Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is a bald-faced Diablo clone. There’s no denying that. I doubt the developers, the aptly named WOLCEN Studio, would even try. It mostly sets itself apart from other action-RPGs by beating Diablo 4 to the grimdark punch by an unspecified number of months or years. That’s because it also borrows liberally from Warhammer — with character models and backgrounds have the feel of painted miniatures on handcrafted backgrounds. It’s generic dark fantasy stuff, but it’s committed to that aesthetic. It’s also introduced with a level of spectacle that feels far above a game of this scale.
I’ve only played a tiny amount of Wolcen so far. But the opening level is a doozy. You start as a custom orphan indoctrinated to a human military sworn to fight demons. There’s some very clear “Are we the baddies?” energy from your burly, raspy surrogate father. Yet you still march on foreign shores at the head of a big army. Your group is greeted with an ambush and the aforementioned demons. But some timely superpowers awaken in your hero and set you on the path to looting and slashing and fireballing your way to the top.
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Those very same ways of playing also set Wolcen apart from the pack. You don’t pick a class at the start. You choose a weapon. Moments later you can choose another. This is a loot game, after all, and there’s no shortage of ever-churning rusty metal to beat your foes about the head with. You then create your character on the fly — picking and choosing stats, passive skills, and active abilities as you go. The freeform experience is the novelty the game sells itself on. But it’s those opening moments, pulling from Warhammer and Helm’s Deep, that sold me on the thing.
Drifting souls and whispering wraiths comb over rain-slick cliffsides. An explosion of chaotic energy sends rubble tumbling down onto an army standing ready in a phalanx. There’s a very good late title card. Wolcen does a great job of drawing you in with cinematic frippery. That alone doesn’t make for a fun game. But it’s a level of craft that makes Wolcen feel like it can go toe-to-toe with Activision-Blizzard. It may not be a world class cinematic cutscene, but it works that same philosophy into the game itself. And it makes a staggering first impression.
As for its second, third, and fourth impressions… Well, I haven’t gotten that far. But many Wolcen players don’t seem happy. It’s currently sitting at “Mixed” on Steam, based on an average of 30,209 user reviews. Very bad bugs and server downtime seem to be the culprits. The developers fully admit it’s “been a rocky launch.” The up-and-comers weren’t fully prepared for the tidal wave of players that crashed down on them. Neither was I, until Fanbyte Guides Editor Dillon Skiffington told me it was one of the best-selling games on Steam when it exited Early Access. And the issues serve as a reminder that, despite a very punchy opening hour and massive monsters, this is still the company’s first game.
Somehow, that endears me to the game even more. It reminds me of a time when S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the first Witcher game could come out of nowhere and surprise me, despite their obvious flaws. The “mid-tier” game has been back for a while now — as indie studios and smaller devs scale up — but we rarely see them so obviously take on the true juggernauts of the games industry.
Diablo 4 will undoubtedly outsell it. Hell, it’ll sell more copies than the dollars I make in half my lifetime. But that’s no surprise. Wolcen, on the other hand, is. And I’m glad that sort of thing is still possible.