Gato Studio's The Waylanders, a party-based RPG inspired by Dragon Age: Origins and Baldur's Gate, shouldn't be in early access yet. While the game has admirable ambition and some charm, it's simply too rough an experience to be worth paying for.
Inspired by Celtic mythology, The Waylanders starts with your hero joining an expedition by the Celtic King Ith to the home of his gods, the Tuatha de Danaan. While the charming characters and novel setting have plenty of potential, both the expedition and the game quickly go horribly wrong.
I don't know what causes Ith's diplomatic mission to fail because that cutscene is missing. You simply go from getting to know everyone in his inner circle to being assaulted by monsters while trying to rescue Ith. Apparently, his drunkard son Prince Lugaid messed something up. The result is that I felt like I was seeing spoilers for a game I wanted to play. Things just get worse from there as a series of combats exposes so many bugs and missing features that the game feels borderline unplayable.
Like the genre staples that inspired it, The Waylanders has you start off creating a blank slate protagonist by choosing from four races and six classes. The classes are pretty familiar options like warrior, rogue, and sorcerer. However, the game's focus on Celtic mythology means the usual selection of Tolkien-based races has been replaced with more novel options like half-Fomorian and werewolf.
Each class has a small number of passive and active abilities, which can be mapped to your keyboard, though blank spaces in the ability ring indicate more are coming. You may also get a choice of background depending on your class/race combination, but that doesn't seem to do anything besides change your starting look. The racial abilities are pretty basic too, just giving you some form of elemental resistance.
The Waylanders is progressive in that you actually choose between a male or female body type and separately pick your pronoun between he, she or they. But the goodwill Gato Studio might get from that decision is marred by the fact that if you want to play anything but a sorcerer or a healer, you're going to have to deal with your chest only being covered by body paint regardless of gender expression.
One of the highlights of the Dragon Age games is that NPCs respond to the choices you made during character creation, a feature that makes replaying the game more appealing. That's not the case in The Waylanders. My character was a Mourian, part of a race of gold-eyed immortals living underground, and I was excited to meet the Mourian seer Nazhedja. She not only didn't acknowledge me as kin but proceeded to tell me about how cool Mourians are.
Gather your companions
The Waylanders does have a genuinely charming cast of characters. It's pretty entertaining watching Nazhedja flirt with the general Taleisin, the druid Amergin complain about how worthless Lugaid is, and the Greek warrior Heraklios share stories of his exploits. You'll be accompanied by up to four characters as you explore and fight, and can control your choice for real-time combat or pause to issue orders.
There's currently no way to set tactics to give your party members standing orders for how to attack or spend your consumables. Sometimes characters would just hang back and not show up to the fight. Sometimes they'd disappear from the map.
The features that let you see how many enemies you were catching in an area attack only sometimes worked. Sometimes you couldn't move between character portraits to issue orders. Letting a few seconds pass in real-time combat occasionally fixed this. Still, then I had to deal with watching characters play suboptimally or discovering my healer hadn't been acting at all as my health plummeted. While these issues aren't bad in easy fights, they're lethal in harder ones, and there's no way to reduce the game's difficulty to ease the impact.
There are other problems, too, like graphical glitches that cause jewelry to look like it's popping in and out of a character's skin or audio balancing issues that make it hard to hear dialogue over the music. These are the things I expect from an early access build, and they're minor annoyances compared to the combat bugs.
The way forward
Gato Studio has laid out an ambitious roadmap for The Waylanders, promising that the finished game will take 40 hours – the early access is just part of the first of three acts -- and span more than 40 maps across eight locations in two time periods. Upcoming features include loyalty quests for companions, romance plots, and advanced classes. They'll also be adding in missing cinematics and voice acting.
A few bugs have already been patched to reduce crashing and saving issues, but they haven't fixed the core problems of the game. The estimated release is the first quarter of 2021, and it's going to take a lot of work to get things in shape by then.
Players are typically willing to buy a game during early access to help shape the product by sharing their thoughts on game balance or features they'd like to see in the future. They're willing to accept some rough edges to work on building something they really want. But no one should be asked to accept The Waylanders in its current state.
I want to love The Waylanders. It's got an excellent concept and some charming characters, but it's just too frustrating an experience right now. If you're craving a party-based RPG, you're better off waiting for Baldur's Gate III and playing it until The Waylanders is out of early access. Hopefully, by then, it'll actually be worth playing.