Diablo brought dungeon-looters into the limelight in 1997. Over the course of two decades, it was a pinnacle of the genre, the most notable title available to satisfy the urge of slaughtering hordes to gain money and loot. It brought a bleak setting and terrifying atmosphere that engaged people to fight against various foul demons and creatures of all shapes and sizes.
Recently, however, game development has become very nearly a game of clones. Temtem has brought Pokemon to the PC space, and has received moderate praise for its efforts. Stardew Valley gave us one of the best iterations of Harvest Moon, and took the indie gaming scene by storm. Soon, a competitor will be attempting to tackle Animal Crossing with Hokko Life.
Now, after four years of Early Access development, a competitor has come about to attempt to gain a foothold against the Blizzard Behemoth of Diablo. Will it buck the trend of copycat? Or will it forever languish in the shadow of a gaming giant?
Part One: Story
Wolcen, Lords of Mayhem begins with a bit of a hiccup for me: the problem of too much plot without enough context. You begin as a “child of Heimlock”, one of three orphans brought up under a stereotypical gruff tough macho man, Heimlock. His job appears to be that of preserving the holy balance of the land, and comes into conflict with demonic cults.
In fact, you start already embroiled in this terrifying war against said demonic cultists… after, of course, you handle a bunch of ravager bandits on the way. From fighting against a few bandits during the ambush, you’re swarmed by unholy ghosts and demons, which swiftly put an end to your swift work.
Soon enough, a demon leaps out of a soldier, and suddenly you’re being transformed into an angelic being to defend yourself. This shocks your “sister”, which leads a a bit of a falling out, and a “falling down” into the sea, losing all your gear (except clothing and a weapon, somehow). This leads to the third enemy type: Svriir, the annoying-to-pronounce enemy type of beasts. You fight through several of these things before making it to the city of Stormfall, which is undergoing a refugee crisis that’s very on-the-nose about the power dynamic and moral quandary that you’re dealing with.
So far, I’m no more than an hour in, and I’ve been hit with about five different “bad guy” groups, five major (or so it seems) plot points, and no real world to define them. This world has shown me nothing but a single miserable city and several miserable coastline towns, so I don’t have much context for anything going on. My hope will be that as I play onward, I’ll uncover some nuance between these factions, but from the first act, I’m not seeing much in the way of dynamic interactions. For instance…
Part Two: Gameplay
…when I leave Stormfall, I end up working to defend against this Svriir threat, as they’re prepping for a rush against our defenses. I make short work of the invasion, and rush out alone to combat the source. Now, one would assume that at this point the conflict between these unthinking beasts and humanity would cause these bandits to put aside their differences and work to defend themselves against the creatures. This does not appear to be the case, however, as I run into multiple factions of enemies that all make a beeline to fight me instead of each other. While not the end of the world regarding gameplay, it’s definitely jarring for me to feel the disconnect.
Aside from the AI not being particularly nuanced, though, the game really works to differentiate itself from its main competitor. The unique selling point is the “classless” system, wherein anyone can wield anything at any time, and perks are not fully restricted by your preferred playstyle. The perk tree is a series of rings that can be rotated around to offer many different pathways up to the highest perks. While wonderful in theory, and certainly a beautiful and unique way to handle player progression, I must admit I find it lacking in two key ways.
Firstly, a problem I notice without real specialization is that I tend to artificially restrict myself regardless. Sure, I have an infinite level of possibility with my progression, but that really doesn’t matter if I’ve invested all my perks into melee. The staff and bow that I keep picking up will still be just as useless as they would be in a class-based game, as they’ll be inevitably weaker based on my allotment of attribute points and skill points.
Secondly, because there’s no real specialization or combo-centric focus (since each tree has several divergent paths, making planning for such very difficult), a ton of perks end up being percentage buffs to various stats/damage values, which often has very little meaningful impact on gameplay. It’s more fun to have perks that offer new ways to play rather than a static boost, as it’s often hard to see that static boost come into effect during combat. After leveling up five times, and picking boosts to damage output for each slot, I was still hitting enemies about the same, visually. This leads into my next criticism, regarding overall game feel.
When I play an Action RPG, I want my actions to provide some sort of visceral feel when I use them. While even Diablo struggles with this occasionally, Wolcen in particular leads me into mind-numbing trances, wherein I almost die from a lack of visual stimulus. Weaker enemies take forever to kill, and I end up just plodding through them while reaching tougher enemies. Said tougher enemies are only tougher because they deal enough damage to put me at risk of death, but these fights aren’t really interesting: dodge an attack, then swipe or shoot for a bit, rinse and repeat.
I actually died quite a bit on the first boss fight of the game, with the defense of Stormfall. I was playing a melee-focus character, and I fell twice before I’d realized my health was evaporating. Part of that we’ll get to in the next section, but most of my lack of attentiveness was due to the damage difference between various enemy types being wildly chaotic. It’s not particularly enjoyable for me to just wail on guys over and over again, which unfortunately may be a staple of the genre for most. This problem I have may be because of my relative disconnect from the genre itself, but as a relative newcomer, I’d argue it would be a wonderful time to see a revitalization of the concepts. If most encounters don’t require anything more than barebones point and shoot, why do bosses decimate me unless I treat it like Dark Souls? It’s just a very weird disconnect between the two major combat situations.
Another part of this disconnect comes from a problem that bugged me at the launch of Diablo 3: loot being worthless. I know, I know, all loot can be sold and I can equip any piece of loot I stumble on, which makes it better to the locked-in system of Diablo 3, but my point from above still stands on that: if it’s not my focus, I don’t want to use it. If I don’t want to use it, I’m just lugging it around to sell. Diablo 3 got itself fixed up fairly well from recent loot updates, making gear more useful for the player picking them up. I’d rather that system than one where I’m dropping stuff based on the value I can sell it for.
Finally in regards to gameplay, we’ll talk about the drop-in, drop-out ability system. I’m a fan of the idea, to a point; being able to pick up abilities from loot, or buying them from a vendor, is a pretty cool concept, as was the class-ring system. It’s not always perfect, and it’s the one area of the game that essentially does lock you into a class of sorts, but it’s a cool way of adding a unique spin to a usually boring progression. But all these unique elements don’t really hide my biggest issue with the game.
Part Three: Presentation
Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: this game looks really nice. I’m a fan of the art style, I love the cohesion of steampunk and fantasy, and I’m adoring the heavy-metal vibe this title gives off. However, I’m at odds in one way: this game looks like Diablo. Not in some sort of knowing homage kind of way, either. Enemies look dead-on like Diablo, and the bosses themselves look ripped from the franchise. Usually I don’t mind a bit of shared similarity (I mean, there’s only so many ways you can skin a human bandit before it doesn’t look like a human bandit), but to have the lumbering monstrocity with its gut hanging open, or the weird furry beastlings that hop around on all fours, or the creepy-crawly insects? It seems dangerously close to a cut-and-paste job, and does nothing to lend itself any unique visuals. And the problem with this, unlike in some genres, is how boring it can be to play the same overall setting over and over again.
I hate to throw this word lightly, but the biggest descriptor for this game’s visuals and sounds are… generic. And in a genre where the pinnacle title is a bit generic in and of itself, being the generic version of that game is not a particularly good look.
Part Four: Cohesion
All that said, most of you reading (or listening) will probably be wondering how much more I could possibly tear into this game. It seems as though all I’ve done is demolished the title, and for the most part, you’d be right. I’m not a particularly big fan of the genre, and this game didn’t particularly jump out at me as the pinnacle of said genre, or even a competitor to those on top.
However, bringing all these mediocre pieces together does offer a bit of good: this game, while by no means perfect, has a certain amount of cohesion to all of its parts. The visuals don’t oversell the damage of my attacks, the classless system doesn’t get in the way of having a good time, and the story doesn’t need to be particularly good to be better than most action-RPGs anyway, so having a bit too much is hardly a complaint.
To put it another way, I view this game like I’d view a very well-made fan game, or perhaps even a mod of Diablo. It’s taking a bunch of stuff already present in the genre, and sticking to them with a ton of vigor while trying very hard to add their own spin. And for the most part, the new stuff works! With a bit more tweaking, the ring system could function very well as a way to offer more class diversity and better progression through an archetype. Imagine, for instance, starting people off with skills that benefit a core class archetype, and then subtly adding in other class abilities as players deem fit in order to boost versatility. I’d imagine this would make a wonderful system for a sci-fi setting with augmentations and more open-ended playstyles.
Part Five: Conclusion
All in all, despite my criticisms, Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem serves as a great reference for making a middle-of-the-road game in a genre. It doesn’t do everything right, and it stumbles in quite a few places, but it’s not by any stretch a bad game. It needs to shine a bit brighter, but there is a glow deep down in there of something really worthwhile. Should you buy it at full price? I’d say not, but it’s not worth skipping over entirely, especially if you’re a fan of the genre.