Wayfinder early access preview – Yet to find it’s way

The early access launch of Wayfinder has been somewhat of a tragedy. As an action game, Wayfinder hits some great high notes and finds its own ways to be memorable. As a live-service game, it needs a lot of work. Though the lifeless world and cornucopia of bugs, crashes, and missing features is currently holding this title back, I will be rooting for it in the future, and am eager to return to a (hopefully) thriving game.

Wayfinder is an energetic character-based action game developed by Airship Syndicate, developers of Ruined King, Battle Chasers, and the excellent Darksiders Genesis, and published by Digital Extremes, creators of Warframe. Though not explicitly considered an MMO, Wayfinder is built on many of the fundamentals of one, as it is always online, features hub worlds and player housing, and encourages cooperative play, whether through small three-player parties or matchmade groups. I would consider this game a shared world game, or MMO-lite if you will; the time commitment needed to progress through the game is a fraction of your typical Final Fantasy XIV, but many of the systems are plucked from games like Destiny and the Division. 

The influence of live-service powerhouse Digital Extremes is evident in many different areas of Wayfinder, from the Warframe-like characters on offer to the resource and currency economy. Airship Syndicate’s partnership with Digital Extremes was definitely the right move to get a game like Wayfinder made. Yet, even with the help of such a talented publisher, Wayfinder gets many things wrong.

One of these things is storytelling. Wayfinder is set in the world of Evenor, a sort of steampunk-fantasy realm where magic and technology intertwine (think League of Legends’ Runeterra). The forces of darkness, dubbed “The Gloom”, attacked Evenor in its entirety, plunging the world into a state of chaos. Kingdoms fell, treaties dissolved, and many people lost their lives. Your character, one of three starter Wayfinders, died during the initial attack. Resurrected by The Gloom for reasons unknown, it is up to you to fight the enemies of Skylight, the last surviving bastion of civilization, and discover what, or who, triggered The Gloom cataclysm. 

At this point, I feel as if this story structure is a little played out. Mysterious dark forces carry out an attack on a utopian civilization, humanity is forced to close ranks and live in a final kingdom or city, and a forever-war is frontlined by the playable characters. Though this is not an inherently bad backdrop for a story, Wayfinders never really plays into it, or even the strengths of its own setup. Each of the enemy factions are a bit surface level: The Gloom is a malevolent halestorm of demons, the bandits are your standard dregs, and the goblins are identical to how they appear in Tolkein. Side characters spout an encylopedia’s worth of exposition to the player about how much trouble the world is in and how the original attack came without warning. However, you’re never given too much agency. Wayfinders don’t feel like an elite group of “chosen ones”, but instead simply as the playable faction in a video game.

It also does not help that only the main quest is voice acted – the remainder of the game must be read through text conversations. Though the voice acting is strong, the switch back and forth can be jarring. At one point I got jump-scared when going back to the main quest after a while and one of the NPCs suddenly remembered they had a voice.

On the contrary, one thing I did not expect was just how arresting the look of the game is. Wayfinder goes for a cartoonish, colorful art style reminiscent of games like Darksiders and League of Legends. Since developer Airship Syndicate has worked on spinoff titles for both of these franchises before, it is no surprise that they stylized their game in this way. It is safe to say they are masters at creating vibrant visuals. Everything in Wayfinder is excruciatingly detailed; wooden objects splinter and turn, metal looks fortified and sturdy, and weapons and armor are adorned with runes, jewels, and layers of fabric. The vistas in both the open world and dungeons, which I will discuss next, are jaw-dropping at times. I wanted to keep exploring just to see as much of the art design as possible, getting lost in the particulars of each area. Music and sound design are also quite good, adding fantasy-inspired tracks and sounds that immerse you in the setting.

The main gameplay loop of Wayfinder consists of overworld exploration in the open-world Highlands and dungeon crawling in Lost Zones. While exploring the Highlands, players can expect some side quests, errands, world events, and secrets. The design of the Highlands flows well, going from urban streets to towering stone forts to decrepit mines and scenic valleys. Additionally, the world events are challenging and feature high enemy density, something that cannot be said for the side quests. More often than not, side quests are dull back-and-forth waypoint chases with a little bit of narrative window dressing and some combat sprinkled in. 

Lost Zones, however, are procedurally generated dungeons that consist of some corridor fighting, light puzzle solving, and boss fights. These are the real meat and potatoes of Wayfinder. Lost Zones are visually unique, choc full of enemies and puzzles and rewards to find. Every Lost Zone’s difficulty can be modified from easy to hard, and further altered using Imbuements. Mutators are modifiers used to make the dungeons more engaging. For example, if the Greed Imbuement is activated, the level will contain more gold currency with a few extra challenges. If the Flora Imbuement is used, toxic mushrooms are spread throughout the battlefield, forcing players to move more deliberately to avoid pools of acid. These add an extra layer of challenge to an already diverse mission type, since no two Lost Zones are ever completely the same. I enjoyed the time I spent in these dungeons. Most of them felt unique, with challenging boss battles and adequate puzzles.

As previously mentioned, Wayfinder is a character-action game, like say, Warframe or Anthem. You start out with one of three very different starter Wayfinders, and through grinding or real-world purchases, work towards unlocking every Wayfinder. At the moment, there are only six Wayfinders to choose from. Though this does not sound like a lot, you must remember that this game is in early access and is not yet complete. Since there is a considerable grind to get each Wayfinder, I only tried out my starter character, Niss. Niss is a rogue-type kit, featuring a set of dual Gloom-kissed blades and a variety of “blink” type attacks to start. Weapons can be swapped out for higher rarity/stat gear, but she definitely felt the most natural with the blades. All of the Wayfinders are distinct, offering different strengths for different playstyles. Some are defense-based tanks, others focus on traps and long-range, and others focus on using magic to control the battlefield. No matter your preferred playstyle, you will likely find a Wayfinder that fits.

All of this leads up to arguably the most important part of Wayfinder; the combat. The only real way to interact with the game world is through combat (unless you count useless conversations with t-posing NPCs). Therefore, combat should be enjoyable, right? Thankfully, I can confidently say it is.

Each Wayfinder has a number of abilities that are the main focus of the combat loop. Similar to a game like Outriders and other traditional MMOs, if your abilities aren’t constantly on cooldown, you’re not using them enough. Whether it be a bomb trap, blade flurry, dodge strike, or poison bullets, abilities are the best way to deal damage or change the pace of a fight. All of the abilities, along with your standard heavy and light attacks, work together to create a combat-flow that is ultimately very satisfying. Chaining together move combos to build your damage percentage is a great feeling and seldom loses its luster even after multiple hours doing similar activities.

Enemy types and encounters can feel a bit samey at times, owing to the overall lack of narrative pull and generally bland movesets/abilities they deploy. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun to kick their teeth in, usually while running circles around them thanks to the fast pace of combat. Boss fights are the real highlight, offering a fair amount of challenge and opportunities to take advantage of your full kit.

According to the developers, Wayfinder will eventually become a free-to-play game upon its full release. In order to join the early access, you must purchase a Founder’s Pack, a $20.00 starter kit that gives you access to one of the three starter Wayfinders, some premium currency, and the Reward Tower, or battle pass in layman’s terms. Microtransactions are also on full display here, offering shortcuts to unlock characters among a slew of cosmetics. So all in all, is this $20.00 (minimum) price tag worth it? I would say… not right now. This is mainly due to the most glaring issue Wayfinder suffers from. 

Wayfinder is currently just too buggy and unpolished. Servers are unreliable, forcing queues of up to 10 minutes just to log in. I experienced dozens of crashes during my time with the game, forcing me to relaunch entirely each time. NPCs stand completely still, all of them lifeless caricatures of people text-bubbling the same eight lines over and over again when they’re not t-posing (I think, no, I KNOW half of the city was not tax collectors before the Gloom attack, contrary to what every townsperson tells you). Texture pop-in was bad, and draw distance can get very muddy at times. Loading screens should not take as long as they do on today’s hardware. I experienced many performance drops in the heat of combat as well. I know Airship Syndicate is hard at work patching this game, and I commend them for their dedication, however I don’t think now is the right time to play Wayfinders.

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