Have you ever wanted to know what a game would be like – specifically an MMO – if you took away the combat, the RPG elements, and the objectives? Try to imagine an online game which places the focus squarely on exploring the world, and discovering the mysteries that it holds. Picture an adventure which does away with text and voice chat, and instead gives you a brand new, universal language that you must discover and learn. This is the game that Wander tries desperately to be, but sadly falls short on almost every count.
It is a release that really does have some great ideas – it should work. A game wherein there is no death, only peace and the encouragement to explore and discover, sounds like the kind of experience that some players would chomp at the bit for. Sometimes, instead of being shot to ribbons or being otherwise assaulted with nary a warning, it would be rather nice to simply exist in a game's universe, soak up the details, and just, well, relax for a while.
Wander does provide this sense of security, and it offers a world that you can absolutely meander through without worrying one iota about when the next health pack will present itself, or from which corner will spring Enemy Type #6. The problem, however, is that this world is nigh on empty.
You start the game as an Oren, a sentient, walking tree, and you have a case of amnesia. You are encouraged to move forward and explore the forest to learn more about the world and its intricacies. The game soon branches outward, very quickly giving you freedom to roam the land as you see fit. There are three other species to discover: the Hira (a human-like race with fins on their arms), the Griffins (large, bird-lion hybrids), and the Azertash (lizard-like amphibians). You are given no hints as to where to find the points at which you can transform into these alternative avatars, but that ties in with the idea of finding everything for yourself.
What Wander does give you is an audio cue that you're approaching a point of interest – a mysterious siren song that grows louder as you creep closer to something important. This is part of the game's design that we really like – the minimalist user interface. During play there is no HUD whatsoever, and when button prompts do occur they are clear and unobtrusive, keeping you in the game's universe at all times.
The game's soundtrack is also basic. As you trek through the forest, you will hear nothing but the ambient sounds of chirping insects, singing birds, and rustling leaves. It's the same elsewhere – on the beaches you will hear nothing but the lapping waves of the sea. The only time that you'll hear music is during the start up menu and the rather long initial loading screen. It serves the game well, cementing it as one of the most peaceful releases that we've played in a long time.
Peace is perpetual – you can do no harm to anyone or anything. Wander's language, Rozhda, is the perfect example – it's the only way of communicating with other players, and there is no way of griefing or misbehaving. As you make your way across the various islands and through the waters, you will find stones embossed with dozens of different symbols. Each one means a new word or phrase in the game's language. To speak these words, you draw the appropriate symbol on the DualShock 4's touch pad, and then tap it with two fingers. This sounds like a simple solution, and should be clean and efficient. Unfortunately, it's incredibly fiddly. The symbols must be drawn exactly how the example appears on screen, otherwise it won't register and your character will merely clear her throat. "Hello/goodbye" is a circle, yet it's almost impossible to get right, so when you do find another player, it's pretty hard to break the ice. In fact, there hasn't been one player that we've encountered during our play time that has attempted a single word in Rozhda. At this point, it's simply too pernickety to work as intended.
The speech system is, sadly, not the game's only problem. Wander suffers from myriad technical issues, and, frankly, looks like it could do with a few more months in the oven. Shadows, vegetation, and objects appear and disappear all around you with almost every step that you take, which is distracting to say the least. There are several examples of clear lines through the scenery where one texture stops and another one starts. On one beach, for example, we found a literal line in the sand where it switched from one colour to another. The game can look fantastic when you're standing still (it is, after all, running in CryEngine), and it is vibrant and colourful, but aside from that it isn't much to look at.
Animations, actions, and even the menus all seem undercooked, too. As all four species, running and jumping feels stilted, movement speed is woefully slow (especially as the Oren), and flying as the Griffin is clunky and unwieldy. The menus use a font that looks like it was meant to be replaced later, and the options that are there are barebones. Curiously, there is an option in the pause menu that asks, "Can't move?", which speaks volumes about the quality of the game. If you get stuck somewhere, or you glitch through a rock or a wall and you can't escape, the developer has you covered and will set you back to a previous position. It's nice to know that you have a get out of jail free card at the ready in case you need it, but surely there is a more elegant solution.
If the game's world had enough in it to keep you engaged, though, then maybe all of this could've been forgiven, but Wander's islands simply do not. There are landmarks and varied locales on offer, but when you get to them, there isn't anything to do other than try to talk to other players or move on to somewhere else, hoping to hear that singing voice once more to tell you that you're about to find something interesting. What you will find amounts to the Rozhda symbols and lore stones, which upon prompting, will give you a slice of information about the world from the perspective of one of the species. It brings the setting a bit of much needed life, and it's nice to hear of the culture of the land, but ultimately it adds little to the experience.
We really wanted Wander to be brilliant, but unfortunately, it comes across as half-baked, lacking in things to do, and underwhelming in almost every area. The developer, Wander MMO, had some grand ideas for this title – but for the most part, it's been poorly executed. There is potential here for a compelling experience – perhaps after some significant patching – but for now, it doesn't quite reach the developer's lofty, risky goals.