Imitation breeds innovation, right? There’s been a lot of attempts to twist and add some spice to From Software’s recent efforts. Team Ninja’s no stranger to it with Nioh, a series I genuinely enjoy. Their next move is to take the parry-heavy combat of Sekiro and marry it with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms fiction. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty certainly brews a heady mixture but some odd design choices seem to hold it back from being truly great.
The fallen dynasty in question is the Han dynasty of ancient Chinese history. It’s well-trodden territory for Koei Tecmo and you’ll forgive me if it doesn’t move my needle much. The cast of characters will be familiar to anyone who’s dabbled with the Dynasty Warriors series but the main plot revolves around a mysterious Taoist’s quest for immortality. Elixir flows through the land and there are forces out there to steal it.
It’s told fairly poorly. Our antagonist remains cartoony villainous but he lacks the screen time to really feel like an apparent threat. This has happened with Team Ninja’s previous works but they really don’t linger on the right things or create engrossing narratives. Voice acting sounds very hokey and, at times it feels like something played for kids. It’s high on cheese and the delivery just doesn’t resonate with me.
Thankfully, most people will come to this for the combat. When I first saw footage of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, I could not fathom what I was looking at. The traditional cadence of a soulslike is stripped away for a more visceral, frantic fight. At the bottom of the screen you have your two main meters. The green bar indicates health whereas the bar below it indicates your available spirit. Spirit is built up by attacking with your basic strikes and deflecting incoming blows. String enough of those together and you’ll be able to expend that meter for special attacks and magic. Spending too much puts you closer to a stagger state. Spirit is deducted when taking damage or blocking.
Initially, it rewards aggression as a high spirit gauge can give you additional damage. Enemies follow the same rules so keeping the pressure on can diminish the opposition quickly. It’s a nice exercise in resource management but perhaps isn’t as focused as Sekiro. In some ways it’s more forgiving. Deflecting just requires timing without the need to consider where the attack is coming from. This leads to situations where I’ve parried enemies I’ve not been focused on. Handy when the game lands you in group situations.
There is a lot on the table with Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s combat. Critical attacks are deadly manoeuvres an enemy can throw at you. Timing a deflection lands you big damage and can often put the opposition in grave danger. The window on this is wide enough to dial it in but boss fights do depend on you mastering it. The opener in particular is a harsh introduction and learning through failure is something every fan of the genre should be prepared for.
Beyond the parrying, there are more systems to get comfortable with. You can acquire magic spells for each of the game’s five elements. To go with this, enemies will have affinities and you can nullify their element with your own. You don’t have to engage with this to succeed but it can be worth looking at builds and trying gear that can turn the tide of some battles.
Reinforcements are also available, should you wish to battle in a group. You can summon online assistance or pick from a steadily growing cast of historical figures. Many missions have you fight alongside them and it can make some areas feel fairly comfy. They do appear to be a little brittle and dumb but you can help them up when downed.
There’s no real risk with experimenting as you can reallocate skill points for free, once the game’s main hub has been unlocked. You can even save these for later use. Very forgiving, although some of the game’s mechanics aren’t always well explained. Tutorials are handed in text form and come fairly frequently. They can be revisited at any time in the menus but there is simply a lot to Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s gameplay. Finding things out in retrospect has been a chunky part of this review process. I don’t think being this hands-off helps a game with so much to explain. Perhaps a deeper combat tutorial would’ve helped back at the village hub.
When it all comes together, combat is a frenetic moment of chaos that has made me feel pretty smart, lucky or just downright cool. The action is very flashy and you can’t fail to notice a successful parry. Staggered foes are leaped upon with gusto and timing windows feel consistent. It is perhaps a little too simple at times. At least when weapon movesets are concerned. There is a overabundance of gear and weaponry on offer but I struggle to distinguish them from one another. Having most of your attacks being dealt with the same button press does come with some repetition. As does the housekeeping that comes with such a large haul of items.
Another crucial mechanic at play and it comes into stark view with each and every new mission. Fortitude is another number that tries to bind the gameplay together. Each area has you starting at zero and slaying enemies will raise that morale. Dying takes that number back down to nothing unless you raise flags along the route. Doing so raises your morale on a more permanent basis. Battle flags will also act as your checkpoints.
Morale can be lowered temporarily if you are hit with critical attacks but enemy morale can also falter in the same way. It’s another tug of war the game hinges on. Death is also, perhaps less costly than in other games. Whilst you do lose half your experience upon falling, that will stay with the enemy that beat you. Take revenge and it’s back in your pocket. That’s an interesting system and it does encourage you to engage with tougher foes. It’s also worth noting that experience has been easy enough to come by.
Level and enemy design has been very reminiscent of Team Ninja’s previous titles. As such, it doesn’t feel especially fresh but at least they have remained varied, despite the historical setting. The supernatural tale does allow for moments of strangeness although there’s a relatively small batch of enemy types to battle. Encounters can start to feel stale at the half-way mark. Boss design is also in a strange position. The first boss is not the only roadblock that feels somewhat oddly placed. As such, there’s some real high peaks and low valleys to the game’s challenge. There’s levels remain intricate and the search for flags encourages exploration.
Overall, I find Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty to be a polished product that makes some odd missteps with navigation and the value of loot. There are some interesting systems at play that do ask the player some key questions. The focus on elemental virtues and the importance of fortitude move things in an intriguing direction. Unfortunately, the wild difficulty swings and smothering gear drops provides some frustration.
+ A surprising amount of flexibility in how you build your character.
+ Intricately designed levels.
+ Plenty of content.
- Has a very uneven difficulty curve.
- The majority of the loot feels superfluous.
- Does not explain its systems in the most approachable way.