A nice diverse range of music for each level, and well-crafted sound design allows you to deflect attacks, even if you can’t see them.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty looks nice enough, with a good variety of environments to explore, but it won’t blow you away.
The moment-to-moment combat and exploration of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is well executed, with cleverly designed levels, and an impressively unique approach to checkpoints.
Wo Long offers a wide variety of combat options, but it’s not well explained and can feel overwhelming. The story isn’t very well presented either, making each level feel disparate and lacking in cohesion.
A perfectly serviceable list, with a nice mix of story moments, collectibles, and optional objectives dotted around.
March 02, 2023
I don’t know a huge amount about the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, but until now I was fairly certain there weren’t giant goat demons running amok in the mountains of Provincial China. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, the latest game from action specialists Team Ninja, dares to disagree, and paints an image of a war-torn China rife with undead soldiers, demonic creatures, and an elixir that grants eternal life.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty comes from the team that made Nioh and Nioh 2, two PlayStation-exclusive action-RPGs that pulled heavy inspiration from FromSoftware’s Dark Souls games. Wo Long isn’t a continuation of the Nioh series, but it brings along plenty of similar gameplay mechanics. It seems, however, that the developers at Team Ninja have been playing a little bit of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice since the release of Nioh 2, and it's nearly impossible to ignore the long shadow that FromSoftware casts over this new romp through the battlefields of second century China.
Combat in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty revolves around a new element called the Spirit Gauge, a pseudo stamina bar. Attacking enemies using basic moves and successfully deflecting enemy attacks, nudges your bar to the right, allowing you to pull off more powerful Spirit Attacks. By contrast, blocking enemy attacks or using special abilities, such as Wizardry Spells and Martial Arts, pushes the bar to the left. If your Spirit Gauge depletes entirely, moving all the way to the left, you’ll become dazed and open to attacks.
Luckily, each foe you encounter on the battlefield also has their own Spirit Gauge, and smartly linking together regular attacks and Spirit Attacks can whittle them into the red, opening them up for powerful Fatal Strikes, which deal massive damage. It’s finding the balance between offence and defence, carefully monitoring both your own bar and your enemies’, that lends Wo Long’s combat its own unique flavour.
If there is a comparison to be made, it’s once again to Sekiro and its posture bar. But where that was incredibly simple in its execution, Wo Long offers up a far more complicated affair. On top of your Spirit Gauge, you’ve also got to keep an eye on your morale. In each of the game’s distinct levels, you start off with zero morale, but can build it all the way up to 20 and beyond by defeating enemies. Your foes have their very own morale rankings as well, and enemies with much higher morale than you will deal greater damage, and vice versa. Combined with the Spirit Gauge, five elemental upgrade paths, spells to learn, and item upgrades, it can make Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty seem a little overwhelming at times.
In practice, however, you only need to have a passing understanding of these systems to hold your own, and if you’re well acquainted with the Dark Souls and Bloodbornes of this world, then things will feel immediately familiar. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is broken up into several individual levels, which are completely disconnected from one other. Each is a battle towards a final boss, and rather than lighting bonfires to mark your progress, you raise your own customisable battle flag. This not only functions as a checkpoint for when you die, but it also permanently increases your morale rank in that level. There are also secret marker flags to find in the corners of each level, increasing your morale even further, which makes enemies (and the final boss) easier to fight and defeat.
It’s a deft way to encourage players to explore every inch of each level, which is especially important, as the levels themselves are surprisingly small. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re first playing them, hunting for items, chests, marker flags, and the like. However, by the time you reach the last battle flag, with the level’s boss ahead of you, you’d be surprised just how easy it is to run back through the level to the beginning - it can take just a minute or two. Levels weave around themselves like a spider's web, with clever shortcuts taking you back to older checkpoints, and exploring them to their fullest is hugely important to keep you competitive. Without the upgrade materials and marker flags spread throughout a stage, enemies and bosses become significantly harder. Particularly skilled players might be able to ignore these extra details, but these additional elements help encourage exploration, and allow you to better appreciate the intricate level design in the process.
With combat proving to be fluid and fun, if challenging, it’s in the areas between levels where the game’s shortcomings are most obvious. Perhaps amateur historians interested in this period of Chinese history will find something to enjoy about the story, which is presented through cutscenes and character dialogue, but if not, it’s incredibly difficult to actually keep up with the characters and plot. Not because it’s convoluted (even though it might be), but because it’s just a bit dull. There are loads of buff commanders and generals in detailed armour, harping on about demons, armies, and enemies, but you’re so often whisked away from one battlefield to another, that there’s not enough to bind them together in a satisfying way. In one level, you’ll be down a well fighting poisonous zombies, and the next, you’re storming castle walls, and it’s never quite clear what’s led you there.
The game’s difficulty, too, can be grating. This is a genre well known for its high level of challenge, of course, but the problem with Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty isn’t that it’s too difficult. It’s that it’s too inconsistent. Some stages or bosses can be breezed through in minutes, with players barely having to engage with most of the (many) mechanics; just hitting things with a sword until they die, and carrying on. This is, in part, due to the fact that you’re nearly always accompanied by an NPC summon, which takes the edge off in combat. But there are some massive difficulty spikes along the way, especially in a few of the boss fights, and they prove all the more frustrating because Wo Long, for the most part, isn’t as challenging as games like Nioh or Sekiro.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is an exceptionally competent action-RPG that’s enjoyable in the moment-to-moment. It combines gameplay elements from Team Ninja’s previous games with a Three Kingdoms setting, and there’s even a touch of Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series in the mix, as you push forward through battlefields, planting flags and raising the morale of you and your allies. But it can be inconsistent in its execution, and with levels separated by menus and often baffling exposition cutscenes, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty doesn’t stay as long in the memory as the games it pulls inspiration from.