I learnt about Warlander’s existence back in mid-2019 while it was still being developed as an action-RPG. As a fan of the Fable series, I was immediately hooked by Warlander’s narrative, visual style and fantasy setting, all of which suggested the game had decent potential. Unfortunately, the developers – Clock Drive Games – announced in September they needed to make some changes.
Due to constraints, the devs announced that Warlander would now become a rogue-like, action game that would cut many of the features from the original design. The broader, story-driven adventure Clock Drive Games had originally intended to make was never going to be finished in time, so they settled for a genre that could work with what they had.
While there are surely some games that have managed to rise above such a major shift in development, Warlander is testimony to how such an impromptu transition rarely has a happy ending. Warlander has a serviceable combat system that can provide satisfying moments of exaggerated violence, but my play-through confirmed this game released as barely a comprise for what could have been.
A nice slice of life
In this game, players take on the role of a chieftain from the Warheart clan named Bruce. As hinted by the pieces of vine and bark jutting out of his body, Bruce is a revenant brought back from the dead by an ancient forest deity.
The reason behind his resurrection is that the mythical forest is under siege by a formidable army known as the Techno Order. Under the leadership of Morven the Immortal, the Techno Order seeks to decimate everything standing in the way of their leader’s supreme rule over all lands, which includes ancient deities of the forest.
The forest god therefore revives the leader of a clan that was slaughtered by a common enemy, and gives Brucie Boy a luminous magical sword, an extendable vine that springs from his arm, wooden steaks that shoot from his hand, a wooden shield that grows from his other arm, and other special attack moves.
Pretty cool story, right? Unfortunately, most of what I just recounted comes off the in-game codex. Almost none of this is told organically through gameplay, and the codex isn’t even accessible from the main menu – for this you have to pause mid-game.
At least the narrative not only sets up an interesting fictional struggle between nature and machine, but gives some depth to the gameplay and aesthetics themselves. For the most part, Warlander is actually pretty easy on the eyes when bearing in mind that it was made by such a small studio.
In spite of several janky animations and a somewhat generic design, enemies look decent while particle effects and detailed dismemberment physics give the combat a flashy, visceral style. Also, the settings (in which the player fights) are surprisingly detailed and dramatic, and the technological monoliths rising amidst the forest and ancient temples give the environments a dramatic tone.
Cut to the chase
The actual gameplay involves making your way through a sequence of battles along a ladder that leads all the way up to the final boss: Morven the Immortal himself. In the simplest terms, the player enters an arena hosting between four to six waves of enemies to slice and dice, before making their way to the exit and saving before progressing to the next combat session.
Warlander has a set number of arenas that get recycled throughout the player’s progression rather than procedurally generating the environments themselves (as most rogue-likes tend to do). In other words, the game randomises the order in which you have to tackle each area, rather than randomizing the layout of arenas.
I was actually okay with this since it gradually trains the player to learn how the environment itself can also become a weapon. The repetition of each area creates a subconscious preparedness on where the health orb is, where the best traps are, where the bottlenecks are, and where to hurl enemies back into the abyss.
Raiden would be proud
Much like Metal Gear Rising: Revengence, Warlander has a similar system in which the player can selectively chop up enemies with Jedi-like accuracy. Heads will literally role as you use your eco-friendly lightsaber to decapitate Technos with weaknesses at the neck, or you can chop off their legs to make them hobble around after you.
If that’s not enough, there is a carnivorous tree (‘The devouring Tree’ – enough to make a vegan faint) that Bruce can feed said severed body parts in exchange for upgrades and buffs. As I mentioned, he can gain anything from stamina upgrades, to a vine used for tossing enemies around, or to send his sword spinning through multiple enemies like a buzz saw.
When adding up everything listed so far, it would probably look like Warlander presents a pretty competent rogue-like on paper. The game has interesting combat mechanics, it looks decent, and there is a true satisfaction in coming out on top against enemies.
The wheels come off when the player realises that all these elements feel underdeveloped, or outright broken. From menu screens which appear to use Arial as a font, to the weird, meaningless bits of banter between Bruce and his sword, too much of Warlander smacks of a game that had to be squashed into a brutal crunch time.
Sure, viciously slicing enemies into floppy halves of flesh is certainly cool at first, but this is eventually overshadowed by Bruce’s indescribably clumsy sword strikes and cumbersome movement speed. He is so unresponsive that you’d think his glowy, forest sword must weight a ton, and there is only the option of a left or right swing with absolutely no ability for even basic combos.
Above all, I think this “chieftain” seriously needs to consider running a few laps around the fields or laying off the cigarettes, because he has the physical stamina of an obese bulldog. Four or five sword slashes and your stamina bar is GONE, leaving Bruce unable to fight in the middle of the battle. Nightmare fuel in a rogue-like.
Then there are the boss fights which are so unfinished they are reason enough to have abandoned releasing this game. These guys move laughably slow, and their AI occasionally stops working during which they stare vacantly at the player while nothing prevents you hacking away at their life bar. They will set off an attack occasionally, but I could see it coming a mile away, thus removing the last ounce of challenge left in these encounters.
Even the final boss is a total train wreck, but for exactly the opposite reasons. He attacks almost constantly – often with magical spells that can kill Bruce in one hit – and he can inexplicably guard almost every sword strike. The only way to deal any meaningful damage is by using ranged weapons, which gives the finger to all your effort in mastering the melee combat system.
A rogue-like is more than random numbers and permadeth mechanics: It represents a style of gameplay design that allows the player to appreciate a challenge. A rogue-like represents an entire game that has been built around the core of allowing the player to think ahead, to manage their resources, and, above all, improve their skill by playing the game.
For this reason Warlander is a rogue-like in name only; the mechanics of this genre are so unfinished in their implementation that the game never really gains a grasp on the genre. Warlander can offer brief moments of fun swordplay, but this cannot outweigh how many crucial elements are still missing. I don’t really have an excuse for why you should play this.
- Nice environments
- Decent narrative
- Slicing mechanic
- Revolting boss fights
- Very repetitive
- Wooden animations
- Serious lack of polish
- Limited combat
- Poor controller support
PC Specs: Windows 10 64-bit computer using Nvidia GTX 1070, i5 4690K CPU, 16GB RAM