In Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, players step into the shoes of one of the Children of Heimlock — a group of orphans rescued by the Grand Inquisitor of this dark fantasy world. As their — potentially demonic — powers awaken, they are sent on a continent-hopping action adventure that easily has the scale to rival the action RPGs that this ambitious title seeks to emulate.
Wolcen was originally released on PC over three years ago, back in early 2020. At the time of its original release, it was criticised for being a buggy mess. Somewhat unfortunately, publisher Wolcen Studio seems to have remained true to form and has managed to make a few missteps with the 2023 Xbox console release. However, despite several bugs and issues which I’m about to complain about, Wolcen is still a very, very interesting title.
The first thing to take offence to is the user interface, which only gets worse as you gain familiarity with it. Without listing all the issues, this is mostly the kind of issue that console gamers have to put up with on a regular basis. Having to use button presses to move between screens or panels, the slotting of gems being a real pain, selling items being gratuitously manual and a whole catalogue of similar minor issues feature.
The worst of these (at least so far) is that very early in the game we receive a companion animal who is supposed to be equipable and will then follow the player picking up nearby gold. Companions are chosen by clicking a paw print icon on the inventory screen — at least on PC. In the console version, either this paw print simply does not exist, or it’s so hard to find that I was never able to locate it, despite reaching the Wolcen endgame. There’s a tutorial for it in this version, so maybe it will come later..
There are other issues that are more technical in nature. Sometimes textures don’t load, and once my game loaded with no sound, but these, like the interface issues, are mostly minor and more annoying than they are game-breaking. Others just make for a weird gameplay experience — for example you’ll choose a focus (melee, ranged or magic) during setup, but there’s no evidence to suggest that it makes any difference to the game after that since any character can seemingly equip any weapon and choose any skill.
With those negative points behind us, let’s move on to more positive aspects of Wolcen, which for the most part is a very intriguing and often exciting prospect for any fan of action role playing games. The skill tree is vast and filled with interesting ways to build your character, the weapons are randomly generated in exciting ways, and the levels are large and filled with cool enemies — although I did find the game a bit easier than I had expected.
Wolcen is your classic ARPG in the way it looks and feels. Visually, it is so similar to Diablo III that it’s impossible not to make the comparison. Levels range from burning villages, dark caves and open fields to ethereal halls built by some deity, and the angled top-down style will be very familiar to fans of the genre. Imitation, as we know, is the sincerest form of flattery and whilst Wolcen lacks originality, it does what it does well.
A basic attack button will be your mainstay, auto-targeting enemies when held and moving the player automatically towards any given enemy when the left stick is held towards them. The Y button unleashes your “preferred” special move whilst holding LB and then pressing any face button will release any other special move that you’ve assigned there. Later in the game, pressing LB and RB together will allow the player to transform into a deity temporarily, bringing with it a set of new and powerful attacks that are accessed in a similar way.
In terms of how skills and abilities are accessed, Wolcen is quite interested. Basically, new moves are unlocked through in-game collectibles, so in theory, any character can equip any skill. What actually determines if a skill can be slotted is your weapon, so for example as a spellcaster (using a staff or catalyst weapon) you can equip spell skills or most summons, but you couldn’t equip a ranger skill like arrow storms, or a warrior skill like mystical weapons.
When the player character the levels up, it’s a similar story with a focus on flexibility rather than class-uniqueness. There are four attributes to build and whilst I can’t remember the names, they are basically strength, dexterity, wisdom and toughness. Each of these does straightforward things — increasing attack strength, critical chance, spell power and durability.
Skills are more interesting — much more interesting. Wolcen uses a huge radial system for selecting skills which reminded me of the one from Final Fantasy VII many years ago. Players are free to choose any adjacent node from the three groups (which represent melee, ranged and spellcasting styles) and the deeper you go into one particular tree, the more interesting the skills get.
Most are passive — adding simple buffs to your shield, hit points or damage — but buried deep within certain branches are more interesting skills that change the game. I like this, and I like that even when you can’t access them, all skills are visible so you can plan ahead without needing to go to the internet and looking up the best way to build a certain kind of character.
I mentioned earlier that I found Wolcen a little too easy, and that is certainly true of the base experience on the standard difficulty, however I am not far enough into the endgame to say whether that will persist or not. Either way, one thing that I really like about this game is how some quests allow the player to influence what boss enemy they will face by making choices during the quest — will you give your enemy 10% higher damage in return for a higher chance of a magic drop? Yes, of course you will… As the risk increases, so does the reward. It’s a fun, simple system that plays nicely into the ARPG trope.
Overall, Wolcen is a very solid ARPG despite a couple of bugs and issues which I have faith will be resolved before too long. It’s not unusual for a game to be released with a basic UI that is later improved based on user feedback, and the game itself is remarkably enjoyable, if a little unoriginal. I think there’s easily 50+ hours here for someone who enjoys the genre, and I know I will be spending lots more time with the game long after this review is done.