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Wolcen Lords of Mayhem Review

Setting the stage for our Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review

Just over a week ago, on the 13th of February, Wolcen Lords of Mayhem saw its official release. Although the developers behind the game, Wolcen Studio, are only an indie development company, hundreds of thousands of players flocked to the game during its first 24 hours on Steam. Whether the developers expected such a large amount of players is unclear, but it was clear that they were unprepared for the influx of players. This Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review won’t focus much on the launch issues, but we discuss it briefly to give some context to the conditions under which we reviewed the game.

For those who launched the game as soon as it went live, like us here at Beards Swords Shotguns, it was a frustrating experience. The onslaught of players hammered the Wolcen servers, and this meant that very few of us could access the online mode of the game. In our case, we didn’t even get to play the game during its first day of release. We monitored the Wolcen Twitter account for updates on the state of the game and eventually got in on Friday evening the 14th.

Server and launch issues
The servers were fighting a losing battle on release [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Playing together as a party was a sub-par experience, and because of the ongoing server issues, the lag was unpleasant to deal with. We made it to the Act 1 boss, but because of the lag it was impossible to dodge his telegraphed attacks. We stopped playing for a while until the launch issues were smoothed out and fixed.

The servers were down for an extended period during the next few days, and I started an offline character to play the game. With this in mind I base the Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review upon my experience of the game in its offline mode, as this was a far superior experience.

To review the game, we will discuss four key areas that includes:

⦁    Gameplay

⦁    Graphics

⦁    Sound

⦁    Narrative

There is a final and fifth area of discussion we call “Beards Swords Shotguns” where we discuss some cool and not-so-cool things we found in the game to round out the review. If you are still cautious about buying the game or if you have already taken the plunge, our Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review will give you a good idea about what to expect!

Gameplay

Gameplay is a fundamental part of any game, and good gameplay is essential for us to enjoy the game. Good graphics and sound design will rarely redeem clunky and bad gameplay. Therefore we look at the mechanics, skills, endgame and UI of Wolcen to explore the quality of its gameplay.

Mechanics

ARPG’s are not known for their mechanical complexity and usually revolve around a simple but efficient reward loop. It boils down to you completing increasingly more difficult challenges to find increasingly better loot, which in turn enables you restart the loop at a higher level of challenge. Players have various reasons for taking part in this loop, but some of the most popular ones include leaderboard races, completing builds and collecting sets of gear.

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem is no different, and the core mechanics of the game are simple. Smash through the campaign to reach the endgame and grind the reward loop to become more powerful until you are satisfied with what you have achieved. Wolcen Studio has added a few surprises along the way to give more weight to the grind such as the extensive city building aspect. I discuss this when we talk about the endgame.

Another interesting, although not a unique mechanic, is the interplay and synergy between the rage and willpower resource. Rage is used to cast physical skills such as melee and ranged abilities. When you spend rage on one of these abilities, you will cause your willpower resource to increase. The amount of rage spent on the ability determines the amount of willpower resource you will receive. The same is true for the reverse. When you cast a spell you will use willpower, and therefore your rage resource will increase.

I found this to be an engaging mechanic, and it forced me to stop and think about the skills I was using and the way I planned my build. As an example, the Aether Jump ability is a handy ability to use in many builds as it allows you to use willpower and in turn you have tons of rage to cast physical skills with. While we are busy with skills, let’s look at mechanics they are built on.

Active skills, passive skills and character stats

Wolcen has an active skill set and a passive skill set similar to that of Path of Exile. The active skills are what you would expect from an ARPG with a mixture of spells, melee and ranged abilities. None of the active skills are particularly interesting, although the Avenger Auto Turret was fun to use. The Avenger Auto Turret ability does exactly what it says and allows you to place down a turret that automatically fires at your enemies. It reminded me of the Engineer in Risk of Rain 2 and the turrets he places. It could be a fun challenge to see if the engineer can be re-created in Wolcen!

Active skills can level-up and you can spend the points gained this way to enhance the particular skill. When a skill is leveled up to its maximum, you will have ten points to spend on enhancements. Enhancements cost between one and three points each and you can combine them in any way you see fit. Mostly the enhancements are flat boosts to damage or critical hit chance, but there are a few that allow you to have some fun.

The passive skills are the more interesting of the two. The Gates of Fate or the passive skill tree is a large grouping of nodes connected to each other and divided into three concentric circles. Each circle includes the same number of caster, melee and ranged focussed nodes doubling as the circles grow bigger to the outside. You start off in the middle in the smallest circle and develop your build from there.

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem Review
Playground for builds [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem is built on a classless progression system. This means that you can build any character that you like, although certain abilities are tied to using certain weapons. By using the passive skill tree, you design the type of character you want to play. If you want some insight into which class you can start out with we discuss it here.

Character stats are based on the classic ARPG formula although they are named differently in Wolcen:

⦁    Ferocity is an attacking stat replacing the traditional strength stat;

⦁    Toughness is a defensive stat replacing the traditional constitution or health stat;

⦁    Agility is unchanged from the classic formula; and

⦁    Willpower is the caster stat usually called intelligence in other games.

Overall the skills and stats are not remarkable, but hidden in there are a few gems that make the system worthwhile.

Campaign and endgame

During my playthrough to write this Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review, I can honestly say that I had a fantastic time during the brief campaign. I discuss the narrative during the last part of the review, so here we just look at gameplay.

The campaign has two difficulty levels, one for those who want to cruise through it and one for those who want to experience the campaign at the appropriate difficulty level. I chose the latter or ‘Normal’ and it was a marvellous experience. The campaign took me around 12 hours to complete and I spent almost half of that on Act 1. Act 2 and 3 are relatively short and you clear zones much quicker as you become stronger.

The campaign has a good pace and enough variety to keep it interesting until the final moments. Moving from zone to zone can become monotonous, but cutscenes and other narrative interventions means the Wolcen campaign stays fresh. Because of the rapid pace of the campaign some parts feel slightly rushed, but this does not detract from the gameplay experience.    

I have to add that I enjoyed the campaign in co-op when I played online, but unfortunately I couldn’t experience it all the way through because of the server issues. Wolcen allows players to skip the campaign from their second character onward, which is a fantastic initiative for those who live for the endgame.

Wolcen’s endgame is one of the strong areas of the game, and it kept me well entertained for the 40 hours I spent with the activities. Let’s look at the most popular endgame activities.

City building

This is the most unique of the Wolcen endgame offerings. After the completion of the campaign and because of certain narrative developments, the game leaves you in charge of rebuilding and expanding Stormfall. You do this by interacting with the city planner screen, which reminds me of the early Heroes of Might and Magic games. The planner interface has different buildings represented with icons, and expanding each one reveals the upgrades or construction projects that you can start. 

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem Review
Time to plan your Stormfall upgrades and construction [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Completing all the projects will keep you occupied for a long time so if grinding is your thing this system will entertain you. Each project has a cost associated with it and includes a combination of gold, primordial affinity and productivity. Gold and primordial affinity are easy to gather as you collect it by playing the game. Productivity is rewarded for completing other endgame activities such as the mandates and the expeditions. As you upgrade Stormfall you also upgrade the amount of productivity you receive from endgame activities which is essential to stay sane during the grind. Some later upgrades require staggering amounts of productivity, therefore upgrading the amount you earn is time well spent. 

Overall, the upgrades offer sufficient rewards such as extra skill slots, extra passive skills and extra bank tabs. Others include an increased gold and magic find which is always handy in a game where loot matters.

Mandates

This activity is the weakest of the endgame activities on offer. If you accept a mandate, you teleport into an instance where you have to kill a certain set of enemies. These enemies are marked on your map from the start so you can rush their positions. After killing the required enemies, a portal opens which you can take back to Stormfall.

I found that you can quickly grind out some productivity by doing mandates. Because of how quickly you can complete these activities, there is very little risk and relatively good rewards. Unless you are hell bent on using them to grind productivity, I would rather do expeditions as they are far more fun to complete.

Expeditions

This is the main PvE endgame activity and is like rifts in Diablo 3. When you sign up to do an expedition you can choose from a few things to spice up the run:

1) Add up to four randomly generated modifiers to buff the enemies;
2) Move through the ranks of adept, veteran and champion adding extra levels to the enemies; and
3) Lure Untainted’s, an enemy that tracks and tries to kill you during the run.

Each expedition comprises three levels, and each of these levels include two phases. During the first phase you have to clear enemies until the kill-counter is filled. Once you have killed enough enemies phase two triggers, which spawns the boss of the level. Slaying the boss opens two portals, one takes you back to Stormfall and the other moves to the next level. If you return to Stormfall, the expedition ends and you will not receive the maximum rewards. Sometimes this is not a bad choice if you are having trouble dealing with some modifiers that buff the enemies. It has to be noted that you receive no rewards at all if you fail the expedition so you will have to weigh the risks vs rewards and decide if you will dive into the next level.

Expeditions
Desert expeditions are fun [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Overall, the expeditions had fun gameplay and an addictive loop to complete. The rewards were average and legendary and unique drops are quite rare. At least each run provides productivity, so as long as you have active projects the run is not wasted. Before we move on to the UI, I would like to make a final observation on the level bosses. They become repetitive very quickly because there are only about five different variations. I would have loved to see more variety in these bosses, but for now they are nothing to write home about.

UI

A clean and effective UI is important to facilitate a good gameplay experience, and Wolcen’s UI does a decent job. It is easy to keep track of your resources and health, and the UI elements do not impede the action.

I had some issues with one element of the UI and that is the minimap overlay. In other ARPGs the overlay had a fog of war to it, which means you can easily see which parts of the map you have yet to explore. In Wolcen the map is fully explored which leads to you sometimes run through cleared areas in search of enemies. While it is a minor frustration, it is a frustration, nonetheless.

Graphics

Next up for our Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review, we discuss the game’s graphics and effects. We explore the graphics of the characters and enemies, equipment, environments and other effects. It has to be said that the graphics are fantastic and is definitely one of the positives of the game. With that said, we start the graphics discussion with the characters and enemies.

Characters and enemies

The characters and enemies are beautifully rendered and look fantastic, either hanging around in Stormfall or dying on the battlefield. Everything from player characters and NPCs to enemies have highly detailed models that make them stand out in the environments.

Even though the enemies look marvelous, they are limited in their variety. During the campaign you will regularly encounter new enemy types, but once you repeatedly slay them in the endgame, you realise that their model pool is limited. This is a shame as a greater variety of enemies would keep the endgame fresh for longer.

The NPC’s and main story characters look epic to say the least. Heimlock, Edrich and Valeria have imposing looks and other characters such as Lambach are stunning to behold. This adds weight to the interactions during the campaign as the characters look the part for their roles.

Equipment

ARPGs are all about the loot. There are few things that compare to the thrill of looting a legendary weapon, equipping the weapon and being blown away by how badass it looks. Wolcen succeeds in this department, and both armor and weapons are a feast for the eyes.

The extensive transmog system adds a lot of value to the look and feel of your equipment. You can customize your equipment to look like other pieces you have looted before and don’t worry, there are lots of them. On top of this, you can use dyes you loot throughout the game to further customize the details of your equipment. Some pieces have up to eight slots for dyes, which opens up lots of possibilities to craft a distinct looking character.

Environment

As with most of Wolcen it lacks variety in the long run but I was blown away by the environments on offer. The environment comes to life during the campaign and each Act has a distinct look and feel compared to the others. From my gameplay experience, I would say that Act 2 is a masterpiece in terms of the environments. Each different zone offers a visual palette that is extremely pleasing to look at and ties in well with the narrative.

An example of some of the most epic environments in Wolcen [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Unfortunately, the endgame and expedition environments can’t quite match their counterparts in the campaign. The environments still look fantastic, but their layout and frequency of appearing in the runs grow stale. Wolcen Studio also chose some less interesting environments for the expeditions, which wastes the potential to be found in the entire environmental offering.

Effects

I would say that 50% of my enjoyment of Wolcen is because of the extremely gratifying on death effects of the enemies. This is especially true for my more melee focussed builds with enemies flying all over the place when they connect with my axe.

Most of the abilities in Wolcen have striking visual effects that add a lot of impact to how they feel when used in combat. While they look good, they are not over the top to the extent that they clutter the combat area. This allows the player to observe the effects of each ability and revel in the satisfaction that this causes.

I vividly remember a part during Act 3 where I was working my way through the trenches of the enemy forces. The environment was tight, and the trenches were slim areas to navigate through. They were filled to the brim with enemies. These enemies included foot soldiers, generals and a big walker-type enemy that shot lighting based attacks. At the time I was playing with my dagger wielding rogue who also had the ability to throw a spinning blade through the enemy forces. When I threw the spinning blade into the oncoming forces, it resulted in an explosion of enemy corpses flung all over the trench and bouncing off the walls and other debris. It was glorious to behold and made me feel very powerful indeed!

Skills
Felt powerful might delete later [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Sound

With the high audio quality of available headsets and speakers, sound in gaming has never been as important. Good audio design helps players immerse themselves in a virtual world and is a core part of a gaming experience. While ARPGs don’t need the audio precision one would find with competitive shooters, this genre depends on audio for immersion and impact. Wolcen has achieved resounding success as its audio design is excellent.

Music

Along with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, choirs and other solo artists Wolcen Studio has produced a high quality soundtrack for its game. The music is tailor made for the game, its environments and encounters. Because of this there is no audible discrepancy between what you see and what you hear which contributes to a good gameplay experience.

Voices

For an indie studio it is commendable that all the characters in the story are fully voice acted including the player character. This gives some weight to the narrative element of the game, which is usually sorely lacking in ARPGs. The quality of the voice acting is average, but some characters such as Heimlock stand out as being excellent.

Sound effects

Apart from some awkward sound effects at the start of the game, I found no issues with the sound effects overall. While they certainly didn’t stand out as being exceptional, they played their part in building the gameplay experience. There were some areas of the game where the sound effects were buggy, sometimes even disappearing, which wasn’t fantastic.

Narrative

While no one expects an ARPG to be a narrative masterpiece, it is nice to have some character development and world building to give us something to care about. Wolcen won’t be remembered as a narrative trend setter but serves us with a decent narrative. There are many plot holes and other narrative inconsistencies, but ultimately players have a good idea of parts of the world and characters of the Wolcen universe.

This Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review does not contain any spoilers, and therefore the narrative elements are explored rather than the story itself.

The Wolcen Lords of Mayhem campaign lasts for around 10-15 hours depending on your playstyle. During this time players are introduced to the world, characters and plot. Apart from the main hub of Stormfall, we learn very little of the larger world of Wolcen. We receive a few breadcrumbs here and there, but not enough to construct a proper understanding of the world.

During the campaign the player travels a lot to distant places, but it happens so quickly that it is difficult to accurately construct a sense of scale. There is certainly room for a codex of some sort to introduce players to the world and factions of Wolcen. 

In terms of plot and character development, things look a bit better. While the hero versus evil theme is still the foundation of the plot, it delivers the story in a satisfying way. Narrative elements such as foreshadowing and flashbacks are used to create tension and anticipation and are executed well.

The dialogue is probably the weakest part of the narrative. While I didn’t have much issues with the NPCs’ dialogue, the player character was not on the same level. Hearing the sometimes straight-up stupid things uttered and muttered by the player character was immersion-breaking. However, there are some good pieces of player character dialogue, but it is tarnished by the bad parts.

Beards Swords Shotguns

Up to this point in this Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review we discussed the generic but important categories of what makes the game good or not so good. In this category we put the final touches on the review by pointing out some specific things we either loved or hated. These elements will round out the review and help us determine a review score of the game that reflects a semi-objective view of its main elements and which honestly reflects our experiences.

Bosses

The Act 1, 2 and 3 bosses is some of the best content Wolcen offers. Keeping in mind I did not use one of the broken builds so the challenge was appropriate. These boss encounters had some awesome mechanics and reminded me a lot of raiding in WoW or even the Diablo 3 bosses before they were nerfed into the ground. The Act 1 boss was the easiest of the three, and I got him on my first try (barely). The Act 2 and 3 bosses were a different story, and I spent quite some time learning their fight mechanics. The feeling of finally killing them was satisfying, and I would probably rate these fights as my best experiences from my 50+ hours in Wolcen.

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem Review
The bosses are absolutely epic [Image: Wolcen Studio]

Bugs

No, not the good kind of bugs you mercilessly slay in the endgame maps. The bad kind of bugs that slay your enjoyment of the game. Unfortunately, Wolcen is riddled with bugs, and this has a significant impact on the gameplay experience and our Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review. The passive skill tree is completely bugged, up to the point where no one is certain which of the nodes actually work. Some builds are so overpowered because of these bugs that it trivializes the endgame. The game has amazing potential, but to realize it these bugs need to be squashed.

Conclusion

The time has come to conclude this Wolcen Lords of Mayhem review.

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem is a triumphant moment for the indie gaming industry, standing up to massive titles such as Diablo 3 and Path of Exile. It looks good, plays good and sounds good, but is unfortunately let down by some frustrating bugs. It has buckets of potential hiding just beneath the surface, and time will tell if Wolcen delivers on its promise.

Wolcen Lords of Mayhem

$39.99 or R219
7

Gameplay

6.0/10

Graphics

8.0/10

Sound

8.0/10

Narrative

6.0/10

Pros

  • Visceral Combat
  • Fantastic Graphics
  • Epic Soundtrack
  • Lots of Potential

Cons

  • Buggy
  • Unbalanced
  • Very Grindy
  • Online Issues