with games like Nioh and Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, Team Ninja found itself tackling the soul-like stuff, mixing genre basics with expertly crafted combat mechanics. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty follows the same trend as previous entries from the studio, delivering a challenging action RPG experience with a Team Ninja touch, but this time exploring the basics of combat. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was founded four years ago. The final product is a great combination of the two.
While its inspirations can always be felt, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty still feels unique in the soul-like space. Team Ninja’s dark fantasy take on Han Dynasty China is an exciting blend of high-octane combat with interconnected and simple progression mechanics that, while plentiful, never feel bloated. However, the game stumbles with balancing too many moving parts at once and can feel disconnected from the bigger picture at times. Much like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty may be divisive due to its focus on individual player skill compared to a fully detailed action RPG experience, but that doesn’t stop Wo Long from being another excellent Team Ninja release.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s story begins with a clunky exposition dump before the player gets involved, but the narrative gradually gets better as the game progresses. Wo Long’s story and setting can best be described as “wuxia cinema meets dark medieval fantasy” as surreal heroes and generals confront the demonic forces of evil with an elixir of immortality at the center of the story. Unfortunately, many of these core story concepts are initially quite vague and confusing, and Wo Long often works best when it focuses on the more solid elements of the narrative, such as its heroes, villains and battles.
It is worth noting that many Wo Long’s stories and cutscenes are overflowing with generic-sounding localized voices. While the hero characters sound cartoonishly heroic, the villains are equally cartoonish. The good guys have a generic “good guy” tone and the bad guys have a generic “bad guy” tone, with no real distinctive characters to be found anywhere. While these voices could be seen as an homage to martial arts movies from the mid-20th century, it certainly struggles to break out of that camp level and as a result often fails.
Since FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is one of the few games released in 2019, it’s a Sekiro-like in hack-and-slash games. Sekiro has stripped out many of the core RPG elements of the soul-like genre in favor of split-second reaction times and individual player skill as the driving force of game progression. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty can certainly be considered the first in a budding Sekiro, as it immediately follows the same trend of subgenre-like. Enemies are faster and hit harder, and success requires mastering basic combat mechanics rather than the standard action RPG-based progression to succeed. Players will focus on parrying, staggering and Fatal Strikes in the game. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty instead of traditional health bar damage. And once players master this dance, it’s a rewarding and mesmerizing experience.
The Spirit Gauge system in particular finds its place in Wo Long as players need to weigh the risks and rewards of every action they take and learn how to budget Spirit to maximize their combat effectiveness. Spirit can be used to retreat or evade to cast Wizarding Spells and Martial Arts attacks. On the other hand, Spirit can be accrued by attacking, encouraging offensive playstyles and also increasing the number of actions the player can take before risking a stumble. The Spirit Bar is essentially a magical system of points and stances that creates a natural ebb and flow to the fight, asking players to think wisely about their next move and making the fight always engaging.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty also takes a unique approach to world exploration by linking the traditional checkpoint system to a Morale Rank system that challenges and rewards players willing to fight tougher enemies and explore every corner of the game. Within each mission in Wo Long, each enemy is ranked on a level from 0 to 20, with higher level enemies dealing more damage the higher their Morale Rank. The player starts at 0 and can raise their own Morale by taking risks and fighting enemies stronger than themselves, but may lose this newfound power if they die and return to a Battle Flag checkpoint. After dying, however, players can raise their base Morale Rank by finding Marker Flag and Battle Flag checkpoints in each level. When these systems work together, this cleverly designed per-level progression system naturally forces players to see and fight everything. Wo Long has to deliver to get stronger.
Unfortunately, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty suffers from stagnant enemy design. By the time players finish chapter 3, they will have seen almost all enemy types. Wo Long has to offer. While many of these basic demons are certainly challenging at first, they eventually become a nuisance instead of a challenge. As the player’s skill increases, combat encounters become almost muscle memory, and Wo Uzun is unable to keep things fresh for the more experienced player, leading to the back half of the game becoming less interesting. Over time, players will find themselves primarily looking for the next boss fight to break the monotony of fighting the same demon mage and possessed bully combo.
Fortunately, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty features a rich array of bosses that are sure to test a player’s skills. From Herculean monsters towering over the player to one-on-one duos with some of the Three Kingdoms’ best fighters, Wo Long does a great job of keeping the game interesting behind every boss door. However, the game’s boss battles feel a little unbalanced at times, with the more humanoid bosses often being more fun than the larger fixed-piece bosses with very simple mechanics. It’s more fun to parry and dodge a demonic warrior flying overhead with a spear than it is to step on the feet of a house-sized boss. Additionally, some bosses can take pretty heavy impacts for a visually noisy and confusing fight.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty also includes an ally system that adds another strange layer of balancing to what should be a fine-tuned experience. In almost every level, the player will be accompanied by one or more NPCs who are central to the story but also trivialize the proposed difficulty. Wo Long. Some bosses don’t feel balanced enough to handle a squad of three, and they’re often easy and disappointing fights compared to Team Ninja’s previous boss lineup. On the other hand, there are a few levels where the game doesn’t offer a companion, and then the difficulty goes beyond what players have been used to up to that point, creating a jarring experience. The Ally system eventually starts to feel like a strangely balanced mechanic that alternates between feeling glued on or too important to progress, and struggles to justify its existence.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty may combine Nioh and Sekiro’s gameplay, but it also pulls back many mechanics from Team Ninja’s previous catalog to deliver a more focused, less bloated game than its contemporaries. The RPG mechanics that Team Ninja has built here are pretty simple. Instead of the usual list of skills that includes dexterity, strength, HP, etc., there are only five main attributes that can be upgraded, called the “Five Virtues”, consisting of Earth, Fire, Water, Metal and Wood. As long as players have a basic grasp of how to properly tune a character, they should have no problem reaching the end credits. Leveling up is simple and forgiving, and players can respect it at any time very early in the game.
Loot and gear progression has also decreased significantly since then. Nioh and last year’s Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. Players can find a set of armor they like at the beginning of the game and upgrade it as they progress, using it for most of its runtime. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty already likes to recycle most gear and offers very few unique armor sets or weapons, so there’s never any pressure to find the most optimized loot in the game. Team Ninja makes it clear that the RPG and gear systems are not designed to overshadow the player skill-based progression system, and this creates a more focused overall experience. Wo Long does just enough where it needs to to feel full, but not so much that it sinks the game.
When all of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s systems are going, they expertly work in harmony to make the player want to see more, fight more and challenge themselves. As players push their limits and conquer the game’s mechanics, Wo Long becomes a game that’s hard to put down. It doesn’t completely reinvent the mechanics that Team Ninja has since built. Nioh doesn’t fully elaborate on the concepts. Sekiro inspired it; still, Wo Long takes enough from both to make something immersive.