Wolcen: The Hot New Underdog Action RPG

The servers might be on fire, but the game is still super cool

Official Wolcen marketing image, www.wolcengame.com

After five years in development, a successful Kickstarter, and an early access period, Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is now a real computer game you can buy. It’s a fast-paced action RPG that’s one part Diablo III and one part Path of Exile, slathered in a sumptuous coating of CryEngine-powered visual excellence.

I’ve played it for a weekend, and I think it’s a whole lot of fun, with a massive asterisk hovering just out of sight for the bug-averse.

The game exploded out of the gate just a few days ago, and the servers for both the online loot database and co-op multiplayer almost immediately melted down, leaving the game’s Steam forum full of concerned players, some of whom had lost progress and items.

The game regularly fills the screen with enemies, and it’s great. Screenshot taken by Alex Rowe.

In the few days I’ve played the game, the servers have been online exactly one time. I decided not to try and play with anyone, because you can’t take offline characters into the online mode, and I didn’t want to start over and risk losing items in the process. It seems like the game’s small 13-person team is scrambling tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all work right.

You’d never realize that the game was made by such a small group unless someone told you. Its presentation is immaculate. The game’s visuals overwhelm the eyes with wonderful details. Environments are rife with ornate textures and materials, lighting effects, and realistic reflections. Character models exude the game’s just-south-of-realistic art style, which has enough of its own painterly flair to stake out a great middle ground between Path of Exile’s grime and Diablo III’s vibrance. Combat showers the screen in viscera, particles, and other satisfying feedback. It’s truly a graphical goal post that other isometric games will now have to contend with.

Fortunately, the gameplay has the power and impact necessary to sustain the hours and hours of fighting and looting that the genre is built on. Every attack hits hard, and you’ll have to make full dexterous use of both mouse and keyboard to succeed in the chaotic battles. You’ll unlock new skills through special items as you go, and those skills are also tied to the type of weapon you decide to wield. The game is completely class-free, allowing you to build your character through a combination of stats, weapon choices, and passive skill boosts from a giant sprawling array of nodes that borrows heavily from Path of Exile but adds rotating rings to mix it up.

Official Wolcen release trailer, www.wolcengame.com

Wolcen’s sound shines just as much as its visuals. The music was recorded by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and the game’s many characters are well voice-acted. Combat sounds are a particular highlight for me. I’ll never get tired of the loud metal clang that accompanies each successful critical hit. Environmental sounds fill out the different soundscapes and match the detail of the world on display.

In addition to being a prettier, nice-sounding version of a game you’ve probably played a thousand times before, Wolcen has a fun storyline. Saying too much about it would ruin what little nuance it has, but it’s a tale of orphans, latent god-like powers, and powerful factions with hidden motives. It’s nothing all that new (notice the running theme?) but the lore is fleshed-out and the main protagonist has more of a personality than I usually expect from the genre.

I’ve gotta pick up those pants! Screenshot taken by Alex Rowe.

Wolcen doesn’t have as much content as its inspirations just yet, and what’s there is a little more janky than I might have liked to see in a “finished” game. On the plus side, the game delivers on its promise of a seamless open world…though it takes longer to load than every other action RPG on the market. The game’s main combat innovation is to overwhelm you with massive groups of enemies a la Dynasty Warriors, and force you to manage two special power resource meters at once that feed into each other like a see saw.

While it’s fun to battle huge swarms of enemies right from the beginning, it clashes a bit with trying to learn and build a character. Diablo III saved these types of encounters for later in the game, when you really have a grip on the mechanics and have better gear and more skills. It’s rather easy to die in Wolcen’s opening stages, which is a bold choice for a game genre built on easing you into a lifetime of dopamine-powered clicking.

Aside from the three large story chapters, the game has an endless mode that will generate random dungeons for you and your friends to bash against…and that’s it for endgame content. The game’s dungeon generation is adequate, though I’ve found some of the campaign’s subterranean dives get a bit long in the tooth. If you’re a dungeon fan, you might love this.

The character creator is limited enough that your protagonist will have a generically steely look no matter what. Screenshot taken by Alex Rowe.

In addition to the mess caused by the server fires, I’ve seen reports of issues with the offline mode as well, in spite of its locked-down characters. I’ve seen complaints that sometimes offline characters will just vanish in the blink of an eye. I’ve heard tales of passive skill nodes not working at all or providing far more of a boost than their text indicates. Also, folks that have already made it to the end of the game have found broken quests and missing text. I haven’t experienced any of these issues yet in my one weekend with the game, but it seems likely I’ll hit some sooner or later.

Still, the fun core gameplay, flexible character system, and breathtaking audiovisual presentation have me more than satisfied with spending the $40 dollars the game costs. I’ll happily grind through its campaign and dungeon modes a few times, and I’ll eagerly await the new content that’s promised.

The game’s environments are packed with realistic materials and extra visual flair. Screenshot taken by Alex Rowe.

It’s shocking to me that such a small team made a game that looks this expensive. The server issues and bugs are unfortunate, but are also the sorts of challenges that even large, well-funded games in this genre struggle against. The team has been in constant communication with fans online, and I feel hopeful that they’re going to push this game into an incredible product in the next few months.

Wolcen is a great early contender for my personal action RPG debut of the year, based on its wonderful presentation alone. That’s impressive considering that Path of Exile 2, Diablo IV, and Torchlight III are all coming sometime soon. It’s worth a buy right now if you consider yourself patient with technical issues, but otherwise perhaps hold off for a few months.

I write independent tech, game, music, and audio reviews and analysis from a consumer perspective. Support me directly at https://ko-fi.com/alexrowe

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