Review: Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem (Beta Release)

Introduction and Story

Since the recent announcement and demo reveal of Diablo IV, I’ve been searching to fill my action-RPG itch. Path of Exile is always good for this, but I’ve already spent a chunk of time in the current Blight league and needed a break before the next stint begins. Diablo II: Lord of Destruction is my Thanos. No matter what, I’m always led back to it, but after leveling a Sorceress to 90 I still felt the urge to find something more. That eventually led me to Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem.

Wolcen has been on my radar for awhile now. I won’t go over the entire history of the game, but it has gone through an early access Alpha and Beta release on Steam over the past few years, and is looking to finally fully release in January 2020. The evil Steam sale somehow knew of my action-RPG plight and decided to throw Wolcen on sale, prompting me to finally check it out.

The following is understanding that the game is in development and this may not be the final landing spot for any one mechanic. The current release of the game is the entirety of Act I, the ability to reach level 20, three class types (melee/ranged/magic) and some end game content after completing Act I.

After choosing one of the three available classes, you are thrown into the story. You are one of three children saved by Grand Inquisitor Heimlock and are subsequently drafted into the Republican army to be trained as the perfect soldier. The game kicks off with the your group and army fighting off a threat called the Brotherhood of Dawn. Hi-jinks ensue, and off you go.

Gameplay

If you’re an action-RPG veteran, you’ll feel very comfortable once taking control. You have your typical left and right mouse click attacks/abilities, as well as a potion bar and skill bar. One difference you’ll find are stamina charges. Each of your characters has the ability to roll away from danger as long as you have a stamina charge available to use. These charges refill pretty quickly, but you can easily find yourself in danger if you don’t conserve these for specific moments.

Leveling up will also feel familiar. Every level gains you 10 attribute points and two skill points to use in the Gates of Fate, Wolcen’s version of your character’s skill tree. Those of you that have played Path of Exile and have experienced their passive skill tree will understand the idea here as well. Each grouping of skills is broken down into sections that are specified to a focus (Ranger/Soldier/etc) and you’re free to traverse around these gates at will, with no forced requirement.

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Familiar looking screen for the action-RPG veteran. Stamina charges can be found above the rage bar on the right-hand side.

The added unique feature is that each tier of skill wheel spins, allowing you to create different combinations based on whatever build you want to attempt.

Another unique feature comes in the form of Enneract Skills. These skills are neutral in a way, where every character you create can learn them and use them, as long as you have a specific set of weapon equipped.

My favorite aspect of these skills comes from active skill modifiers. Each skill levels up with you as long as it is an active skill on your bar and gives you one point to use towards active skill modifiers per level. In the current game, they level up to 20. Active skill modifiers could be something simple like ‘Increase Damage’ for four points or be more game changing like ‘Converts Physical Damage to Fire Damage.’ The latter can be a great way to work into a build with other unique or legendary items to supplement it. Your points are never set in stone, so you can move things around to suit your play style.

Itemization

The items in general should remind you heavily of Diablo III. Each item takes up one or two tiles irregardless of actual item size and has a similar feel. The actual modifiers are your typical action-RPG fare; increases to stats, resistance, damage types, attack speed, spell speed and so on.

One thing I do appreciate about Wolcen’s unique item’s that I’ve seen so far are that they are not ridiculously overpowered. Playing as the magic class, I found a unique amulet that increased my spell damage by 48%, but in turn reduced my overall HP by 25%. You have to make a choice on what is more important to you, and what play style you’re going after. Wearing it may be conditional to you aiming for that glass cannon build. On the other hand, you can grab two early skills in the Soldier tree, each for +25% HP, to offset wearing the amulet. It’s all about choices. The more choices a player has to build their character, the better.

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Example of a rare item with modifiers.

On the other side, I’m interested to see what the plan is for the full release of the game because many items are just not even worth checking out. If I have two yellow (rare) rings equipped, I have no reason to look twice at any tier ring below yellow. This goes for every item type. I greatly appreciate the itemization in Diablo II. I always identified rare gloves, boots and circlets because some ridiculous combinations could spawn on them. I always grabbed blue elite weapons for that cruel/quickness possibility. I checked out most gray items to see if they were ethereal and had the required sockets for a great runeword. Many games since have lost this, and I feel Wolcen may be another example of failed itemization.

Classes

Melee Class: The first thing I noticed here was the natural charge attack that is built in to the combat. If an enemy is a certain distance away, you will charge on your own to that enemy, deal damage and stun them. This is on a cooldown, and can actually be turned off in the settings, but I appreciate a ‘free’ skill that other games would typically make you use an input or rage/mana to use.

There is also a natural cleave built into your default attacks. I’ve had an issue with single enemy target attacks in action-RPG’s for as long as I can remember as it usually puts melee classes at a disadvantage and makes the early game much more tedious. In Wolcen, your melee classes get a charge and cleave for free.

Things started going a bit downhill for me with the melee class past that. The major reason has to do with the feeling of actually landing hits on enemies. There is something missing here. I consistently felt like there was lag between my character finishing an attack animation, and that attack landing on the enemy. It was distracting immediately, and only got worse as I continued through Act I.

Looking back, I’m glad I played this class first. Being new to the game, it was overall enjoyable, though frustrating in some ways. There is a skill called ‘Wings of Ishmir’ (leap slam) where at times, I would use the skill to jump into a group of enemies, just to have an enemy use an ability of its own, and push my character, mid-air, back outside of a group of enemies which rendered the attack useless.

Point being, I felt Wolcen was much easier as the other two classes; magic and ranged.

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The current Gates of Fate skill setup with rotatable tiers.

Magic Class: Wolcen’s magic class follows the action-RPG trend of being the easy mode class. The only times I was even remotely threatened were when I was being stun locked by the Soul Spawn enemies towards the end of the game. I basically ran with two skills Winter’s Grasp (frost nova) and Consuming Embers (fireball). You can grab a skill in ‘Ranger’ section of the Gate of Fates that gives your spells an extra projectile, and you can also take an active skill modifier on Consuming Ember that provides you with another projectile, giving you three projectiles with AOE damage. Gather a large group of enemies, roll into the middle, pop Winter’s Grasp to freeze and fire off those Consuming Embers off until the group is dead.

Ranged Class: I played through this class as your typical bow build. My first strong reaction came from your game starting right click skill, ‘Stings of Krearion’ (multi-shot). There’s a charge up duration every time you use the skill. I would have greatly preferred to be able to use this at will as long as I had the rage required. Standing still to charge up a multi-shot, even with taking increased attack speed nodes on the Gates of Fate, still felt counter intuitive and  just disappointing to use overall.

There were also a bunch of times that fired off my Arrows Wail (volley), spent resources, and it just never appeared. I wouldn’t be stunned, or interrupted, the skill just never appeared on screen. Moments like that do get frustrating in the middle of a heated battle, especially when the skill has a cooldown. Overall, I had a similar easy-mode experience here as with the magic class.

Class Final Thoughts

After playing through all three classes, I’m having a difficult time seeing what the point of Enneract skills are. When I first started playing Wolcen, I (incorrectly)? felt they were sort of marketed as skills that can be used by all three classes and weaved in and out of builds. By the end of my three play through’s of Act I, I felt the opposite.

An example of this comes from the ranged class. One aspect I felt was missing was the ability to crowd control enemies. I’m using a bow, have taken skills that increase my damage if I’m a certain distance from enemies, but I didn’t have the ability to create that distance from enemies outside of rolling when I have the stamina points to do so.

I thought it would be a great idea to build Winter’s Grasp into the build. I could AOE freeze enemies, get distance, and take advantage of the skills points I had used in the Gates of Fate. Unfortunately, you need to equip a stave or catalyst in order to use this. You could utilize this tactic by switching your bow to a gun/catalyst, but never with a bow. I wouldn’t feel as disappointed by this if I had other crowd control abilities like traps, nets or anything else really that I could use.

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The active skill modifier screen for Arrow’s Wail, the skill I leaned on the most as a ranged class.

This leads me to a different issue. I felt that the easiest way to play the game for all three classes, was to just get a large group of enemies, use an AOE ability right on top of you, then spam attacks. Melee it makes sense, no complaints there. I had mentioned in the magic class section that I would circle a group of enemies, use Winter’s Grasp and then spam Consuming Ember’s which was effective for nearly every situation. For the ranged class, it was impossible for me to create distance from enemies so I leaned into them, used Arrow’s Wail on top of my character, then either used my normal attack or Stings of Krearion for the stragglers.

I think it would be a good idea for the full release that this gets looked into a bit more so that we may be able to distinguished a bit more between classes.

Post-Game

The current post game involves two NPCs; “Dashing” Eugene and Alexander Ivakin. Eugene sends you back into dungeon areas where you have goals to accomplish such as killing certain enemies. Ivakin sends you to similar areas where you must kill a number of enemies and then defeat a boss at the end with the option of continuing to another level with more difficult enemies.

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‘Soldier of Fortune’ is the current end-game mode found in Wolcen.

If you feel this sounds eerily familiar to Rifts from Diablo III, you’d be correct. It can always be exciting to find new unique or legendary items, but a large part of the reason I strayed from Diablo III was that the end game was just boring and the item hunt unfulfilling. I hope that this gets fleshed out more and other aspects of end game are introduced.

One area of this that I enjoyed was that you can increase the levels of enemies or add modifiers to dungeons for higher rewards. Similar to a piece of what can be done in Path of Exile‘s post-game, but customization here is definitely welcome.

Other Points

Minimap: For some reason, I could only get the minimap to pop up as a transparent overlay for certain areas. The other areas of the game would have it just be stationary on the top right of the screen. This was a bit confusing and I’m not sure why that was the case.

Map/Randomization: There doesn’t seem to be any randomization in any of the Act I areas. By the third playthrough things were already a bit stale in that regard.

Shrines: As you play, you’ll end counter these red crystal/shrine things that will give you a buff such as ‘Increase Health by 25%.’ When you select them, a group of enemies appear. Once destroyed, you gain the benefits of that shrine….for about 30 seconds. I can’t remember one time where I benefited at all from one of these buffs. By the time I completed a shrine, it would basically run out by the time I met another group of semi-difficult enemies. It’s fine to have these types of things on the map, but I would have liked to have seen them last longer.

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A shrine found during your journey. Unfortunately, after gaining the +25% damage buff, there were no enemies around to take advantage of it.

Using Potions: To use one of your potions, you need to stand completely still. As a melee character, this was a problem. Instead of staying in the fight, attacking, popping a potion when you need it, you have to stop everything, pop potion, and then go back to fighting. It terms of realism this makes sense, but not gameplay. I would rather potions were able to be consumed at will with a cooldown without having to drop what I’m doing to make sure the potion input lands correctly. I died multiple times during my first playthrough trying to get my character to properly drink a potion.

Death: Wolcen handles death in a different way. You basically have three deaths before getting kicked back to town. I definitely utilized this on my melee character, especially with the aforementioned potion issues.

Voice Acting: Fantastic! Sounds great and I enjoyed listening to conversations as they were happening.

Level Design: As you progress further into Act I, you’ll start to notice that most areas have multiple levels. Unfortunately, these added levels feel like filler because they are just re-used assets. If you eliminated the multiple levels, I would estimate that Act I clear time would be cut at least in half. Along with that, the lack of randomization and linear design in a large quantity of areas, really doesn’t lend to wanting to complete multiple playthroughs.

As a positive, everything looks great. I was impressed with the actual graphical design of some areas. To name one; I loved the final dungeon area of the game and have not seen anything like that in previous action-RPG’s that I’ve played.

Bug Encounters

Being a Beta, I encountered a few bugs along my journey.

One included trying to hand in a post-game quest to “Dashing” Eugene where I wasn’t given a reward, got stuck in place and was only able to roll around the city map.

The second happened two different times near the end of Act I where I was allowed into the final boss area without actually triggering the event, causing me to get stuck there. I was able to portal out, but needed to re-traverse the previous area to finally trigger the next series of events.

There were also over a hundred times throughout my three playthroughs that I noticed skill inputs were firing off an extra cast. I couldn’t tell if the game was storing inputs but it threw me off quite a bit.

One of my encounters with the final boss of Act I had him say each of his lines twice every time throughout the battle.

Closing

Ultimately, I had a decent amount of fun playing through Act I with each of the three available classes in Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem. The story and character design reminds me of Warhammer, the ‘Gate of Fates’ skill wheel of Path of Exile and the post-game like Diablo III. Therein lies my major issue with Wolcen; I’m having a difficult time finding aspects of the game that feel unique to Wolcen. Being able to rotate the skill wheel is a new….spin…on Path of Exile‘s skill grid and very much welcomed and I thouroughly enjoy the possibility of active skill modifiers. Give me more of that, and Wolcen will be able to lay its own path in the Action-RPG genre.

 

If you’re interested in checking out my other work on the action-RPG genre, check out the following here;

First Thoughts: Diablo II Median XL Sigma

Diablo II: Path of Diablo Part I

Diablo II: Path of Diablo Part II

Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

 

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