of his own kind, here there is nothing. Nothing to display that additional bit of eldar culture, nothing to emphasise the very thing the Harlequins are best known for and nothing to ram home how they are in many regards keepers of their race's history.

Really, the problem with Codex: Harlequins is that it's only half a codex. It's a good half a codex, but there is just so much here which seems to either be missing or stretched out to try and excuse the price tag on this book. Personally, I can appreciate the fact the design team put in effort here to not balls up this army and get things right, but at a full £30.00? If you're in it for the lore, it's going to be a frustrating affair finding only the opening stages for something good. It's not bad, but it's hard to recommend it based upon this when other successful codices have offered a far more fully fleshed out and detailed account of their factions.

Still. this is only one part of the book. Take a click here to see how the book stands out on the tabletop.

As a quick aside, I apologise for the quality of images here. This was one of the few times i've personally bought a physical copy over a digital one for these reviews, and my usual scanner was out of commission. This is the best job I could do while trying to meet this deadline.

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