Wolcen Review: The Mayhem of Endless Bugs
Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, the self-titled ARPG from Wolcen Studios, has emerged from Early Access, and it's a mess.
In the absence of Diablo 4, any new high-quality ARPG is a welcome addition to the collective Steam library. In a lot of ways, Wolcen fits that bill, drawing in thousands of players since February 13. Considering certain aspects of the game, Wolcen feels like the next big successor to the ARPG throne.
Unfortunately, there's just so much going against it. So, so much.
A Promising Beginning
For those who felt that Chaosbane didn't quite get the ARPG style right, the gameplay in Lords Of Mayhem is more familiar to genre staples like Diablo and Grim Dawn, including map design, creature types, and skills.
In terms of graphics, Wolcen hits the sweet spot, melding Warhammer aesthetics with a dark take on ARPG world-building. If you don't care for the relentlessly dark color scheme, the ability to unlock new skins and dyes to modify your equipment on the fly adds another reason to amass as much loot as possible. I went with a brighter green motif on my sorceress, and she looks like an emerald whirlwind of death while raining down every elemental effect imaginable.
In terms of animations and graphical skill effects, bouncing and chaining skills are incredibly satisfying to watch, and classic ARPG abilities abound. You can freeze enemies around you for crowd control, call down shards from the sky in a specific radius, bounce lightning bolts between hordes of monsters, aim a necrotic ray, spin around in a whirlwind of blades, and so on.
All of those abilities mesh well with the environments for a high quality union of visuals that result in some serious eye candy while playing. There's more than just nice graphics here though, as the standard ARPG class system gets an interesting revamp.
To put it simply, any character can learn any skill. However, specific skills are tied to weapon types. If you want to cast fireballs and lightning bolts, you need to use a staff. If you want to use traps and ranged skills, you need a gun or bow.
In essence, you can swap classes just by changing your weapon and moving over your skills' keyboard hotkeys.
Here's where things get the most interesting: skills drop randomly like any other loot item, and a limited selection is up for grabs at the Palace store. To make that change work, the standard attributes have been re-tooled so that they're all helpful for any class. You won't just use wisdom as a mage, agility as a ranger, or toughness as a fighter.
Skills can also be modified and upgraded in a number of ways, and even duplicated to use multiple instances of a skill with different modifiers. There's a ton of choice involved when annihilating hordes of monsters.
Resource management also sees a tweak from what genre fans might be used to. Instead of consistently trying to bump up your mana every level to use abilities more often, skills either use energy or rage, and the two resources are always in balance. When one goes up the other goes down, which effectively limits the ability to constantly spam spells without having to use normal attacks in between.
Just let the number of possible paths there sink in for a minute
Since any character can take any playstyle by swapping weapons, classes are chosen in the Gate Of Fate.
Every level up provides a point, which you can spend on the node tree. There is a staggering number of possibilities to take too, from passive bonuses to new abilities. Rotating each rung on the circular tree connects future options with where you are already taking a path is an incredibly smart change to the typical skill trees you see in other ARPGs (like the devotion constellations in Grim Dawn).
While leveling up your character and dealing with the fallout of the prologue, your character uses Stormfall Palace as a base of operations. That area starts as a simple one-screen hub to sell loot, upgrade skills, and swap out gems in items with sockets.
It slowly expands over time so there's more of a city to explore, however, and a building upgrade mechanic is added into the end game to make the world feel more interactive.
All of this seems like I'm describing a great game — and in many ways, I am — except for some gigantic glaring problems that you can't avoid.
A Game That Released Too Early
Wolcen's biggest problem is its bugs. They. Are. Everywhere. And they completely ruin an otherwise awesome ARPG experience. Start the game, close your eyes, and throw a dart in a random direction. You will hit a bug, guaranteed.
Skills either don't work as intended, or they flat out don't work at all. A few somehow do the opposite of what their text indicates and are actually detrimental to take! On the flip side, some skills are so overpowered you can kill bosses in two hits.
Online mode didn't even function at all for the first few days, and when it came back online, whole swathes of player data was lost. There's broken pathfinding, broken hitbox detection, and broken trigger points for exiting areas.
You will be assaulted by constant audio bugs, where the music cuts out or voices repeatedly echo over each other. There's a massive gold exploit that is astonishingly easy to accidentally trigger — and which the developers are threatening action against players for utilizing.
The Steam forum and Wolcen sub-Reddit are a constant string of complaints about lost level, story, or map progression. That's all Day-One launch stuff that can be eventually forgiven, but there are more basic problems showing a lack of attention to detail that is frankly baffling.
For instance, many of the randomized item modifiers in loot drops frequently don't work together. Some items have the "+% HP for this item only" tag, except there's no base health stat to improve, so these items literally don't offer any bonuses at all.
If you somehow don't experience any bugs, you can look forward to bosses and end-game creatures that don't drop loot. That's about as simple and devastating a failure as an ARPG can commit. Loot is its lifeblood. Getting loot so dramatically wrong so early is the kiss of death.
We haven't even gotten to the worst bug, though. Yes, there's more.
The cream of the crop is a bug that can literally prevent you from playing at all. Even if you make an entirely new character, just simply using the transmutation forge will permanently lock you out of loading any Wolcen character at all.
Bugs can be patched of course, but there's a problem there, too. The developers revealed that because of the game's server setup, they will only release one patch a week. Unfortunately, there's no way all of these major issues are going to get fixed in anything resembling a timely fashion.
Wolcen Review — The Bottom Line
- Great tweaks to the standard ARPG format to inject new life into the genre
- Even with the tweaks, Wolcen still plays like a classic Diablo-style game
Wolcen's graphics and base gameplay are polished and ready for prime time. Unfortunately, everything else is a steaming pile of demon manure.
The most ludicrous part of this disastrous release is that the game already went through a Beta and Early Access period, yet this still can't possibly be considered a full launch. The subtitle, Lords Of Mayhem, somehow ended up describing the game's bugs, rather than its enemies or characters.
If this had all been avoided and Wolcen had launched in a stable state, it probably would have been my favorite new ARPG. As it stands, I can't imagine it survives long enough to even be a blip on the radar.
Simply put, Wolcen isn't worth dropping $39.99 on right now (or any amount of money, really), but in a few months, if all the bugs are worked out, it absolutely will be an ARPG gem.