You can tell a lot from the first hour of playing a game. In my first hour of playing "Warlander," I wrestled with the controls, fought an unresponsive UI, battled clunky combat, and spent more time looking at loading screens than I did gameplay. While the dismemberment and cleaving of enemies is impressive, it does little to save an otherwise unpleasant experience.
The story of "Warlander" is explained in a short cutscene at the beginning of the game. You, a mighty warrior called Bruce, have been slain by the Technos, a band of evil-doers led by Morven.
A forest-dwelling god offers Bruce the chance at revenge by harnessing the power of the forest. As part of this new pact, Bruce receives Ferguson, a sword imbued with the power of the forest that is able to guide Bruce through the game.
Pieces of the story begin to unfold throughout each attempt as you pick up memories, add information to a codex after defeating enemies, and hear short conversations between Bruce and Ferguson.
Unfortunately, the story is hampered by the fact that "Warlander" is not a pleasant or interesting experience. When you're stuck fighting controls, seeing poor animations, and battling unwieldy combat, there's little joy to be had reading through dozens of pages of text about a world that doesn't feel good to be in.
As for the gameplay, "Warlander" is at its core a roguelike game. Death resets nearly all progress, with the exclusion being any skills acquired from mini bosses defeated. What roguelikes need to get right is the combat flow and how the character handles. "Warlander" fails to do this.
Bruce is equipped with the sword called Ferguson and can be upgraded with new abilities and passives through a literal skill tree. These skills are unlocked by spending XP along with one of the most unique currencies I've ever seen in a game: limbs and heads.
Each slash of the sword is shown by a green line indicating where the attack will land. This is used to great effect to cleave enemies in half, chop off their arms, and remove their heads. While this is certainly impressive to behold, the feel of the combat leaves much to be desired.
Bruce handles like a sluggish brick. Each swing, regardless of whether it's a light or heavy attack, has a long wind-up time and slow reset time. With each swing taking a big chunk of stamina to perform, and with the stamina slow to recharge, you spend more time walking around waiting to be able to attack again.
Even the camera lacks finesse. One of the moves, a crouch-attack, has the camera zoom in when the move is performed and slowly track out. What's more, this crouch attack move is tied to a button also responsible for running and dodging.
There's just an overall lack of polish to the combat, leaving it feeling rough and unpleasant. This is made all the more frustrating when each death means restarting at the beginning of the 30-level slog to the final boss.
Thankfully, it's not a linear path to the boss. "Warlander" presents you with a stepping stone-like climb where each node is connected to the other. The easiest comparison to make is to that of Void Bastards or FTL's level-select maps.
You might start in the right-hand lane, work your way up to the left and then double back again. The advantage of this is you have some choice over what you fight next. An ideal route will likely include a few arena fights against Techno Forces for XP and limbs, a trip to the Devouring Tree to level up, and maybe even a stop by a healing node and chest node for some resources.
Unfortunately, a single death will plunge you back down to the very start, and it is extremely easy to die, given the lack of healing options. There is only one healing orb in any of the arena fights and two in a mini boss fight if you're lucky. Enemies rarely drop a health orb and more often than not you're left trying desperately to avoid getting hit in a combat system that feels unresponsive and sluggish.
This ultimately makes deaths feel unnecessarily punishing. It wasn't your lack of expertise that resulted in death — something all Soulsborne players have to learn — it was a failure of the game.
Beyond the unpleasantness of actually playing, "Warlander" is also seemingly unfinished in some places. Usually, for third-person games that feature a heavy-focus on melee combat, I opt for a controller — even if I'm on PC. Though "Warlander" did detect my controller, there were zero options to rebind keys or even invert the Y-axis, so I resigned to using keyboard and mouse.
For the first few hours of play, the game simply did not show any controls. It wasn't until a complete reset did the keyboard and mouse controls start appearing. To make matters worse, when you're in game, you cannot edit the controls -- this can only be done from the main menu.
There are also assets that appear to be unfinished. Take for instance the stamina bar. The fill texture isn't aligned to the gauge, or the texture itself has been poorly created, resulting in what is best described as the green bleeding out of the bar. Other in-game assets appear flat and one-dimensional, like the prompts for picking up a memory or feeding the Devouring Tree. The "You Died" screen also looks like it was quickly made in Microsoft Paint.
Then there are the arenas. These spaces feel empty and lifeless. Invisible walls block you from climbing stairs and walking over bridges while the enemies just appear out of the ground despite being clad in armor -- it makes little sense.
In order to enter a new node, you must pass through a loading screen. In order to exit an arena, mini boss fight, or other area, you must pass through a loading screen into the level-select screen. This amounts to a whole lot of loading screens across a 30-level run. To make matters worse, the loading screens feature the dreaded "press any button to continue" prompt. Unless I have the option to quit, or unless there is literally anything else I can do in your loading screen, just load me back into the game.
"Warlander" is a disappointing experience that fails to capture the pleasures of a roguelike game. The combat is unpolished and sluggish and it is rife with poor animations and unfinished assets and elements. Outside of the dismemberment, there's little here worth seeing.
This review is based on a PC Steam key provided by the publisher. "Warlander" was released Feb. 26 on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation. For the latest information about videogames, visit www.shacknews.com.