An unhealthy number of hours spent carving my way through ARPGs like Diablo and Path of Exile ensured that Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem felt like putting on a familiar, bloodstained gauntlet. It’s another misadventure set on a miserable world full of unrelenting hordes of monsters, all seconds away from popping like balloons filled with blood and gold. Unfortunately, the bugs and balance problems are just as numerous, and they’ve proved to be a greater challenge to overcome.
In a genre that keeps trying to do Diablo 2 again, Wolcen’s reliance on its predecessors is hardly egregious. There are gem slots, cursed chests, an intimidating passive skill tree—some ancillary, others crucial—but rather than feeling like a hodgepodge of earlier ARPGs, it’s unified by the game’s true objective: building your perfect dungeon-delving hero.
Wolcen takes this fantasy and runs with it, much further than Path of Exile or Diablo. Notably, there are no fixed classes locking you into a choice early on. You make your own out of your gear, active skills and passive skills, drawing from lots of different archetypes to create something just for yourself, or borrowed from one of the many theorycrafers busily crunching numbers and experimenting with builds.
I’ve lost sleep thinking about the labyrinthine passive skill tree, the Gate of Fates. Like Path of Exile’s, it’s an elaborate network of skill nodes, some of which might give you a boost to your toughness or ferocity, increasing your damage and ability to take a beating, while others might be more exotic, like turning a percentage of your damage into fire damage. Within a few levels, you can fundamentally change how your character works. It’s also split into three rings, each of which can be rotated individually to open up new paths on the road to your perfect build. It’s all very tactile and mechanical, like you’re working with a mystical machine in an alchemist’s lab.
I wouldn’t get too attached to any of them, though. Despite being out of Early Access, Wolcen still feels very much in-development. There’s a long list of skills and passives that don’t work as intended, don’t work at all, are ludicrously overpowered or broken in some other way. Wolcen Studio has started fixing them, but judging by the last patch notes there’s still a long way to go, and inevitably some popular builds are going to end up defanged. This is a game driven by numbers, and right now those numbers are all over the place. It’s hard to get invested in a character when they might be completely changed next week, and when so much of the game is wrapped up in experimentation and theorycrafting, it’s a serious blow.
Itemisation, the final ingredient in your custom hero, is also the victim of some wonky numbers. Wolcen’s gear comes with no restrictions, you can mix and match different gloves and spaulders, and you’ll constantly be drowning in allegedly ‘rare’ weapons and armour—most of it won’t be any use to you at all. Like the early days of Diablo 3, the RNG is an utter bastard. The magical bonuses that randomly get applied to gear often don’t make much sense, and Wolcen certainly doesn’t take into account your skills or build when dumping more loot in front of you. It’s just a grab bag of largely useless junk waiting to be begrudgingly sold, along with the occasional underwhelming ‘unique’ weapon.
Each new weapon or piece of armour that you pick up unlocks that skin in your cosmetic menu, letting you set a custom appearance for a small fee, as well as a colour change if you’ve unlocked some dyes. If you feel like a more meaningful transformation, it’s also surprisingly easy to just wipe the slate clean. Drop some cash and some magical currency and you’ll be able to reset your stats and passives, and you can swap out your active skills whenever you fancy. You can quit your job as a time mage and start sauntering around dungeons as a slick gunslinger within a few minutes.
While I’ve ended the game with a melee-focused brute, I had the most fun hopping between magic and stabbing stuff. Wolcen has this great tug of war going on between willpower and rage—the resources that fuel your magical and physical attacks respectively. Your willpower generates passively, while your rage builds up as you deal and receive damage; and as one goes up, the other goes down. So I’d open with a flashy magical assault, maybe taking a bit of damage in the process, then I’d wade in with my sword, all pumped up, and start popping off my melee abilities, turning myself into a whirlwind of destruction until my willpower recharged.
There’s a third resource, stamina, which allows you to use your active dodge. Hit the space bar and you’ll roll out of danger, or maybe into it. Tumbling around like an acrobat to avoid yet another explosion, charge attack or frost ray does have a way of breaking up the flow of battle, unfortunately, and the boss fights in particular seem to be allergic to letting you get a few hits in before it’s back to running away. Most fights involve you slaughtering packs of gormless enemies.
Throughout both the campaign and end game, the vast majority of enemies barely take a single hit before exploding. Jumping into a pack of regular monsters guns blazing is like detonating a nuke in a petting zoo—it’s carnage. It’s like being the Grim Reaper; you just walk into a room and everyone dies. It could do with being a touch more challenging, especially to balance out the much, much tougher boss battles, but it’s still immensely satisfying to wipe out an army in a minute.
The monster massacres are great, but whenever it feels like I’m getting into a rhythm exterminating Wolcen’s rather plain menagerie, something interrupts me—as inevitable as a chest only spitting out items I don’t need. At first it was terrible input lag and the inconsistent frame rate, and while performance has improved a little bit thanks to the last update, the bugs have continued unabated. Sometimes they’re easy to fix, like when I have to attack something to stop my character from moonwalking, but other times the only solution is quitting the game and losing progress.
Dungeon entrances not working, my inventory freezing, my character vanishing—this review could too easily become a litany of bugs, but thankfully there are already countless posts, as well as our own breakdown, that show the extent of Wolcen’s problems. There’s also a general lack of responsiveness that makes clicking on items, quaffing potions and dodging spotty, frequently leaving me yelling at my perfectly innocent monitor.
With more patches, Wolcen might be able to come back from its rough launch, but I’m not sure what can be done about its missing personality. The maps, which take us to all the old haunts, like a desert, a forest and some ruins, are all rendered in a style that, I guess, resembles Diablo, but in a sort of neutral, forgettable way. It’s the same with the story, which is all about demons and corruption and some factions fighting each other—it’s generic fantasy without a spark of its own identity. Everyone in Wolcen is completely bereft of charisma, and with every conversation more of the colour is drained from the world.
Confession: I checked out of the story pretty quickly. I still sat there and let Wolcen tell me its dreary tale, but I’m convinced it’s too dull to retain. By the final boss of the campaign, I had no idea what was going on or who the Big Bad was. Early on I tangoed with a demon and got the power to transform into a massive boss-killer with a special set of attacks, and that’s about the only story beat that matters.
I perked up when I hit the end game. The reward for finishing the campaign is a new mode where you’re put in charge of a city in need of rebuilding. A management game inside an ARPG? What pervert has been looking at my dreams? Sadly, my excitement was perhaps a little premature. The Champion of Stormfall mode is still a neat twist on Diablo 3’s rift-focused end game, but it’s more like a different take on character progression than a slice of city management.
Reconstructing Stormfall confers a slew of benefits that run the gamut from an additional skill slot to new crafting features, but each building and reform takes time and resources. They all have a specific amount of production that needs to be reached before they’re completed, and production is only generated when you’re out slaying monsters in random maps. You can pop off on a one-map mission, or you can risk going on an expedition, taking on up to three maps for greater rewards. In both cases, death leaves you nothing but what you crammed into your inventory.
It’s a slow grind. You can add modifiers that make expeditions trickier, netting you even more rewards, and you can build things that raise your base production, but it’s a lot of work to move an inch. Levelling up takes a lot longer, and the problem with itemisation remains, so there are less opportunities to grow your character. Progression is also more of a slog because you can only unlock higher level expeditions by getting to the end of the trio of maps—if you die, disconnect or get stuck, you’ll lose your progress. In my case, every failed expedition also makes my character invisible, except for his weapon, and unable to move. I’ve decided to disappoint Stormfall’s citizens and put the reconstruction efforts on hold. It turns out that killing monsters is not the most efficient way to build a city.
Wolcen’s free-form character progression and enthusiasm for experimentation could be great additions to the genre, but most of the good is undone by the sense that, as we’re slicing through throngs of enemies, we’re really just beta testers. And where it’s not buggy and in need or rebalancing, it’s incredibly beige. Also, and I really can’t stress this enough, Wolcen is a really terrible name. There’s no way to say it without it sounding like ‘Wilson,’ which might be the worst possible name for an APRG.