When it comes to action RPG video games, there are really two major players that all other newcomers will be compared to: Blizzard’s Diablo franchise and the free-to-play Path of Exile by Grinding Gear Games. Released in early 2020, Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem sought to revolutionize the genre and establish itself as a new pioneer in the ARPG arena. Did it succeed?

I had the opportunity to play a lot of Wolcen this weekend, having picked it up after spotting a favorite streamer of mine dive into it, and today I’m writing up my impressions, including what I think they succeeded at, what could be improved, and what was still broken about the experience, rounding out the review with my final takeaway.

The Great

Wolcen was a very ambitious project from a brand new studio, and it’s obvious they are fans of the ARPG genre in general. I have to start off by saying that the game is beautiful, particularly in the detail presented in map backgrounds and ground effects. From lush wildernesses to pestilence-infused dungeons, the game seems to make the most of the CryEngine 4 platform.

Character builds in Diablo III can feel rather cookie-cutter, owing to a very narrow set skill and ability customizations available to each class. On the other end of the spectrum Path of Exile has a dizzying array of character options, none of which seem to have a large impact until much later in the build, after a player has invested many points and talents into a given direction. Wolcen does a very good job of finding a midpoint, where not only does each character have a reasonable amount of passive abilities but also each skill can be customized to suit a given playstyle. Also the passive ability tree is modular, meaning dexterity-based talents can easily link up to willpower- or fury-based ones at the push of a button. I have to give them top marks for the way they handle skill progression and talent acquisition; I like their approach far better than either D3 or PoE.

Another important aspect of gameplay in any ARPG is the careful balance of character resources. Whether it’s mana, anger, discipline, energy, or whatever else, each character has to manage their ability to generate the resource and their careful spending of it. Something I appreciate about Wolcen is that every character has two resources—rage and willpower—and they are diametrically opposed. Casting a spell costs willpower which increases your rage by a like amount. Using a physical attack ability costs rage which accordingly boosts your willpower. In this way hybrid classes (using both melee and magic) are perfectly viable, keeping the two forces in check. I haven’t seen a system like this before, and I think it’s a novel approach to character resource.

Here’s a big one. When it comes to most ARPGs often players will pick what talents, skills, and equipment makes the most sense for their immediate need, which may completely fly in the face of what makes for end-game efficiency. Many games have character resets cost an absurd amount of in-game currency, or are limited in scope. Wolcen completely embraces the idea of player choice by making skill and attribute respecs almost free, costing only a token amount of in-game resources. I was able to go from a typical dexterity-based ranged fighter to a powerful wizard specializing in necromantic pet summons with just a few clicks, and it didn’t slow down my progression in the game one bit. Seeing this continue on into the end game was a very nice change from other games, where early-game choices were all but permanent when you got to later stages, possibly hamstringing any attempt at efficient play.

Being someone who usually plays companion-style classes, something like a druid with an animal friend or a necromancer who summons demons, I was impressed to see how the AI pathing was handled. Instead of always trailing behind me my minions took educated guesses as to the direction I was going, and lead the way. The system worked very well, and only rarely did I have a minion wander off into the darkness while I was headed somewhere else. In a genre where minion pathing seems to often be a secondary concern, it’s obvious that the Wolcen team not only considered pets a viable build from the get-go, they put a lot of development and programatic energy into making them feel like a natural part of the party.

While I don’t think anyone expects top-notch writing and story from their hack-and-slash loot grind game, I have to take a moment and absolutely commend whomever wrote the Lambach character. For an entity with a limited vocabulary, it had me laughing at several points, and every interaction felt very organic and natural—very difficult to do with something so obviously alien in origin.

Quality of Life Needs

Having covered many praise-worthy elements of Wolcen, I’m going to move into aspects that I feel should be improved to increase the general quality of life when it comes to playing the game. Some of these may seem petty, but when an interface or mechanic is encountered regularly—dozens of times during a regular play session if not more—the frustration can add up.

First and foremost, I think a lot could be done when it comes to loot. While each run isn’t as much an equipment-bonanza as PoE, very quickly characters will have no need for white (common) items, and seeing them clog up the map is very annoying. Most ARPGs have some manner of loot filter, and I think it would be a welcome change for Wolcen, particularly when people get to the higher ranks and start speed-clearing areas; being able to focus on the right loot to pick up could make a big difference in general playability.

Wolcen categorizes non-weapon damage in several large groups, but then does not readily explain what kinds of damage are in each group. Is shadow damage considered arcane, occult, or elemental? What about sacred damage? Is bleed categorized under material or is it a unique edge case? Perhaps the most frustrating part of the damage hierarchy is that there aren’t any damage tool tips that I could find that readily explain these concepts, and certainly none that were easily accessible when I needed them for planning my character progression.

I’ve already remarked on how much I appreciated the minion/AI pathing the game has, but their attack range/combat triggering leaves a lot to be desired. I can summon minions to the edge of my screen but even if they’re standing in the middle of a group of enemies, they just wait patiently, ignorant of their surroundings. Only when enemies are within a mysterious radius of me do the minions attack, as if they had neither a line of sight or area of effect of their own. This actually also speaks of spell ranges; there’s really no way to tell what a spell’s area of effect will be, whether from a ground-targeting UI or range delimiters. Will my chain lighting hit that first monster? Will my aetheric bolt? Who knows! Why does one have a longer range than the other, and can I upgrade them? Who knows! None of this is explained.

Though the list I compiled of QoL updates continues, I don’t want to make this entire post about little things that could be improved. In no particular order, here are some summaries: the minimap scaling seems very off, no indicators for downed allies on the map, for some reason the character’s profile picture is a dark grey silhouette, there are no buff/affliction icons to show what effects an enemy is under, other generic tool tips are almost completely absent, and there aren’t any indications as to which mods have been applied to end-game maps.

In my experience many ARPGs suffer when it comes to the end-game. Once the story’s over, it just becomes about pushing {number} higher and higher, whether that’s represented by dungeon level (Diablo III) or map level (Wolcen). PoE at least had branching paths and a bit of story progression in the endgame, but I continually find the singular goal of “make number go up” boring and unengaging. It was actually shortly after getting to the endgame of Wolcen that I bounced off of it pretty hard, seeing the future of my gameplay doing the same task over and over again without achievable goals that were meaningful to me as a player. The idea of building up a city was interesting, but not when it was gated behind endless dungeon runs for pretty poor rewards—that again only serve to help in further dungeon runs.

Also, for an online game to come out in 2020 and not have even a read-only character API, for shame.

The Broken

I understand that Wolcen launched onto the gaming scene and instantly caught a lot of heat for major bugs, a messy rollout, poor response to complaints, and generally a poor reception by the previously-hyped player audience. That said, it’s been seven full months since the game launched, and I would expect that most major bugs would have been identified and fixed by this point—I’ll even give the brand-new studio some leeway when it comes to release-day bugs. I’ve run into a number of issues that verge on game-breaking, that I think are fairly unacceptable this long after release.

Some side areas have mini-quests like “go kill Capitain McBadGuy” or “kill a lot of creatures.” This is all well and good, except for the fact that the quest reward screen pops up in the middle of the playspace and cannot be moved until a reward is chosen and accepted. This reward screen takes up a good 25% of the visible area, centered right on the player. Even if they’re in the middle of combat. Even if they’re a melee build and have to be able to see the thing they’re swinging at. It’s unfathomable for me that this issue made it through initial QA, let alone months and months of patches and revisions.

Whenever a quest waypoint is shown on the minimap, it seems to disappear when the player gets in what I would call “middle-range” of it. If you’re far away, it shows up no problem. If you’re close to it, it’s easy to spot. But somewhere in that midrange, for reasons I can’t understand, the indication simply vanishes. This isn’t unique to any one quest or any one type of marker; I saw it happen time and time again across all maps, across all quests.

The complete lack of online multiplayer. Apparently the initial launch was so beleaguered by issues they just removed the ability to group up with players who aren’t explicitly on your friends list and called it a day. There’s no way to join an already-started game, no way to invite someone to your game. What’s the point of having online functionality at all if it’s so limited and obviously broken compared to what was intended? Make it a single-player game and be done with it.

Almost every time I clicked back into the window from elsewhere, such as chatting with a friend or changing music on my playlist, the Steam overlay would pop up, as if it were holding a Shift-Tab behind the scenes every time I took advantage of the borderless window mode. This bug is explicitly on their roadmap to fix, but this shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.

Much like with the quality of life issues, there are a number of bugs I encountered in even just a few days of playing, enough to make me think that Wolcen Studios, the company behind Wolcen the game, won’t be releasing another game, if even only for the PR/marketing battle they’d have to face. These include being occasionally unable to interact with any object until a seemingly random monster halfway across the map was defeated (a generic minion, not a named elite or anything), the warning “you don’t have enough skill points” popping up when I exit a menu, character models flying off into the horizon in physics-defying ways, multiple occasions of being stuck/softlocked inside a side dungeon, and my sound randomly turning off until I restarted the game.

My Honest Review

Right now Wolcen sells on the Steam store for $40. For fans of the genre who want to explore a new story, reasonable voice acting, and a great character progression system, I say it’s well worth playing, if you wait for a sale. Is this going to ever become the gold-standard when it comes to ARPGs? Absolutely not.

I think this was a very, very ambitious first game by this studio, and while they hit so many great marks, there are so many issues and problems that I can’t really recommend this game to casual players of the genre. Path of Exile may be more complicated and convoluted, but it’s free and offers much of the same feeling. Diablo III is probably residing in most players’ game libraries somewhere, and that can be fun to bop around in as well. Wolcen? Give it a try if you like, but I wouldn’t go in expecting the moon.

There’s a lot of buzz about a new ARPG called Last Epoch which is trying to reinvent the end-game mechanics that have become a stale staple of the industry, and I think I’ll be willing to give that one a try, particularly if they learn from the (many) mistakes and (appreciable) strides that Wolcen made in its development, launch, and ongoing support.

Header image taken from in-game footage