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The Waylanders could be the next Dragon Age, but it’s off to a rough start

(Image credit: Gato Studio)

Boasting RPG veterans such as fantasy writer Chris Avellone, Telltale alum Emily Grace Buck, and Fallout 4 composer Inon Zur, The Waylanders, currently in Steam Early Access, is set to fill that Dragon Age-shaped hole in your life. That's not only because former Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw held a consulting role—from combat to its tongue in cheek dialogue, plenty will feel familiar.

Currently The Waylanders promises between 10 and 12 hours of content. The Early Access build consists of the first of a total three parts. While the combat system is fully implemented, more of the story, as well as additional character skills and classes, will be added progressively. The version available at launch is in a very rough state, something developer Gato Studio is transparent about. It's so rough I didn't make it past the three hour mark—inevitably a fatal error would take my game out each and every time. Patches are quick, however—writing this, there is already a whopping 4GB patch available.

The game itself also needs improving—although you control the camera, it tends to get away from you and is regularly blocked by obstacles. Sometimes your cursor vanishes or things aren't clickable. Animations, cutscenes and voice-over are missing in many places, and the UI looks very simple. Weapon stats in the inventory aren't explained, and tutorials, other than the introduction to basic commands, are still missing. There are sound mixing issues and freezes. Gato Studio has warned that big future updates may delete your saves. It's already happened once for me, so unless you want to help with development during feedback, the possibility of losing the save to what's potentially going to be a 30 hour game once finished is troubling. Right now, even for an Early Access game, it feels entirely too soon to start playing.

(Image credit: Gato Studio)

But The Waylanders shows a lot of promise. The plot for one sounds intriguing—thanks to a run in with a group of Gods, your character briefly dies and becomes disconnected from fate and even time itself. This makes you able to travel between a Celtic and a Medieval timeline. This idea has the potential for all manner of interesting applications, from solving puzzles to changing the relationship between you and your party and even influencing historical events.

The love that went into designing the world is immediately evident, even in the early version of the game. The environments are visually stunning—from forests with large, leafy trees to an underground city with a bustling market, The Waylanders is great to look at. The character design is memorable, too—rather soft and round, it gives characters a comic-like feel, unusual considering its influences. I particularly liked the detail on each option during character creation—from cool little details on the armour that differ in each class to different skin colour options. Gato Studio promises six basic and 30 advanced classes in the full build. Right now you have classics like a ranger, a tanky warrior, sorcerer and druid. The facial animations don't look too great yet, but an early scene shows the potential for some great grimaces.

The visuals go great with The Waylanders' frequently slightly goofy tone. The perpetual witticisms offer the strongest similarity to Dragon Age, apart from combat. Your party members are a central part of the experience. You meet many of them within the first few minutes, and they immediately start bickering, which to me is fairly unpleasant. As these things go, they will probably have to warm up to you and each other first, surviving a few adventures together ought to fix that. Each has a fairly exuberant personality, so you're sure to find a favourite soon. Companions will of course be romanceable. Your own character is silent—they don't say anything you don't choose via one of the dialogue options, and their lines aren't voiced, either.

(Image credit: Gato Studio)

Combat is a simple affair. Using an automatic basic attack system in the style of Dragon Age: Inquisition, it requires you to do little more than to click on an enemy and wait things out as characters keep attacking. Each class has special attacks with a short cooldown time. Switching between party members isn't smooth yet and I couldn't find an option to let my character heal others, so I just let them die—everyone regenerates once combat is over.

Formations are one unique aspect of combat, though. Choose a formation leader, add the rest of your party, press F and everyone will act together as a group with a new, unified health bar. By building a protective shield wall or becoming a giant golem, this allows you to harness the strengths of your group. Formations differ depending on whom you've picked as leader of the formation. It's a fun idea, but finnicky enough to execute that you need to decide on a formation prior to a battle. Right now it's also hardly necessary. Combat definitely needs balancing, as it still feels as if every foe is of the same strength, meaning not very strong.

I'm most interested in The Waylanders' overall worldbuilding. Steeped in Celtic folklore, the game promises a break for those weary of the oft-used elves-dwarves-humans high fantasy setup. I'm especially taken with the Morians, a race of golden-eyed immortals who can see the future. They share the Underworld with the Fomorians, one-eyed monsters straight out of a Junji Ito manga, mainly known for their… cannibalism. If you really get to witness political and religious changes and make decisions that will influence the course of such a far-reaching narrative, there will be a lot about The Waylanders to enjoy. If everything comes together, the payoff will be great, but I'd give it some time before diving in.