Wolcen is perhaps one of the most aggravating games I have played in the last handful of years. It’s catastrophic stumble out of the gate is emblematic of the issues many developers face when they choose to launch their game after an extensive stay in Early Access, and in many ways it often feels like Wolcen wasn’t quite ready to leave the program. Yet, Wolcen can also be one of the best ARPGs I’ve played in years, and while it does nothing to reinvent the proverbial wheel it’s an absolute joy to play. Assuming, of course, nothing breaks in the process.
Kill, loot, grow stronger, repeat.
If you’ve played Diablo 3, Grim Dawn, or Path of Exile you know what to expect in Wolcen. You journey from dungeon to dungeon slowly outfitting your character with ever more powerful gear as you cultivate and master a build that caters to your explicit play-style. On the surface Wolcen doesn’t really do anything new within the action-RPG genre, which has caused some consternation among the game’s Kickstarter backers, who were promised an true step-forward for the genre.
Gone are the open-world and in-depth weapon crafting, instead replaced with the usual segmented dungeons and a crafting system that barely earns the moniker. These alterations do not harm the game, but they do remove some of the pre-release luster. Those who knew Wolcen back when it was titled “Umbra” will no doubt be upset to see these once lofty goals neutered and swapped for more standard fare, but what we got instead still isn’t bad by its own merit. Rote at this point, sure, but Wolcen proves the ARPG formula still works when executed properly.
And, largely does Wolcen succeed in this regard. The game is a graphical treat, using the CryEngine to great effect. A few of the environments may be a touch too bright for those who pine after the darker mood and tone of ARPGs like Diablo 2, but when Wolcen leans gory it does so with aplomb. The main campaign is curated, meaning each map and dungeon was hand-crafted by the developers at WOLCEN Studio, and the care is evident within each new area. The narrative driving everything forward may be mediocre, but the vistas you visit along the way sure are pretty.
Sure, some of these zones are what you’d call generic at a glance, but the level of detail and attention paid to each elevates them. What should have been yet another bog-standard necropolis instead oozed dread and decay out of every crumbling block and crypt. This is handily due to the smart use of lighting in the game, as each environment – bright or gloomy – is given the proper mood. I may have fought my way through many a demon-infested bastion before, but none felt as beleaguered as the one I murdered my way through within Wolcen. Then there was the town overrun by a Thing-like hivemind, with every square inch devoured by some sinewy, bloody vein composed of the former townsfolk. Wolcen may not always aim for originality, but it adopts familiar tropes in a beautiful manner.
Of course, any ARPG would be nothing without crunchy, satisfying combat, and Wolcen mostly succeeds in this area. Unlike Diablo 3 or Torchlight, Wolcen takes a more open-ended approach to character classes, much akin to Path of Exile without going so far as to melt your brain. Any character can be any “class”, because there are no hard-coded classes in the game. The weapons in your hands largely dictate what sort of character you are, whether you are a two-handed axe brute, or nimble dual-wielding rogue. This applies to the thirty-plus skills on offer as well, with the only limit being the weapons you are using. Add in some Unique equipment that can break wide those limitations, and you have a system that rewards player creativity and ingenuity.
Want to use ranged and melee skills? Then equip a dagger and a pistol. Perhaps magic and ranged? Swap that dagger for a potent catalyst and off you go. Only the two-handed weapons lock you into a single set of skill, meaning dual-wielding cracks wide open the door for hybrid builds. Skills can be either bought in town, or found in the field, and a single character can learn all of them. Additionally, skills level up as you use them, unlocking alterations that can completely change how that skill is used within your build, much like runes in Diablo 3, but with more variety on offer and the ability to select more than one, assuming you have the points to do so.
The massive skill tree – The Gates of Fate – further enables this sense of flexibility. The tree is broken into three “wheels” that can be rotated to better align the tree in the direction you wish to progress (thus, allowing you to chart your way across it as you see fit, unlike Path of Exile where you may have to push through a portion of the skill tree you don’t really need to reach a node you want). Each wheel features multiple segments devoted to what can best be described as a sub-class, featuring both standard passives that provide basic statistical boosts, and game-altering nodes that can boost attack speed after landing a critical attack or allow you to dodge roll through enemies.
Which, yes, Wolcen has a dedicated dodge roll. It consumes a pip of stamina to use, which replenishes over time. Additional pips can be unlocked either through equipment or the Gates of Fate, meaning all builds have some form of evasion and players who want to be as nimble as possible can increase the amount of dodge rolls they can perform. This little addition adds a new dimension to combat, because no longer do you need to dedicate a skill slot to an evade of sorts (though, these skills still do exist). Granted, you can’t dodge roll through enemies without an explicit passive from the Gates of Fate, but it allows WOLCEN Studio some form of freedom when designing encounters.
All of this can be swapped around whenever you feel like it, at a cost mind you. Still, a single character can master everything in Wolcen, much like how a single character can learn every class in Final Fantasy XIV. You’re not forced to make multiple characters to try and sample every build and option on offer here, which is something I personally love. Progress feels more tangible when it’s condensed to a single avatar, and knowing you don’t have to start over from scratch if you are tired of your current style is a boon. Yes, you will have to grind the coin and Primordial Affinity (the currency used to level skills manually and to reset the Gate of Fates) required prior to pulling the trigger, but this keeps you engaged in Wolcen’s core loop without forcing you to begin anew.
It’s a fine loop too, albeit one you’ve seen before. Wolcen boils down to this: clear the campaign and unlock the endless endgame that has you venturing out on repeatable randomized expeditions to earn better loot and rewards. Just substitute “expedition” with “rifts” and you get the idea. The wrinkle within Wolcen’s fabric is the town building that unlocks once you clear the story. Outside of completing expeditions for the sake of loot they contribute towards the “productivity” of the town, and if you want to finish renovations you will need to grind dungeons. Each project confers various bonuses upon completion – like a fifth skill slot – so it behooves you to repair the town.
Expeditions can also be boosted with various randomly-rolled modifiers that increase productivity gained upon completion, magic-find for loot, and gold found. This is equally vital, considering projects in the town will cost a considerable amount of coin and the aforementioned Primordial Affinity to fund. The town building meta-game provides a much needed purpose to the endgame grind, as you not only grow stronger with each new piece of loot, but with each completed building.
All these ingredients added together make Wolcen a compelling and fantastic ARPG, one with depth, nuanced combat, character variety, and a fulfilling endgame grind. Wolcen would indeed be a fantastic game if it wasn’t so damned busy crippling itself at every turn.
A litany of bugs sour the experience.
If you lined all the popular ARPGs of the last ten years up and had them run an eight-hundred meter dash, Wolcen would be the contestant capable of leading the race if it wasn’t constantly hobbling itself with a sledgehammer, Annie Wilkes-style. For all the praise I gave Wolcen above there are ten-fold the amount of bugs and design quirks holding it back.
When the game launched two weeks ago the servers were in perpetual meltdown. Considering the massive boost to player-count the game saw, I was willing to give Wolcen and WOLCEN Studio the benefit of the doubt. The game suffered a meteoric rise, so it was only natural they didn’t have as many servers as they thought they should. But then the servers remained shaky, and even offline characters started to suffer. The online mode was disabled for near two days as WOLCEN Studio posted delay after delay, trying to put out the fires. Meanwhile, those who continued to play offline found either their progress reset (by tens of hours in many cases), or their character deleted entirely (something I had the privilege of experiencing).
Equating Wolcen’s launch to a flaming dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires. It was arguably worse than Diablo 3’s launch, and the one redemptive quality the game had going for it – the offline mode – was also ablaze. Two weeks on the servers are barely holding themselves together, with many issues remaining. You still can’t see when a friend logs in unless you return to the title screen and cycle between offline and online mode. Invites into a game remain tenuous and prone to failure. Hell, even connecting to the server still explodes on occasion.
Furthermore, either the battered servers or a design quirk have made the once visceral combat an aggravating affair. Every action in the game has a noticeable delay, with the input lag cranked up to absurd levels. You want to heal? Be a shame if it didn’t go off when you clicked the hotkey. How about dodge rolling to safety? Nope, you are going to stand there and take the attack on the chin as you panic-smash the space bar. The input lag bleeds into every aspect of the game, and switching between offline and online modes sees no improvement.
ARPGs live and die by their combat, and by all accounts Wolcen has excellent combat when it works. Thus it’s an existential dilemma to see such a well sculpted system dragged down into the mud by such a fundamental problem. To exacerbate issues, many of the nodes in The Gate of Fates straight-up don’t work, or are bugged. Pair that with the design decision to make increases additive instead of multiplicative, and it can often feel like you’re not advancing.
Then there are the death-by-a-thousand-cuts issues, like the strange delay when trying to sell items, wonky hitboxes on enemies, abrupt spikes in difficulty for bosses (I had to recruit a friend to assist me with the final boss, and he noted the boss was somehow harder than when he completed it, despite the obvious lack of scaling), and the sudden ending to the story that all dog-pile on one another to make Wolcen the most aggravating game to enjoy. You can see it, the shimmering gem underneath the mountain of filth, but for every ten minutes of absolute bliss you’re met with an hour of rage. When Wolcen clicks it sings, but getting it there can feel like a roll of the dice.
To their credit, WOLCEN Studio have been issuing patches dedicated towards squashing most of these bugs, but for every step forward they take one back. A recent patch somehow reduced the amount of enemies that spawn in a map, making some side quests and expeditions impossible to complete. Wolcen can’t help but trip over itself; it has some of the best duds in the business, but it can’t tie its damned shoes. The game still crashes when you Alt-Tab, for Heaven’s sake!
I can’t help but feel Wolcen was not ready to leave Early Access. Much of what is on offer here at launch was not available when the game flew under that banner, and the lack of quality control shows. The narrative begins to feel rushed by the second act, the bugs become more evident, and the solid endgame grind starts to feel like a chore because you spend more time fighting the input delay than the enemies themselves.
“Crying shame” is an apt way to describe the current state of affairs for Wolcen, because when it’s firing on all cylinders it is easily my favorite ARPG to have launched in the last ten years. It’s complex without being overwhelming, offers me the freedom to tweak and try every build with a single character, and the combat feels top-tier when there isn’t any weird delay chewing at its ankles. For as pretty as the game may look, it can be rather ugly in practice.
Wolcen is a hard game to enjoy, but enjoy it I do. Despite all the bugs, design problems, and relative familiarity WOLCEN Studio have crafted what should be an excellent ARPG to tide us over until a proper “next-gen” competitor appears, one with all the promises Wolcen failed to keep actually baked in. When Wolcen works I want nothing more than to sit down and grind my face off for that next big upgrade.
But then I crash, or lose progress due to a server error. Or I find myself back in town after failing a tricky expedition because my healing potion or dodge roll refused to trigger as commanded. Wolcen could have been a contender in the ARPG arena, but it can’t get out of it’s own way for more than two seconds. Perhaps in time WOLCEN Studio will patch everything up and allow the game to shine as brightly as it deserves, but right now the game fights you at every turn. Wolcen is a game that is as fun as it is frustrating. I like Wolcen; I simply wish I could love it.
- This article was updated on February 27th, 2020