Team Ninja has made a bit of a name for itself by making the best soulslikes without "From Software" on the box. The successes of Nioh and Nioh 2 give an obvious template for a third game but Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty synthesises what makes those games work with interesting new ideas.
These ideas only sometimes work and parts fail to flow together well but the end result is an impressive, if slightly messy, package. If you're just looking for more from the genre, Team Ninja know what they're doing and has managed to capture a new gameplay system really well.
Unfortunately, its storytelling leaves much to be desired and interlevel progression can rely too heavily on grinding before a boss, as opposed to organic growth. Levels are often small and it doesn't use them as well as I'd like.
A lot of character
Though the opening scenes are tense and filled with death, the thing that really caught my attention initially is the character creator. The ability to create your character says a lot about your role in your narrative but it is also extensive and looks great. The world of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty looks fantastic on PS5, even if I wish the more distinctive colours of Nioh came through a little more often.
This is done partially to allow the parry system to shine. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty relies very little on blocking your opponent. It is quick and frenetic - designed to make you slice through enemies in seconds. In pursuit of this, the dodge button is also your parry button. Pressing it once moves you slightly and twice initiates a full dodge. If you tap it as an attack comes in, you parry your enemy.
Standard parries increase your stamina bar, known as spirits, but parrying an unblockable attack leaves them open for a counteract and depletes their stamina bar. If you manage to fully drain their bar, they are open for one huge attack dealing high damage. Spirit attack, Wo Long's heavy attacks, deal damage to their max spirit bar, meaning they have less room to play with. All of this combines to make combat a constantly moving cycle.
The cycle of life
In 184 CE, the Later Han Dynasty is on the brink of collapse, due to invading forces. Your goal is to form allegiances with great warriors, moving across the land fighting at central points to bush back demons. Characters betray each other and bosses come back.
Unfortunately, many of the game's central set pieces don't quite flow together. Companions weave in and out of the narrative with little reasoning and it often doesn't explain much of the reasoning for your character's decisions. It's a solid enough plot to keep you moving through but isn't good enough to stand on its own.
In this sense, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty's story is more of an aesthetic backdrop to beat up demons and see new sights. It does this decently. Split over seven major parts, you cover quite a lot of distance in the story. This starts off muted but gets more adventurous and demonic as you make your way through
Too much of a good thing
Unfortunately, unblockable hits are choreographed with a bit red mark on the enemy's body and the more vibrant scenes can often lose this. One particular fight has a big red demonic horse and fire attacks, both of which obscure the red of these attacks. This ends with the fight feeling quite frustrating.
Outside of this, bosses are generally well-done and uniquely designed. They move from stoic humanoid figures to monstrosities and manage to play with the expectations that come with them. Some of the humanoid figures are the most dangerous and agile whereas some of the bigger creatures feel much slower.
As it is a Team Ninja game, there is a depth of difficulty to Wo Long but I struggled most at the very start. The first fight is designed to get you ready for the rest of the game so you need to know when to counter. It's very much like Sekiro in this way. It's not just about being tough, it's about playing by the game's rules. This makes character builds feel a little more rigid but the gameplay much smoother.
Wo Long has the best gameplay out of any of the Team Ninja games when it all clicks together. This being said, you can make the game much easier on yourself by levelling up and progressing your morale.
Keeping up morale
At the start of each level, you have 0 morale. This is essentially an interlevel progression system. As you beat enemies, this morale raises. Capturing flags around a map raises the minimum morale you can have until you get a minimum of 15 or 20. The higher the morale, the more damage you do and the less you take.
All of this means that every stage has a system for keeping you at just the right toughness. You have gear and your own level which make things a little easier or a little harder but morale is the most important stat. If you take on a 20 morale boss when you are at 0, it will one-shot you. If you are at the cap of 25 morale, things will be a bit easier.
This means that you almost always have something to work on but also means you can't go straight in and take on the boss after you have been defeated. Every single death knocks you down to the morale cap, where you have to work up again. This means every stage in the game comes with a grind.
In the interim
Fortunately, the soundtrack is impeccable, with a scattered orchestra, percussion and the distinct sound of an Erhu. It also looks and feels great to play. This means I never really found myself too frustrated to grind a little more.
On the other hand, the dub is noticeably bad and worth swapping out immediately. Characters don't feel invested when they speak and never quite their emotional marks. Wo Long's action-packed story is one almost entirely driven by emotion so this lets it down.
When Wo Long tries to adapt the formula, it really works. Unfortunately, one of the more tedious parts of the game comes from Nioh. You get a lot of loot in Wo Long. Having an inventory of 500, I regularly exceeded this and eventually stopped grabbing any loot. There are needless numbers on everything and this never really encouraged me to experiment with my build.
Weapons feel great but are never quite given the air they need to flourish. The same can be said for Wo Long's worst parts. It looks and feels great and some of the story beats can be good but relying on the Three Kingdoms story leaves less wiggle room for the narrative to really grow. An overreliance on loot and grinding can artificially inflate the game way past what feels natural, too. I want more of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, just not in the way it wants to give it to me
A copy of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty was provided by the publisher.