Don’t forget to block!
Man, it’s great to see Team Ninja back again.
The pair of Nioh games is probably enough for them to be tapped into the collective action player’s hivemind, but they’ve followed those up with Stranger of Paradise (which has a great mechanical foundation, amid some insane story choices) and now, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. Let’s dig into what makes the latter feel like a spiritual successor to the Nioh series while maintaining its own identity.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty (PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox Series X)
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Released: March 3, 2023
Wo Long is an Onimusha-like story (subbing out Oda Nobunaga for someone else) set in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. There’s demons, there’s historical figures, and there’s chaos. I was immediately sold on the setting because of how unique it is, even with decades of Dynasty Warriors/Musou to indirectly compare it to. The narrative structure, which is engaging but restrained, is woven through a linear mission structure (with side missions). So a lot like Nioh. No it’s not an open world romp, but not every game needs to use the open world formula. We’ll talk about how that pays off soon, but first, the action!
I haven’t spent this much time acclimating to an action game in…I don’t how how long, and it’s pretty exhilarating.
Wo Long has so many systems to learn (parrying, dodging, blocking, magic, abilities, character builds) that it can be overwhelming, and the first boss is probably going to stomp a lot of people. It’s not even as accessible as say, Nioh was. But it’s also extremely rewarding once you pick even one of the above concepts up, and allows for a bit more of an open-ended approach than a lot of similar games.
I was blown away at how much attention I actually paid to some of the game’s tutorial segments, many of which explain the spirit system — a crucial through line mechanic that governs how the action bedrock works. Most actions (like blocking, dodging, or casting a spell) will draw from your spirit gauge, and doing too much (running over the meter) will fatigue your character shortly. To gain meter you’ll need to strike with light attacks, which thankfully also do damage. In other words, the designers don’t want you to turtle (play defensively) too much without dishing out and going on the offensive.
The push and pull of it all is hard to get used to at first. One fascinating facet of Wo Long is that it puts so much emphasis on making parrying seem appealing upfront, but it’s not the only path to victory. A well-timed parry will stop an attack, gain some spirit, and open up most enemies for a big punishment window (and in some cases, even straight up weaken bosses). If you can get to the point where you’re parrying a rapid flurry of attacks then striking back, it’s even more empowering. But it’s far from the only way to go on the defensive.
Not only do you have a pretty effective dodge roll, but your block ability is extremely useful. Blocking can keep enemies at bay beyond red-flashing critical attacks (which need to be dodged, parried, or stopped through staggering), and as long as you have the spirit gauge for it, you can keep your dukes up. You will need to get some hits in to keep that engine running, but learning the windows in which you can do that is intuitive, and can even require a change in tact for each boss. That extends to all of the martial arts abilities and spells you can acquire, as well as the build choice you go for (whether it’s putting points into health to avoid getting taken out quickly, or having confidence in your ability to block/parry, placing points into a bigger spirit gauge).
Boss design is classic Team Ninja, who generally does a fantastic job of balancing smaller scale humanoid fights with gigantic beasts (some of those humanoid big bads even turn into beasts!). The former bouts feel distinct too, as you’ll use completely different tactics against smaller targets than you would when fighting larger enemies with more armor and poise. Wo Long even has that gut punch of “oh hey I beat this boss and have no health potions left, that was close…wait that was just literally half the fight, the next phase is harder and there’s no checkpoint.” That’s not every encounter, and it can get frustrating, but that system is in place all the same.
Then you have the morale mechanic, which is like a meta-system that governs strength, and provides strength to enemies who slay you in battle (in lieu of say, dropping a pile of experience points on the ground). It’s not something that you need to truly stress about all the time, but being proactive and not taking on every enemy can help make some levels a little more manageable.
Another standout strength of Wo Long is how it treats exploration. So you could run straight for the boss in many cases, ignoring a crucial upgrade that allows you to up your health potion maximum, or a brand new type of weapon found in a chest at the end of a lengthy path filled with elites. But you’d be at a disadvantage without those items, but if you can hack it with parrying/blocking, you can punch far above your weight.
Most people will benefit from that “coaxing out” of exploration, which is a deliberate design choice. You’ll plant more banners for more checkpoints and accrue a greater morale rating if you go off the beaten path. Mind, all of this is done without making levels pointlessly huge, to the point where adventuring becomes a chore. It’s a fantastic give and take — gallivanting through that bespoke level design — that I enjoyed experiencing throughout Wo Long‘s runtime.
The above recount is merely breezy recollection of my initial interaction with Wo Long over the course of about 10 hours, and not everyone is going to have the same reaction. But there are a lot of avenues to success, whether it’s clicking with certain builds that you gel with, co-op (we mainly experienced the baked-in NPC co-op system, but there will be online co-op at launch), or sheer grit.
I want to stress that Wo Long is not going to be for everyone. It can be extremely punishing, especially if you’re butting heads with the parry system. But the setting, the aesthetics, and action sensibilities from a learned team made it all worth it to push through and get over that hump. I hope Koei Tecmo has another one of these up their sleeve.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]