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Wolcen: An Early Look

by Aubrielle (Emma Yorke), 2016-11-02

Most of us have thought about our favorite ideas for an RPG, or what it would be like to make one.  You might have even thought out details - animations, writing, particle effects.  A few of us may have even considered what engine we'd want our ideal RPG built in - I know I have.  But it wasn't until Wolcen came along that I personally decided to take an honest shot at learning game design; I saw a game that looked exactly like something I'd want to make myself.

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem (formerly known as Umbra) was brought to public attention a couple years ago through Kickstarter, that notorious place that has spawned brilliant successes and miserable failures alike, forever changing the way we play games.  It might have been just like any other Diablo-like ARPG except for one crucial factor - it was being made in CryEngine.  It didn't exactly take an expert to see that this was going to be a very different game than anything we'd seen before.


On the surface, Wolcen may not look much different than a lot of favorite Diablo-like ARPGs.  It includes fast-paced action combat, loot, intricate skill trees, and unlockable portals to take you quickly from one zone to another.  But it differs in a few key ways.  For one thing, CryEngine technology allows for beautiful weather and atmospheric effects never before seen in a game this style.  Rain-slicked streets and puddle-ridden dirt roads glimmer with the light of sunrises or guttering torches.  Forests come alive with realistic trees and undergrowth, and are made gloomy by low-lying fog or sullen, miserable rain.  Even from an isometric view, it's absolutely clear what the sky looks like, even if you can't see it directly.  CryEngine allows a developer to easily render realistic atmosphere in their RPGs, doing far more to immerse the player than the less sophisticated environments used in many recent ARPG titles.

A rain-slick road out of town at night.  Notice the damp fog and the flare of torches shining on the wet ground.  With proper sound effects and attention to monsters, this trip could feel quite perilous indeed.

Because of the technology used by Wolcen's dev team, the game has enormous potential.  It's far too early to tell whether the game will live up to the high standards it's setting for itself.  The game, currently early in alpha, is a fraction of what it will be on launch.  Graphics this good will need equally sharp sound effects to create strong atmosphere, and not many of those sound effects are in place right now.

So what about role-playing mechanics?  The devs have just rolled out Wolcen's skill tree in their latest update, along with their highly-experimental housing feature.  The housing looks fun, and even though it's a long way from being perfected, the skill tree is up and running pretty well.

The game runs on a classless system, allowing you to divide the skill points you earn every level between any of five separate branches of the skill tree: fighter, ranger, thief, guardian, or arcanist.  Assigning skill points into arcanist will increase your mana pool and the effectiveness of your spells, while assigning points into fighter will increase your strength and melee damage.  You'll find an NPC that lets you respec right in town, should the need arise.

The skill tree is an excellent example of Wolcen Studio's attention to detail.  They've clearly put a lot of thought into both character skills and the exquisitely-rendered artwork.

Another notable difference between Wolcen and its cousins (Grim Dawn, Diablo, Path of Exile) is in the speed and flow of combat.  Diablo and Grim Dawn have you lining up, tanking hordes of mobs, and absorbing their damage while slaughtering them in groups.  Wolcen allows you rolling dodges to get behind enemies and eviscerate them while they're still swinging at where you were a second ago.  This becomes especially satisfying if you're playing a more rogueish character who relies far more strongly on her dexterity than on heavy armor and loads of hit points.

Magic is integral to the entire combat system as well.  You play a character given magically enhanced abilities, and you're able to mix spellcraft with swords in any way you choose.  The beginning of the game will see you fending off increasingly large groups of enemies with your weapons, quick thinking, the occasional dodge, and the spells in your arsenal.  You may find yourself playing in this all-around sort of way until you level up and begin to further specialize your character.  That's not to say that you have to use magic, if you don't want to.  But it definitely helps.  If you do, you'll find that individual spells level up the more they're used; your magic will get blanket benefits by points spent in the arcanist skill tree, but your only truly effective spells will be ones you've used consistently.


Final release is still a ways off; I'd only recommend the early access version if you're instantly smitten with it, if they offer a nice discount, or if you're willing to playtest and help with development.  Right now, the game is barely playable; the characters have placeholder portraits (that aren't really very good, in my opinion), a lot of the sound and assets aren't in place yet, you only have access to the first area and a few quests, and there's still lots of bugs.  The characters also don't look very impressive just yet; even after tweaking her body at character creation, she had grotesquely unrealistic proportions and a strange, awkward stance that reminded me of a misshapen woman from a really old cartoon.  The developers put a lot of emphasis on making sure that, no matter how you distributed fat and muscle mass, no matter how chubby or skinny, your girl would always have melon-like breasts, a tiny waist, and a bulbous, insectoid butt made to thrust at an impossible, inhuman angle.  Worst of all, the game lags; one of the most requested improvements on the Steam forums is an optimization patch.  My system is a middle-of-the-road gaming PC, more than enough to easily handle most new titles, and certain parts of the game saw my framerate drop quite a bit (I idled in town at 30fps).  I also hope that they go all the way with polishing the UI; while the basic Calibri font in the character screen looks better than the ugly disaster that Grim Dawn used for text, it could still be improved a bit to match the attractive standard set by the rest of Wolcen.

But even in its unpolished alpha state, the game is still tasty and addictive, and I've had to stop myself from going back for another round to avoid spoiling the game when it's done.  Will it be as solid and rich as Grim Dawn?  It very well could be, and Wolcen offers a whole lot of promise.  If the game's current state is anything to go on, the final product could be a truly excellent ARPG, and possibly one of my absolute favorites.

Box Art

Information about

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem

Developer: WOLCEN Studio

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Hack & Slash
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2020-02-13
· Publisher: WOLCEN Studio

More information

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