Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem gives me a lot of reasons to want to love it on one hand, and several reasons why I can’t on the other. The action RPG gameplay is respectable and even ahead of the class in some areas. The dark fantasy story isn’t especially groundbreaking, though it is told with plenty of endearing flair and enthusiasm. But all of that doesn’t count for too much when you’re as likely to lose a boss fight because of bugs as you are to being smashed by a hellbeast as intended.
The two-chambered heart of a hack-and-slash adventure like Wolcen is made up of combat and character customization. And in both of these areas, Wolcen does a great job when technical issues aren’t causing it to have palpitations. It differs from its genre-mates in some subtle but positive ways, like the fact that you can’t buffer special attacks. That means that if you’re holding down the left mouse button for a basic swing, you can’t cue up a special move as part of a combo unless you let go of that button first and wait for the animation to finish. Specials also have a relatively long cooldown and your character has a limited number of dodge rolls that recharge slowly over time.All of this combined heavily discourages button-mashing, making for precise and exciting tactical encounters that made me consider timing and my resources carefully. It works equally well solo or in up to four-player co-op, with many skills designed to be cast on allies or benefit in some significant way from having friends along.
The one element of combat I wasn’t especially thrilled about was the Aspects of the Apocalypse, which are powerful transformation abilities that let you become an instrument of divine destruction for a limited time. There are four to choose from, and you’ll eventually unlock them all. But each one is a package deal that can’t be customized at all, and I found most of their abilities to be unimpactful and spammy. They’re very visually exciting and detailed, and the adrenaline rush you get for embodying an actual god is nice, but overall, they lack a lot of what I liked about playing the normal old mortal classes and don’t feel powerful enough to be really game-changing.
The voice acting for the main characters is pretty good – especially Steven Hartley’s rumbly, imposing Inquisitor Heimlock. The gothic, dark fantasy setting plagued by demons is definitely derivative of Diablo and its descendants – sometimes enough to make me roll my eyes. But Wolcen uses it to tell a tale with impactful character drama, which is certainly more than you can say for Diablo 3’s campaign, and some of the architecture and armor designs show a genuine effort to establish a unique visual identity within the narrow boundaries of its chosen subgenre.
The piles and piles of mostly unmemorable, randomized gear you’ll pick up in the course of the roughly 30-hour campaign are handily organized into class archetypes, like bruiser and sorcerer, that let you decide how much you want to focus on pure damage resistance, health points, a quickly-regenerating force shield, or some combination of the above. There’s nothing to stop, say, a tanky knight build from using sorcerer gear, and while certain skill trees will favor one type of defense over others, there are many that don’t. This adds gear archetype as a further customization choice on top of everything else, which I found enjoyable to mess around with.
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Aside from fresh loot, your Wolcen hero is shaped by active skills, which can level up and unlock new upgrades the more you use them, and the rotating Gate of Fate passive skill tree. The possibilities are practically endless here, and there are some really cool special nodes to unlock further down the tree. As a frothing Child of Fury, I could unlock a new character resource that increased my offense but lowered my defense the longer I stayed in combat. A high-level Time Weaver can do some really wild and awesome stuff, like delaying part of the damage from an incoming attack to land a few seconds later. Since each ring can be rotated independently, putting together unique and out-there multiclass builds is not only viable, but encouraged. And compared to a game like Path of Exile, Wolcen never made me feel like I was screwing myself over for taking abilities that sounded cool instead of following a build guide.
My enjoyment of all this came to a screeching halt due to some prominent bugs, – and not the kind that buzzes around and drops treasure. They’re most prevalent in boss fights, which should be the challenging and exciting culmination of each of the three acts. And they’re pretty well-designed, too, which makes the technical failings even more disappointing. The Act Two boss took me a couple dozen attempts, and at least half of my failures were caused by clipping through the floor of the arena and getting irretrievably stuck on a ledge that’s not supposed to be accessible, or some similar nonsense. The final boss glitched out on me 10 times in a row – in the exact same way each time – before I finally gave up on the fight. I wasn’t even able to finish the main campaign due to this.
Endgame is a super-important part of an action RPG, but I didn’t get to see any of it because of these issues. Is it any good? Does it stack up against its competitors? I’d love to find out some day.
Performance was also a bit of an issue, especially with lots of enemies on screen at a time. Which happens, you know, a lot in these types of demonic invasions. Even my GeForce GTX 1070 and core-i7-powered rig struggled to maintain a stable frame rate on high settings.