Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem would be an adequate ARPG if it weren't so buggy and unpolished

(Image credit: Wolcen Studio)

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem would be a lot more fun if it weren’t so buggy and unresponsive. The action RPG has been on Steam Early Access for nearly four years, but its full release yesterday makes me wish its developers waited another six months. Networking hiccups due to its sudden spike in popularity I can shrug off, but bugs, audio glitches, and combat that sometimes feels inexplicably sluggish are killing my enjoyment of what could be a much cooler game.

When Wolcen was Kickstarted back in 2015, it promised to be a grand evolution of the genre. Players were supposed to explore a vast and destructible open world brimming with tons of loot. It was even supposed to have customizable housing and a crafting mini-game. None of that is in the Wolcen that is available today. Instead, what I’ve seen six hours in is a bog-standard ARPG propped up by deeply complex character progression and highly-mobile combat.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if Wolcen isn’t the revolution we were promised, the genre has so few choices that I’m okay with more of the same—endless crawls through spooky catacombs and deserts, furiously clicking on demons to make them explode into showers of color-coordinated loot. It's the exact same formula the genre has relied on since Diablo 2 but even after all these decades my lizard brain is still capable of firing endorphins at the mere sight of a legendary drop.

Feeling sluggish 

What’s frustrating, though, is how often Wolcen’s frequent bugs and overall lack of polish get in the way of that good time. Since I started playing last night, I’ve encountered half a dozen moments where the audio dropped out almost entirely until I loaded into a new scene. I lost an hour of progress when a server crash booted me back to the main menu. I even had to moonwalk through a level when my character’s orientation somehow got screwed up so that he was always facing the opposite direction of where I was running.

On top of tons of little bugs, there’s a pervasive feeling of unresponsiveness that grates. When managing my inventory or picking up loot, items sometimes won’t respond unless I click them a few times. This is especially tiring because there’s no way to preview loot without picking it up—everything is just labelled "Helmet" or "Sword." I'm constantly having to pick up everything on the off-chance it might be something I need when most often it's just garbage I can drop.

Wolcen’s combat also sometimes suffers from input lag that creates a noticeable delay in my actions. That might be less annoying in slower-paced action RPGs, but Wolcen’s combat is built around frenetic action.

Well-timed dodge rolls, for example, are key part of staying alive. Many basic enemies and every boss has a few nasty attacks that are telegraphed in red on the ground, giving me a precious split-second to get out of the way. But there’s sometimes a delay between mashing the spacebar and seeing my character actually dodge. Using potions to replenish my health often has a similar pause, which has gotten me killed once or twice. I desperately want Wolcen to have the same tactile response I love in games like Dark Souls, but it just feels too sluggish.

It’s a shame, too, because Wolcen’s abilities are a blast to use and I am enjoying carving out my own playstyle level by level. Unlike most ARPGs, there are no classes and characters are free to change their playstyle by simply equipping different skills and weapons. I started off as a dagger-wielding rogue, but now I’m more of a pistol-toting mage.

Like Path of Exile, an enormous passive skill tree offers an impossible number of combinations to shape my character, and skills aren’t inherent to my class but items I find while exploring. As I use them, they level up, unlocking modifiers that augment their behavior, like making a rain of arrows deal fire damage or thrown shurikens stun enemies. With my four abilities, there’s a level of customization that makes Wolcen’s dungeons feel more like laboratories to test out my wildly experimental playstyles. One spell gives me a rail gun that fires in a wide column that narrows the longer I charge the ability while another let’s me quickly mark foes and execute them like in Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s hard to stick to just one style because each time I find a new ability, I have to try it out.

A lot of these abilities are fun to use, but others aren’t. Part of the reason I ditched my dagger-wielding rogue was because melee combat in Wolcen is a pain. The left mouse button is used for both moving my character and autoattacking, and there’s no way to rebind it. When the screen is full of enemies—which it almost always is—it’s really hard to move around instead of autoattacking whatever you clicked on. The other problem with playing a straight melee character is that auto-attacks are needed to regenerate your Rage, the main resource for melee skills. But compared to the much flashier and more deadly skills, autoattacking with melee weapons feels sluggish and punishingly short-ranged. It’s just not fun to use.

There are some promising ideas here, but Wolcen just doesn’t feel ready to leave Early Access. Even without all the bugs, unresponsive menus, and sometimes sluggish combat, the campaign feels too linear, the dialogue oscillates between silly and cliche, and the constant cutscenes are stilted and poorly animated. I’d honestly much rather Wolcen have no story at all. 

If you’ve absolutely exhausted all the other, better games in this genre and you’re desperate for more clicking and looting, Wolcen will probably stimulate that region of your brain for a bit. It's buggy and janky and sometimes outright frustrating, but it does have a few redeeming qualities that have kept me from uninstalling it altogether. For now, at least.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.