Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is an action role-playing game (ARPG) that’s looking to make a name for itself. After spending four years as part of Steam’s early access program, its official launch led to a number of server issues that marred the community’s experience. Still, with numerous competitors in the genre such as Diablo III, Path of Exile, Grim Dawn, and Torchlight, it begs the question if Wolcen is worth your while. Let’s find out in our official review.
Note: Due to network issues, this official review is based on Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem‘s single-player/offline mode. For our thoughts on how the game plays online, we brought in fellow writer Ben Simmons to go over his experiences. With regards to Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem’s Expedition ranks, Champion of Stormfall upgrades, skill builds, tips, and more, you can check out our guides and features hub.
Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem – The story so far
The story of Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is not its strongest suit. The gist is that your created character is part of a militaristic order that has forbidden the use of magic and the occult. Unbeknownst to you or your comrades, you’ve got godly powers at your fingertips.
Those powers manifest in the middle of a demonic incursion. With no other way of surviving, you suddenly transform into an Aspect of the Apocalypse, a divine being capable of wreaking havoc on the battlefield. This sudden change turns you into a pariah among your brethren.
Shunned by your order and surrounded by the damned, you’ll have to play through Wolcen‘s three acts to stop the demonic invasion, save the land, and protect your remaining allies. Wolcen‘s campaign also has numerous cutscenes and cinematics depicting the story that unfolds. Sadly, the campaign ends abruptly, punctuated by unnecessary twists.
Freedom to fight
One of the most touted features in Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is the freedom to build your character the way you want to. Although you’re able to pick a starting weapon (and a corresponding skill) at the start of your campaign, you’re not locked to a specific class at all.
Wolcen‘s active skills or spells are learned via “Enneracts” which, like other loot, drop from enemies or are rewards from dungeons. You can learn every Enneract/active skill in the game, though they’re dependent on the weapon that you have equipped. For instance, the “Bleeding Edge” skill which casts whirling blades around you can only be used if you have a melee weapon equipped. For those using staves or ranged weapons, you’ll probably end up using skills like “Arctic Spear” or “Wailing Arrows” respectively.
Enneract skills, just like other looted items, can drop from enemies or be purchased from a vendor. All the Enneract skills you have level-up if you have them equipped or if you spend primordial affinity (a currency much like gold). In turn, you can select modifiers for your skills making them more potent for each fight. The effects of these upgrades also become visible via a panel.
Similarly, players will also need to master the willpower vs. rage mechanic. Like many other ARPGs, Wolcen uses this balancing act between resource generation and resource spending to keep you on your toes, all while you blast foes to smithereens.
Passives a la Path of Exile
Perhaps one of the most obvious comparisons we can make is the passive tree in Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem. It will, no doubt, remind veteran ARPG players of Path of Exile‘s system. Wolcen‘s passive tree not only has hundreds of options and multiple branches, but it even lets you rotate each “ring” to find the perfect combination. This leads to near-limitless experimentation of builds. You can also reset all your passive skill tree points and attributes by spending primordial affinity and gold respectively.
With this concept in mind, one of Wolcen‘s most glaring flaws becomes apparent early on. Although you’re free to mix and match active skills, passive skills, and upgrades to your liking, very few are effective for the endgame. For instance, the “Bleeding Edge” skill is one of the most useful “rage dump” abilities and it’s quite hard-hitting. Compare this to summoner-type builds and you’ll feel gimped as you progress. That’s due to atrocious summoned companion AI and weak scaling.
Wonky combat controls
Combat can also be a bit clunky in Wolcen. I briefly mentioned this in our technical review, but there’s something janky going on with the controls. First, there’s no controller support. Even if Steam somehow loads a configuration, it’s not guaranteed to work properly. Second, the mouse and keyboard setup does leave a lot to be desired.
For instance, it can be a pain to remain highly mobile during hectic boss fights. A majority of Wolcen‘s elites and bosses have “tells” — red lines or circles that warn you of an incoming attack. Command inputs can be delayed when you try to dodge or move around. Input delay can also happen with other actions such as using potions or skills owing to hard animation locks.
Wolcen‘s combat should be fast and frantic, and you even have an auto-dash movement to jump into the fray. Still, targetting and looting can be messy. There were times when I wanted to wallop a mob only to suddenly pick up loot. Conversely, there were times when I wanted to pick up loot, and I ran around in circles because my character was attempting to smack an enemy.
Holding down the left-click mouse button will let you attack a mob continuously. But, once the mob is dead, you end up automatically moving to that spot (at times getting hit in the process). Holding shift to “force attack” is helpful, but extremely aggravating when playing as a melee character since you’ll be locked in place. Combined with janky dodging and avoidance due to animation locks, you’ll probably end up using a ranged or hybrid spec instead.
Note: There’s also a minor issue with the mouse cursor. It’s ridiculously small, especially when using a 4K display and there’s no way to scale it. There will be times when you’d wonder what you’re aiming at.
Wolcen’s network woes
The main criticism for Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, however, was its poor launch owing to server issues. During its early access phase, the game never had more than 2,000 players at any given time. That all changed when it officially launched as almost 100,000 players clogged the servers (today’s current peak is at 122,681 players). This sudden influx of would-be adventurers caused network problems, instability, missing characters, wipes, rollbacks, and database fixes.
I had attempted to play the game online but the servers were down around that time. Once the servers were back up, Wolcen Studio tweeted that there were problems creating games in the Asia Pacific servers. (I’m from the Philippines.)
It meant that the best way to play and enjoy Wolcen, to ensure a smoother experience, would be via its offline, single-player mode. Sadly, this also means that you won’t be able to play with friends, and you cannot use your offline character for any online games (and vice-versa).
Although the Online servers came back yesterday during the evening(CET), we are currently investigating issues with game creation and server stability on the Asia Pacific servers. Our apologies for the inconvenience.
— WolcenGame (@WolcenGame) February 17, 2020
Better with friends
(This online addendum was written by Ben Simmons, who managed to squeeze in online play during Wolcen‘s launch.)
Despite the server issues, Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is a lot more fun when you play with friends. Adding more players increases the difficulty of the game, so you definitely need to plan a bit if you are playing with a dedicated group. Your party can each go their own route, or you can try to synergize; either option is viable. However, having a tanky character to generate threat and a player with support spells to heal allies and debuff enemies is always handy. It’s also the best way to get good gear since you’ll find plenty of good items you don’t need that you can give to your teammates. After defeating a difficult boss, it’s always exciting to go back to town and share the loot.
That being said, online isn’t free from bugs. Ignoring the unfortunately disastrous launch, there are a few bugs that affected my playthrough. While playing with a friend, I later went to my own game to find that I had not made any progress in my own questline. Luckily, we had not played much and I wasn’t too far behind. In addition, if the host teleports to another player, there is also the possibility that they might skip a triggerable event that blocks progress that will require you to create a new game. The bugs weren’t entirely game-breaking, but it’s worth considering if you want to play with friends.
Whether you’re playing online or offline, you’ll eventually reach Wolcen‘s endgame: Champions of Stormfall. Although it offers a ton of replayability, you’ll also notice several flaws.
The endgame boils down to two features. First, there’s your Stormfall building management. As the new regent of the city, you’re able to start projects to improve various buildings and districts. You’ll get numerous benefits such as an additional skill slot, skill duplication, the ability to upgrade item quality or rarity, and more.
Second, you’ve got mandates and expeditions. To complete Stormfall projects, you’ll need to spend a bit of gold, primordial affinity, and production. Production is only earned by doing these activities — very short missions with modifiers that you can select; tougher runs will mean better rewards. Think of these as akin to Path of Exile‘s Atlas maps or Diablo III‘s rifts and adventures.
That part makes Wolcen‘s endgame truly intriguing, albeit straightforward. It’s sure to keep you playing to unlock all possible upgrades and merchant options. There are, of course, some downsides.
Although you can create a new character that can do the Champions of Stormfall endgame, you don’t have a lot of equippable items to help you out as you level. Enemies also scale poorly and are ridiculously beefy for a level 1 newbie. Likewise, unlocking the Champions of Stormfall mode while playing offline does not unlock it online, even if you made a new character.
Lastly, gold and primordial affinity rewards in the endgame are quite low compared to what you need to unlock upgrades and features. At times, the rewards aren’t enough to offset the cost of modifiers that you add to each mission, and re-running these just to complete each project can become tedious after a while.
While not related to Wolcen‘s endgame, other problems are also noteworthy:
- Wolcen‘s itemization and loot pool can be quite shallow. There are a couple dozen unique items in the game and just as many legendaries. Unfortunately, none of these items are “build-defining” — those that can immensely help specific builds.
- Similarly, the stats of unique items hardly scale with your level. It’s possible for a unique item that drops at level 40+ to have the same low stats as when it dropped at level 10.
- Item types aren’t necessarily clear as to how stat rolls are weighted.
- From start to finish, rarity color-coded item drops are given generic names such as “boots” or “gloves.” You won’t know if they’re worth your while, or if they’ll unlock new transmogrification options.
- Again, a vast majority of builds/specs will involve “Bleeding Edge” and “Plagueburst” leading to underutilized skills.
- Your transformation into the aforementioned Aspect of the Apocalypse is next to useless due to poor scaling. You’re actually stronger when in your human form.
A puff of exile
Even though I’ve been very critical of Wolcen‘s shortcomings, I can’t deny that the game has all the right ingredients to become a stellar addition to the ARPG genre. You’ve got an endgame that you can continue to play as you level-up and get more loot, albeit one that’s going to be quite a grind.
If Wolcen Studio manages to fix online connectivity, controls, itemization, skill balancing and scaling, and more, we can see Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem reach its full potential. As of now, however, we’re a long way from that. It’s accessible for beginners to the genre, and there’s enough depth to keep you preoccupied for a time, but it’s no Path of Exile. It’s just a “puff” of what you’re looking for. Well, at least you’ve got some cool transmogrification options.
Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is available now via Steam. For more information, check out our guides and features hub.