For nearly a decade, developer Airship Syndicate has felt like it's building to something. Formed out of the ashes of THQ and Vigil Games—the creators of the Darksiders series—it's been quietly releasing very good games ever since, such as Darksiders Genesis and Ruined King. Its projects have been modest, but full of whip-smart RPG mechanics and progression systems, each feeling like a testing ground for bigger ideas. Wayfinder feels like the culmination of that work.
The game is an MMO action-RPG—it's published by Digital Extremes, and that's appropriate, because really if you think of this as Warframe's structure combined with the style and combat of Darksiders, you won't be far off. Brought to life by Joe Madureira's distinctive chunky, colourful art style, it's an immediately pleasing fantasy world to escape into—all larger-than-life heroes with improbably huge weapons bravely battling weird monsters in the shadow of looming, ancient landmarks. Rather than create your own character, you pick from a roster of predefined ones, in the style of a hero shooter—a choice that allows the game to play to the strengths of its appealing character design, with ample customisation options still allowing players to make their hero their own.
For my time with the game, I start out with Niss—a demonic-looking assassin with shadowy magic and, it has to be said, amazing abs. Despite the MMO structure, Wayfinder is great at throwing you right into the action—before I know it I'm already slicing and dashing my way through a dungeon with two other greenhorn heroes.
Straight away, the action combat impresses me. It's all about layers—at a basic level it's quick attacks, heavy attacks, dodges, blocks, and parries, but on top of that is a set of three special abilities, an ultimate ability, your hero passive, and a weapon-specific ability and passive. And that's before you even start thinking about how to combo all that with your co-op partners. It's just the right balance—not so much to keep track of that it's overwhelming, but just enough that you've always got something to be thinking about.
Blink and you'll miss her
With Niss, the focus is on dodges—instead of a forward roll, she gets a teleporting blink dash, and her abilities let her dodge more, damage enemies she dodges through, and buff her allies' dodges. Her ultimate sends her on an unlimited spree of deadly dashes, like a Kurosawa movie on fast forward. In the moments where I have to take a breath, recovering my stamina and letting abilities recharge, my focus shifts to my dual daggers—a weapon type that's all about getting in lots of quick hits to charge up super-powered heavy attacks, which in turn charge up a powerful multi-hit state.
The fast pace of fights is a great match for the game's Expeditions—randomly generated dungeons full of monsters, traps, and simple puzzles. These are your main means of progress, spitting out treasure and crafting materials, and I love how bite-sized they are—each running about 10-to-15 minutes. That's not to say they're easy—they can be a significant challenge—but they don't feel like a huge commitment, and during the beta period I've enjoyed being able to just hop on here and there for a quick fix.
The random generation keeps them fresh, but a big gimmick for the game is the fact that you can tweak them to your liking. That includes an impressive number of difficulty levels but, more importantly, Imbuements—items you can spend to add modifiers to the dungeon. These include everything from enemies exploding when they die, to poisonous pools that grow the longer you stand in them, to piles of valuable but cursed gold littered all over. Different combinations of dungeon type and Imbuement can grant you different rewards for completion, and tie in to quests in clever ways—for example, an alchemist NPC only being found in the mines when a toxic modifier is on.
In the final release, the plan is for these to be stackable, with different combos having unexpected effects. But even with only one Imbuement per run allowed in the closed beta, it already makes Expeditions super replayable. It's an ambitious game for a small studio, but I suspect it won't be huge, so it's a clever way of getting as much as possible out of the content without overstretching it.
You can also use Imbuements on Hunts—big boss fights launched separately from Expeditions, that combine elements of MMORPG bosses with the feel of Monster Hunter. As in that series, these huge beasts drop specific rewards used for crafting new weapons, encouraging you to replay them and master their patterns. The fun of these is how they shake you out of your normal combat patterns—jumping to avoid a giant slime's ground pound attacks and dashing around to stay safe from its explosive spawn, or switching rapidly between AOEing down a horde of spiders and doing as much single target damage as possible whenever their enormous, crystalline queen shows her face.
And then there's the open world, where Wayfinder feels most traditionally MMO-like—a sprawling landscape of rolling green hills, secret dungeons, and public events. For a longer session, it's a fun place to just explore—and through adventuring here, you unlock new Expeditions. But it does feel like this is where the game isn't playing as much to its strengths. Journeys from A to B can feel long-winded, and a handful of very drawn out fetch quests feel really at odds with the instant gratification of the repeatable activities.
A measure of treasure
I'm similarly a little mixed on the progression systems. Many of the individual elements, some being evolutions of systems from the studio's previous games, are very clever—such as Echoes, souls of defeated enemies that can be equipped to gain buffs and even take on their traits. But it's a game without much in the way of real loot (weapons are bought or crafted, and there's no armour outside of cosmetics) and that means the majority of what you earn is a pretty dizzying array of currencies, crafting materials, and upgrades. I found myself settling into some fun progression loops over the course of my time with the beta, but it is a bit overwhelming, and it often felt like whenever I was concentrating on one thing, I was letting something else slide.
I do fear that there could be some serious grind, too. Every character can use every weapon, but actually getting hold of a new type—a rifle—took me a good chunk of my 12 hours with the game. You can also unlock new characters and switch seamlessly between them, but even by the end of the beta, actually achieving the requirements to do so seemed hopelessly out of reach. The game is still a ways off launch, however, so there's lots of time to tweak the numbers.
And fortunately, the developers eventually took pity on me—for the last few days of my hands-on, another hero was unlocked for free. Senja, an amazonian gladiator with, it has to be said, even more amazing abs, seems primed to become the game's mascot on launch (and become the subject of some inappropriate fanart on Twitter). I'm glad I got to play her, because what's striking is how different she feels from Niss—starting out with a hulking great axe, she's all about big hits that stagger enemies, and choosing the right moments to launch into elaborate, showboating taunts that leave her vulnerable to attack but power up her damage. It feels like playing a pro-wrestler as you hammer down monsters while playing to the crowd—a million miles away from Niss' agile ninja tricks.
As I'm levelling her up through all the dungeon types I've already gotten to grips with, it all feels totally new again—and this is what makes me excited about Wayfinder. It feels like if I had a whole roster of these characters, an arsenal of weapons, and a bag full of Imbuements, I'd never get bored of stepping through that Expedition portal. As long as Airship Syndicate can find the right pace for unlocking each dish of this all-you-can-eat-buffet of dungeoneering, I'll be there ready to stuff my face when it launches into Early Access in May this year.