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Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem Game review

Game review 21 February 2020, 17:12

Wolcen Review – Devilishly Difficult Love

Wolcen: The Lords of Mayhem, an independent hack'n'slash, scored a dragon entrance that other Diablo competitors - Path of Exile and Grim Dawn - could only dream of. See why this hack'n'slash has caused so much excitement.

The review is based on the PC version.

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem can cause a cognitive dissonance between the heart and mind. The mind will notice all these warnings and cries coming from the net. Then it will conclude the game's ridden with bugs. Servers go crazy like Joaquin Phoenix in the Joker. Items disappear from our cache; object collision is a story of its own. And so on, until the next patch. And besides, it was called Umbra during the Kickstarter campaign, and had an open world! Give me my money back! Well, there will be plenty of accusations and controversies. And still, Wolcen hit us with the power of a lightning bolt. Magically, it got into the hearts of action-RPG lovers. Almost a million hearts, right at the onset.

Meanwhile, the market of hack'n'slash games is going through some of the leanest years. Grim Dawn was released quite recently. Path of Exile releases new add-ons, but the level of complexity isn't suitable for everyone – and it is far from launching the 2.0 update. The glory days of Diablo III are long gone. And the next part of the series is still rather far away. And other contestants are nowhere to be found. The tempting YouTube videos – and a Christmas Steam promotion for Early Access – made sure the hypetrain is rolling. It's funny, but it wasn't just blowing its own trumpet. Out of the chaos, bugs, and confusion, emerges a damn fine hack'n'slash. One with a punch. No wonder the players love it. Even if the love is difficult and painful at times.

Hit chart

  1. Really cool, dynamic combat seasoned with slasher standards;
  2. Spectacular apocalyptic forms;
  3. Looks stunning;
  4. Refined, flexible and complex, but also legible character development system;
  5. Ton of equipment, and a reasonable distribution of decent legends;
  6. Proper endgame available since launch day;
  7. A great story focused on family, portraying interesting relations through good dialogs;
  8. Val – our stubborn little sister – rules!
  9. Sometimes it becomes very ominous.
  1. Fixing all the minor glitches seems impossible (there's so many);
  2. Problems with servers, difficulties in getting into the game.
  3. The ending is a mean cliffhanger, and we'll have to wait for the remaining acts.
  4. Crude animations;
  5. Some bugs make gameplay difficult.

Let's get one thing straight. Wolcen is not a revolution. This is not its strength. Wolcen Studio first tried this when their project was still called Umbra, but someone came to their senses and understood that about the only result of trying to build a sandbox with such a small team is PUD. So, the creators risked their reputation and took a step back. They looked at the entire genre and cherry-picked the best things about it. The essence of hunting for loot. They mixed it up, levelled it, and added a lot from their own.

Imagine a game with the design and accessibility of Diablo III that's also packed with mechanics filtered from Path of Exile. In practice, this means dynamic and spectacular entertainment, with quite complex modes under the hood. However, there is a difference that separates Wolcen from the work of Grinding Gear Games. Lords of Mayhem is very intuitive and smoothly introduces us to character development, which is more convenient and understandable. This catered to people who were overwhelmed by Path of Exile – as well as those who felt cheated by the latest release of Diablo. This also convinced me (although I invested a lot of time in Diablo III – no regrets).

The combat itself is butcher's poetry. The pace increases with the character's progress, but it seems to never exceed the readability threshold. Blood often splashes all around, swarms of demons (and their chopped limbs) fly in every direction, everything is accompanied by pyrotechnics worthy of a Rammstein concert, but I knew what was going on all the while. Which, by the way, is a mandatory prerogative for getting a combat system that feels like a coherent whole.

The slaughter in Wolcen has a slasher-like quality. It's a bit slower and weighty, but we can almost feel every blow we land – especially when we're swinging huge chunks of iron. This gives you a sense of power and satisfaction. From the very beginning, we have a jump attack and dodge placed under the space bar. This makes combat look more dynamic than in other games. Good stats won't be enough – we will also need dexterity. Without it, you'll get your ass kicked in no time. Wolcen has a steep learning curve, but it's not exactly Dark Souls either. This is just a satisfying challenge.

Path to power

Then, we are not defenseless. The power of the hero or heroine is growing – and we have complete control over their development. This made me more interested in the classless development system. Apart from the equipment, we operate on four planes. We invest good, old skill points in the basic attributes (equivalents of strength, dexterity, etc.). We also develop a passive skill tree similar to the one in Path of Exile, only legible and organized. Then, we have passive abilities inside three circles, which we can turned to create optimal paths of development. On top of that, we have spectacular active abilities, the so-called enneracts. We can unlock them all, but we only develop the ones we use.

The combat is diversified by apocalyptic forms that the hero turns into – Darksiders-style. Thanks to them, we momentarily become one of the four powerful creatures, untouchable for monsters and causing significant damage (smaller than I'd wish, though – the creators intend to refine this).

The mechanics are flexible, and a lot of fun to dissect. If we make a mistake or bow out, we can use a special mineral to re-skill the character as we see fit. You just need the right gear.

The loot system harks back to the glorious traditions of Diablo 2 and Path of Exile. In order to obtain legendary inventory, you need to work a little harder (the first items are awarded for important story missions, and something might occasionally fall out of the enemy), but, despite the randomness, the RNG gods are quite fair in distributing the tools of mass murder. Or at least try to make sure we're not at a loss. Management is, in turn, a development of the idea from Diablo III. This is especially apparent when we look at the backpack. It's clear and legible. The system works like a charm.

Where the game ends, the fun begins!

Fortunately, Wolcen offers more than just a festival of violence, a decent loot-fest, and solid character development. It's even more violence, development, and looting! When we get to the end of the campaign, it's time to get going with the endgame. What only appeared in Diablo III with an expansion, is here from the get-go. Not only that – it's also neatly tied with a bracket of story. Wolcen's Champion of Stormfall is a piece of great design. There are two ways to enter battle – contracts, and expeditions.

Contracts have different scenarios. Sometimes, it's about a boss, sometimes it's about a few specific opponents, clearing shrines, or a specific monster. Well – the classic. Expeditions are pretty much rifts from Diablo. We clean the map until we fill the bar, and then go beat the great evil master of the board. Or get a beating, because things aren't that easy. Wolcen's endgame is complex, requires attention and reflexes, and, of course, purposefully-built character. If you get here, you're lost. The game will suck you in like quicksand, and you'll soon find yourself looking for the damned, legendary armor.

To make it more interesting – all this is tied together with interesting, simple, yet appealing system of city development, and at the same time another aspect of character development. Our city provides us with concrete enhancements. One of the more practical ones is an additional skill slot, but there's more. There's a slew of bonuses available, so you need to plan in advance. The buildings we order to be constructed won't be done until we come back from a few expeditions. These mechanics click together beautifully. This pushes us to new jobs, and our power is growing not only with the level of experience, but also with the expansion of the city.

To make it more fun and a little cooler, these missions still contain story. These are simple stories about the power struggle of noble families, but they are quite joyful. And since we're talking about the story...

(Edge) Lords of Mayhem

Wolcen is one of the rare hack'n'slashes, where the story does matter (of recent games, only Children of Morta treated the plot more serious). At first glance, everything looks rather corny. "Larger-than-life" heroes, an army of quasi-Warhammer steel soldiers who march to kick the demons out of the world. We're are among them. To make it more fun, all the skill names sound like death metal lyrics. It's a bit cringy at times.

However, it turns out that we get a cleverly conceived scenario. It's cohesive. The sharp, epic conventionality of stories about armored knights is perfectly combined with the joyful slaughtering of the abominations. Given this grandiose, armor-plate staffage, the story turns out quite amusing and entertaining. All because the writers were able to keep the big picture in mind all the time, and wrote pretty good dialogs and convincing characters. It's all a bit like a bombastic, 80s action movie. Naturally, we turn out to be the special one, and there's a good chance that we're the guy who can take down the arch-villain, whoever he is, but fortunately, it's not all that cliché, thanks to the protagonist's personality.

He or she is a cheeky, ironic jerk with a nice voice. Besides, they're not alone. The story has another important pillar. The family. Yes, the centerpiece of the story are our loved ones, the children of Hemlock. We begin as one of three orphans adopted and trained by the Grand Inquisitor. The relations between siblings and the stepfather is the main premise of the story. A heart that beats alive Hemlock commands respect and plays a vital role. We have a hard-headed, warring brother, Edric, and my absolute favorite, the wayward but disgustingly loyal Valerie. For many missions, we are accompanied by one of them and... this game would have lost a lot of its charm without the happy, pathological family.

Although we can't influence the skills and equipment of our comrades, we form some pretty strong bonds with them. The siblings are completely brash, but there's also trust, there's warmth hidden behind the steel. You can see they have character; they've been through a lot. The connection between the main characters is genuine and generates a lively dynamic. And Val, the little-big pearl, is perhaps the most amiable companion of the mainstream slasher games ever. This is the type of woman who pulls her sword from a monster's eye socket before you finish asking "what's the plan." It's impossible not to love her.

Thanks to such things, Wolcen's plot resembles a screening of Con Air, Face/Off or one of John Woo's movies. A lot of joy and a little heart. To make it more interesting, by the middle of the second act, the atmosphere thickens, becomes dark and disturbing. The creators diversify it with some uncomfortable body horror, and an enemy, who only strengthened my belief that the collective consciousness is not the most fortunate concept that humanity has invented. And all this is served in several interesting, initially ambiguous (because it's obvious things will end with a slaughter) interactions with our hero. Yes, Wolcen Studio is trying to run the ossified formulas that start rattling when we remember diabloids.

It's a pity that the last act was cut short by a brutal cliffhanger that leaves us almost in the middle of a key event, but with no answers (despite the endgame taking place six months after the events of the campaign).

Spare a tear for CryEngine

One of Wolcen's biggest assets is the cause of its biggest problems. At least currently. The creators decided to use the magnificent, yet very demanding CryEngine. This is a powerful tool that works wonders in the right hands. However, it seems that only the original creators of this tool, i.e. CryTek, have fully mastered its capabilities. You can see that the devs from Wolcen struggled with it.

When you take a closer look, you will notice it (also in cut-scenes). The animations are numb, and the characters move like logs of wood – the funny thing is that combat feels visceral anyway. Face animations are sometimes also pretty embarrassing. Then, some characters come with no facial animations at all – they just stand there and nod, with the audio playing in the background. Fortunately, the voice-acting sound very good, which saves the day (the music, too). This numbness is obscured by the overall beauty of the game. The environment, the models, and equipment elements are all very appealing, and monsters are sometimes so disgusting you can cringe. The environment could be more diverse, apart from the desert we get just classic caves, forests, fortresses, cities, and ruins. But you can live with it.

On the other hand, the technical condition makes playing Wolcen sort of a roulette. There's many factors contributing to that, including rush, changing the concept, and the difficult engine. But that's no excuse. Personally, I encountered several mistakes, and only one prevented me from playing. I had to reset the game several times and repeat the location, because the conversation with an NPC didn't want to trigger. In addition, several times Val attacked the air, and in general, collisions were determined with strange logic. However, it seems that the game went pretty easy on me.

I've seen reports of character saves being lost along with loot, or issues with attributing skill points. Then, there were some exploits. News of problems with connectivity crossed the community with force of a typhoon – they resembled the time when Diablo III was launched. The servers did not hold up, and the creators, although they hoped for success, did not expect such magnitude.


The Wolcen Studio of course promises that it will systematically patch the game, and they admit their mistakes. In addition, there are plans to add the fourth and fifth acts, a PvP mode, guilds, and other activities. Ambitious. We'll be back to check that out. Believe me. This game just looks too good.

The heart wins

And guess what? Wolcen Studio are absolutely trustworthy. In Wolcen, you can see the passion, commitment and a fresh take on the formula of the slasher. For now, it's just a smooth, gentle evolution with a few cool mechanical quirks, a thoughtful character development system, and an exciting story. If the creators do not rest on their laurels after the initial success and fulfill their promises, Wolcen will sit in the Pantheon of modern slashers, right next to Path of Exile – it already looks better and is livelier (although much smaller). Despite the mistakes, I don't hesitate to give it an eight. Combat is just too good, loot is too sexy, and there's too much passion poured into this game to rate it any lower. And this passion has gripped the gamers hungry for a dynamic h'n's. At the moment, I'm willing to give the creators the benefit of the doubt and wait for patches. As long as the heart wins!


The two a.m. I'm finishing writing the text, and I know that when I'm rested, I'll get back to this game. This is what Diablo 2 did for me a long time ago, though in a different way. I've already met Wolcen on the occasion of an Early Access promotion on Steam. Even then, it gave me a lot of fun. I know the production is contradictory, I see its flaws and problems, but at the moment, I trust the creators and see it can become much better. Maybe it will end up being a one-hit-wonder, or maybe we're witnessing the birth of a new Titan – in pain, but to the accompaniment of thunders.

Hubert Sosnowski | Gamepressure.com

Hubert Sosnowski

Hubert Sosnowski

He joined GRYOnline.pl in 2017, as an author of texts about games and movies. He's currently the head of the film department and the Filmomaniak.pl website. Learned how to write articles while working for the Dzika Banda portal. His texts were published on kawerna.pl, film.onet.pl, zwierciadlo.pl, and in the Polish Playboy. Has published stories in the monthly Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror magazine, as well as in the first volume of the Antologii Wolsung. Lives for "middle cinema" and meaty entertainment, but he won't despise any experiment or Fast and Furious. In games, looks for a good story. Loves Baldur's Gate 2, but when he sees Unreal Tournament, Doom, or a good race game, the inner child wakes up. In love with sheds and thrash metal. Since 2012, has been playing and creating live action role-playing, both within the framework of the Bialystok Larp Club Zywia, and commercial ventures in the style of Witcher School.


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