Achievements and Trophies can tell you a lot about a game. They can inform us of how people played a game, or at what point they started to give up. In the case of The Waylanders however, the Steam Achievements paint a damaging picture of just how quickly players gave up on it. An Achievement for completing a story mission, an unavoidable Achievement earned a mere hour or two into the game, lists a measly 17.6% of players have got it. That number gets almost halved for the next story achievement, just 8.1% at the time of writing this. And the Achievement for reaching level 3, which doesn’t take long, is just 2.9%.
It’s a shame, not because The Waylanders becomes a magically better game the further you progress (the opposite, actually) but because there are a couple of fun ideas buried in this messy action-RPG. The setting is focused on Celtic society and mythology, something not often seen in games. But a couple of cool ideas don’t excuse the fact that The Waylanders is painfully generic and fails to execute its most basic aspects. If that wasn’t enough, there’s plenty to suggest that this full release is still just an Early Access title in disguise
The opening moments of Waylanders are a prime example. Your custom character, along with the King and boatload of his companions, are on the way to meet with the literal Gods, named the Tuatha. It will be the first time humanity has directly spoken with their Gods, a momentous moment in time. This exciting event is entirely skipped when the next cutscene has the king dying and everyone freaking out because the meeting apparently went badly and now the previously uninhabited island is very much now inhabited, including tents and other things which should have been obviously visible. It plays out like a huge chunk of gameplay or cutscenes were ripped out of the game by a bloodthirsty editor and then savagely stitched back together without any effort to tweak everything so that it would fit.
The general gist of the plot is after being revived from death your character is no longer tied to the timeline. The Seer can no longer glimpse your past or your future, meaning destiny no longer has a hold, which in turn begins to cause some problems for the. From there it gets muddled as the story jumps around and seems to skip important explanations and motivations. Even after completing the game I still don’t feel like I have a grasp on what happened or why it happened
Character creation comprises of four different races to pick from, including an immortal Mourian and a Werewolf. And yes, I picked the werewolf, because why would I not? Sadly, you can’t shift between human and wolf, and instead, just look like a hairy person. But your choice of race is annoyingly ignored by the game in multiple ways. Pick a Mourian and other Mourians will insist on telling you that they are immortal beings operating on a whole other timescale. Pick a werewolf and when you eventually get a full transformed werewolf companion you can’t understand her, but your other human companion can randomly speak werewolf. My Goddamn backstory is that I’m a werewolf who lived in a werewolf settlement amongst untransformed and transformed wolves, how the hell do I not speak the language? Most other RPGs take your character creation into account, at least in small ways, but The Waylanders ignores it completely. It’s not like you even get cool special perks, either – my werewolf is slightly more resistant to Wind damage, for some reason. That’s it.
The companions you gather are, on the surface, an interesting looking bunch of misfits who you can take with you on quests. There’s a Druid named Amergin, a lady called Mal who can relieve memories of corpses by sticking their eyeball into her golden eye socket, a hulking Famorian with her single eye, a toga-wearing warrior resembling Hercules with the intelligence and raw enthusiasm of puppy and more. But looks are often deceiving – under the surface, these people are defined by single personality traits and nothing else. They have all the depth of someone on the dance floor of a club at 3am who insists on spewing nonsense, and I cared not a single iota about any of them. The developers try to elicit some degree of personality during their loyalty missions, which come out of nowhere and fail almost entirely thanks to shoddy. They try to concoct a feeling of camaraderie by having your companions talk like they’ve known you and the rest of the crew for ages and that you are all one big family, despite the fact that most of them don’t ever talk to the others and barely even seem aware of their existence.
Talking about the quality of the voice acting is awkward because while it does sound quite bad, including many examples of poor audio quality, I do also think a lot of it comes down to bad direction. The roughly written script certainly isn’t doing the actors any favours, either.
Romance is another example of The Waylanders’ clumsy design. Rather than a gradual build filled with flirty dialogue and opportunities to display your own interest, companions will randomly blurt out their love for you. There’s never an indication that they’re romantically interested in you prior to this moment, or that you can even engage in a relationship with them. It’s like the developers noted that romancing companions was a common trait in other RPGs and set out to tick that particular box in the most basic way possible. I doubt you’ll be interested enough in any of your party to consider them as partners anyway unless you want to do it purely for the Achievements.
The writing struggles to pick a direction and go with it. Your companions have a very 21st-century method of talking, throwing out “fucks” like candy and saying stuff like, “He’s a total dipshit.” But then in the next scene everybody is using a more antiquated speech pattern. There’s not a cohesive feel to the way the game is written, and it bugged me the entire time.
Humans, monsters and giant spiders are commonplace foes, yet none of them are as troublesome nor as frustrating as the camera. There are two views to pick from – a closer one that’s nice for soaking up the admittedly quite pretty environments, and a second, much higher viewpoint that suits the combat far more. Whichever one you select, wrangling it into position is a chore as it jerks and bounces around, managing to hit every piece of scenery in the process. It’s doubly worse in interiors or tight spaces where the camera bucks around like a horse trying to dislodge a particularly fat human.
Swinging swords and casting spells doesn’t fare much better as the combat system is messy, unrewarding and lifeless. It’s built around switching between your companions and using dull abilities on cooldowns, but there’s absolutely no tactical or strategic depth to actually using them, and the lousy animations and lack of feedback make doing anything feel as exciting as throwing raisins at a wall. You can’t trust the AI to do anything on its own as your healer will barely ever use their healing abilities without you taking manual control, and companions will frequently decide to target an enemy on the other side of the screen or abandon their current target as soon as you switch your focus to something else.
You can pause the combat if you wish with a tap of the spacebar, and, in theory, this should be how you plan out the battle. However, it’s impossible to move the camera while paused so you can’t properly analyse the battlefield. Although, like I said earlier, you don’t really need to since there’s zero skill involved in battling the thoroughly boring enemy types. The only challenge comes via the random difficulty spikes where enemies will be able to soak up heaps of damage before eventually falling, and all you can really do is spam abilities and watch as your group slowly pushes through enough damage or your final party member dies.
There is one good aspect of the combat though, and that’s the formation system. You can group companions together and command then to briefly shift into a formation that grants new abilities. It’s a cool idea, although the UI makes doing it in the middle of combat clumsier than it should be. As interesting as it is, though, it doesn’t do anywhere near enough to save the combat from being utterly monotonous.
Quest design is rudimentary at best, and wildly inconsistent in terms of quality as some quests seem to have had vastly more effort put into them than others. Some quests feature some cutscenes that are, by The Waylander’s standards, quite nice while others were seemingly pooped out and forgotten about. Keep in mind, this isn’t even a big game, so the developers don’t have much of an excuse for the wildly varying level of quality. But even those quests that benefited from extra production time and resources have the most basic of basic designs, with almost every single one of them being of the “go there, kill that” variety.
As an RPG there’s levelling up to be done, and even that’s duller than generic brand breakfast cereal. It’s pretty cool that every member of your little group levels up together, even if you’ve never taken them on a quest before, but what isn’t cool is how it’s impossible to tell what attributes contribute to skills and attacks. Strength governs melee, but does it govern ranged damage from a bow? No idea. Can’t tell. And the skills to choose from are boring and poorly animated. Seriously, it’s hard to tell when characters use abilities or whether they’ve even hit anything.
Bugs and glitches are rampant throughout the game but they really up the ante in the second half where it seems like the developers were rushing things to get The Waylanders out. The two most consistent issues I faced were voice-overs failing to play and character’s lips not moving, but I also encountered NPCs stuck in T-Poses, horrible white mist inside buildings, invisible walls where invisible walls shouldn’t be, several quests that couldn’t be completed due to events not triggering, incorrect mission markers, missing text on advanced skills, item descriptions and names missing, loads of spelling mistakes and even a case of a strange clone of one of my companions running around. And while I didn’t personally encounter anything that stopped me from completing the main stories, plenty of other people have. A quick browse of the Steam forums reveals a legion of issues.
The good news is that many, if not all, of these problems, can be fixed and hopefully will be. However, no amount of patching is going to fix the more fundamental problems affecting the game, from the choppy storytelling and weak writing, to the dull quests, boring combat and many of the small, baffling design decisions that left me scratching my head. Why did you bother popping me into gameplay when all I could do is walk forward two steps and trigger a cutscene? Why do quests just suddenly end with little warning, transporting you straight back to your ship? Why is all the loot pretty much useless?
I’m not sure what went wrong with The Waylanders. All I can present is an outsider’s perspective, and from this outsider’s perspective, it looks a lot like the developer’s ambitions far outweighed their budget, their time and their skill. The way chunks of the game seem to have been cut away, the rougher second half and the numerous underdeveloped features all point to a developer that was drowning and desperately needed to just get The Waylanders out of the door, regardless of its final state. But even if they managed to push The Waylanders out the door fully formed, it would still be a bog-standard RPG. There are a few glimmers of hope nestled in the mess, but ultimately the best thing I can say about The Waylanders is that it’s playable.