The Waylanders, developed and published by GATO STUDIO, is a party-based RPG that proudly lists its iconic inspirations: Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age: Origins. It’s the latter I’m reminded of most, both the positive and negative aspects. The Waylanders offers deep lore, plenty of world-building, some novel character origin interactions, and choice-driven outcomes. However, it also has clunky controls and rough combat that constantly pull drag down the experience. However, unlike BioWare’s critically-acclaimed release, the overall experience – and I’m considering all elements of the game – is woefully inconsistent. The Waylanders often feels like it was built in pieces, each polished to a varying degree, then stitched together at the last minute into a coherent narrative order, with no follow-up QA.
The Waylanders’ premise is, at least, intriguing and has potential for further expansions or sequels. You take control of a lightly customisable hero – nameless, unvoiced, but amusingly expressive – that is assigned to the entourage of the Celtic king Ith. The king is making a historic visit to Ireland, land of the gods – the Tuatha de Danaan – hoping to formalize relations and argue for greater recognition of mortals and their collective abilities. Tagging along are his advisors, a competitive but close team that reflects the diversity of the mythologically-inspired realm. Also in tow is the young prince – belligerent and seemingly uninterested in succeeding his father. As the newest member of the entourage, your hero initially plays the role of a runner – an ideal excuse to quickly meet the cast and learn a bit about their backgrounds and skills.
Naturally, things go horribly wrong. However, rather than playing through this momentous event that catalyzes the rest of the game, you’re placed in the aftermath and left to catch up as you go. It’s the first of many jarring scene transitions – not only shifts in time and place as the narrative dictates but also in quality. Voice acting and music are highlights but every other element during cutscenes and dialogue sequences – think scene composition, direction, and animation – are hit-and-miss. One moment, The Waylanders can feel like a modern and polished AAA title, the next a janky AA release – sometimes within the same narrative sequence. It’s glaringly obvious when it happens and undermines The Waylander’s cinematic aspirations established in the opening hour.
Ultimately, the narrative falls back on the “chosen one” trope as you become the mythical “Mil Espaine”, a mortal no longer bound by the strands of fate and capable of influencing both present and future (or past and present?). It’s a great excuse to travel through several fantastical locations but, more importantly, between Galicia’s Celtic-dominated past and Christian medieval future. The structure provides an opportunity to see the long-term consequences of several choices play out, and forces you to reconnect with your allies from the immortal races. It’s a smart setup but I have two issues. The first is a common problem with modern games: every interaction is painfully overwritten and longer than it needs to be, often requiring minimal player input. The second issue – compounded by the first – is how the dialogue style swings between mildly entertaining and cringeworthy. It’s a mix of the cool/casual delivery you’d expect from Young-Adult media, with too much casual cursing, and writing that frequently undermines the levity of important events.
The core gameplay loop feels very traditional. Character levelling, dialogue, combat, and player-choice form the meat of the experience, with new party members joining (and rejoining) as you progress. After the on-the-rails prologue sets the scene and gifts you a ship, you can pick your party members and travel to numerous small-ish but visually distinct zones (many unexpectedly linear). As someone tired of bloated open-world environments, it was nice to be kept on track, but some areas feel illogical small and sparsely inhabited given their supposed significance.
Hub areas feature all the quest givers and merchants you’d expect, though you’ll want to focus on the story and companion quests (which can lead to several romance options) and avoid literal “chore” quests. Unfortunately, while your starting race offers several unique interactions with key figures, character attributes seem to have little bearing on dialogue choices – despite the descriptions suggesting non-combat application. Typically, you sit through a lengthy cutscene and minutes of rambling dialogue, before your advisors throw in a few suggestions, and you’re finally allowed to pick a path forward. Despite that structure, party composition had little impact on how events played out as quest-specific companions are always locked in before you progress, while the others remain silent.
As a result, character levelling, attributes, and skills feel most significant during the frequent bouts of combat – combat that focuses on mobs of enemies, followed by more engaging “boss” fights (that usually have some interesting gimmick). At first glance, the combat is typical “real-time-with-pause” cRPG fare with a focus on positioning, priority targeting, and optimal skill use… but it’s rarely enjoyable. Irrespective of the foe, you’re always going up against damage-sponge enemies with your tanky heroes. It does force you to engage with the formation system, which allows you to combine party members into javelin lines, archery groups, shield walls, etc., pooling their total health and increasing damage output or defence (humanoid enemies can use these formations against you). However, battles always take too long and lack impact, giving it an action-RPG feel as you whittle down health bars. Too much time is spent waiting on ability cooldowns to do any real damage, while changing the difficulty increases your party’s survivability, rather than decreasing enemy health pools.
Now, despite The Waylanders’ offering a low-angle perspective and gamepad support, movement and combat animations feel floaty and detached, while your AI companions are incredibly stupid. They can follow you around the environments well enough but, in battle, the predefined behaviours provide two variants of suicidal and one that renders them effectively braindead. “Aggressive” and “Average” had ranged characters clustered in close-range brawls, demonstrating no evidence of priority targeting or self-preservation. “Passive” might seem the safest bet for micromanaging, but characters disengaged too easily from moving enemies and often ended up standing around aimlessly taking ranged or AoE damage. These behaviours are passable on the lower difficulties but then it just feels like the game is running on autopilot.
All these issues would have been more tolerable if the control scheme and camera weren’t fighting you too. The camera is always anchored on party members, snapping your view around, limiting your view of the battlefield, and prone to being obscured by the environment. When relying on AI behaviours and real-time control, trying to move a single character out of harm’s way often resulted in the rest of the party disengaging to follow them. In contrast, misclicking becomes hazardous when using the tactical pause function as the game stacks up to 5 moves, resulting in party members frequently going for a stroll behind enemy lines before returning to engage. It all results in messy, frustrating, and unenjoyable combat that’ll have you chugging consumables to recover after every grindy battle.
Talking of consumables, The Waylanders is, at least, relatively streamlined when it comes to unlocking skills, formation abilities, gear, and crafting. There are only a few variants of class-specific armour and weapons to juggle (some of which just seem to be cosmetic variations), with incrementally better stats as you progress. With armour, you typically choose between variants that offer more physical or magical defence, while both weapons and armour can be improved by a simple crafting system. Gems, with a manageable number of defensive or offensive buffs, can be socketed into gear at craftsmen.
General gameplay is also affected by a number of bugs. Far too many given I held out for two weeks and the first major patch before continuing my review playthrough. Missing item descriptions, incorrect subtitles, inventory items simply disappearing on use, characters moon-walking around enemies and allies unable to trigger attack animations. Few were game-breaking but they serve to reinforce the feeling The Waylanders was pushed out too early, without enough polish, despite no shortage of feedback from early access adapters on the forums.
Moving on to the presentation, the production values are often impressive for an indie developer and the marketing highlights some of the incredible talent involved in the project. Although I was not a fan of the writing style, the voice acting is consistently good and the accompanying ambience and soundtrack enhance the atmosphere in each location. Battle audio, just like the combat itself, feels muted and lacks impact.
The visuals, especially during several cutscenes, can look incredible thanks to a variety of cinematic visual effects and the expressive, cartoonish models. Certain locations are beautiful and atmospheric, with vibrant colours, dynamic lighting and shadows, and reflections. Unfortunately, just as many locations look and feel generic, with flat lighting, limited assets, and no striking landmarks. Similarly, cutscenes can shift from well-directed and cinematic, to raw and clunky in-engine variants within the same narrative sequence. On the upside, there are multiple visual settings to tweak and performance – with my hardware – was better than the minimum specs might suggest.
There is, without doubt, the potential for a solid CRPG in an intriguing new setting here. However, it’s buried under a layer of frustrating and unenjoyable combat, while the overall quality of each encounter goes up and down like a rollercoaster. You could try fixate on the many impressive-looking sequences but, if the age of blockbuster videogames has taught me anything, it’s that production values can only enhance the experience, not carry it.
The Waylanders desperately needed more time in the oven and hopefully, a re-launch if they’re planning on console versions. I hope GATO STUDIO can find the time and budget to rework the combat; trim the many lengthy conversations in which you have no input; and go through the game, scene to scene, ensuring each one has an equivalent level of polish. As it stands, I’m not planning on pushing on to the end until more patches are announced and I suggest you hold off for now too. Maybe we’ll eventually get a polished and consistent experience?
A Review code for The Waylanders was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher
The Waylanders (PC) ReviewThe Waylanders (PC) Review
Story7/10 GoodAn intriguing new world, player-choice, and time-travelling mechanic are undermined by some questionable writing and inconsistent cutscene quality
Gameplay5/10 NeutralAside from making several key decisions and dealing with the consequences, combat forms the bulk of the gameplay component. Unfortunately, the novel formation mechanic can't offset numerous frustrations.
Visuals6/10 NormalOften breathtaking, with a vibrant, cartoony style. However, this can vary from scene to scene.
Audio7/10 GoodVoice work and ambience are constantly good (despite the iffy writing) and the soundtrack is excellent. Muted battle sounds rob the combat of impact.
- An intriguing new IP with deep lore and plenty of world-building
- Streamlined classes and novel formation-based combat abilities
- Travelling between eras allows you to see the long-term consequences of your choices
- At times, the production values are incredible coming from an indie dev…
- …but the overall quality fluctuates wildly from scene to scene
- Overwritten and often cringe-worthy dialogue
- Character attributes and party composition have little to do with choice-driven quests
- Awkward controls, camera issues, floaty movement, damage-sponge enemies, and braindead party AI make for unenjoyable combat