By Marisa Alexander / March 8th, 2023
|Title||Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty|
|Developer||Team Ninja, Koei Tecmo|
|Release Date||March 3, 2023|
|Platform||PS4, PS5, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S|
|Age Rating||Rated M for Mature|
It really has been three years since Nioh 2‘s release, hasn’t it? Time seems to fly when suddenly Team Ninja’s next escapade just released in the form of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. This time, rather than building on the foundation they set with their previous dark fantasy titles, we are back to a fresh start. Cutting down on some of the random loot elements as well as iconic stance system, Wo Long aims to mimic that acrobatic and skillful feel of Chinese martial arts. Coupled with magic, the player will deflect enemy attacks in order to survive against both warriors and demons.
The story follows the main protagonist, an unknown militia soldier during the Yellow Turban Rebellion. After suffering a grievous wound, they are mended back to health by a blindfolded boy they just rescued. From there, they cut down bandits and demons before defeating Zhang Lang, one of the leaders behind the rebellion. However, before they can escape from the battlefield, the blindfolded boy’s divine beast is stolen by the Taoist in Black, seemingly killing both him and knocking the protagonist into the river. After regaining consciousness, the protagonist goes on ahead, meeting many of the officers of the era and teaming up with them to destroy the Taoist in Black’s machinations.
From here, the game plays around the events that both historically happened and were added in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, such as detailing how Zhang Jiao’s wizardry stems from the misuse of elixir and qi and the events behind the imperial seal being found by Sun Jian. In turn, even if you are familiar with both the novel and history, there are some great takes for the purposes of the story. Just like Nioh, Team Ninja tries to paint most historical figures in a more positive light with a couple exceptions, like with Dong Zhuo. After all, the overall idea is how most of the officers want to rebuild peace so the people can be safe and sound. I still share similar sentiments with the silent protagonist in this title like in Nioh 2’s though, where I wish they had more emotional engagement.
As for the actual gameplay, this is where Team Ninja made numerous changes. The version of stamina here is spirit, where you don’t lose any by throwing out normal attacks. Instead, you start at neutral spirit, usually gaining positive spirit by connecting normal attacks and deflecting successfully. Deflecting is like an initial dodge, though attacks connecting with your invulnerability frames neutralize them entirely. Hitting the deflect action swiftly again will cause you to initiate a proper dodge, used to create distance from the enemy. You can even deflect via a dedicated weapon switch that can neutralize attacks, though, in my experience, the window for this is much smaller.
In contrast to gaining spirit, you lose spirit by using martial arts, wizardry spells, or deflecting without neutralizing an attack. These can bring your spirit into the negative, where once the negative spirit side of the bar is full, the next attack you block or get hit by will put you in a winded state. These same rules apply to opponents, where if they are winded you can do a fatal strike for massive damage. If you have positive spirit, you can use all of it in a spirit attack, akin to a strong attack in Nioh, where it gains hyper armor, inflicts a large amount of max spirit damage on enemies, and even becomes unblockable. Using spirit this way also applies to fatal strikes, causing them to do even more damage. Even if you don’t have any positive spirit, martial arts are unblockable for enemies.
In order to encourage the usage of deflect, all opponents have access to critical strikes that are unblockable but if deflected, you cause a large amount of spirit damage, both immediate and max, as well as gain a moderate amount of spirit. If you apply an element enough, you also stagger and inflict spirit damage as well. While you do a decent amount of damage via normal and spirit attacks, the depletion of enemy spirit is the primary way to cause damage in the game, due to how much punishment fatal strikes do. In turn, combat turns into a game about managing spirit, both for the player and the enemies.
For other changes to the formula, the player can now jump in order to scale the environment. There is a surprising amount of exploration to be had in the levels, thanks to the increased amount of verticality. Due to the ability to also perform fatal strikes on enemies that have not detected the player either from behind or above, you can tackle situations as you see fit. Funnily enough, the double jump’s kick has a non-damaging hitbox, increasing the utility of the jump even further. Stretched across the level, there are spots to place major and minor battle flags in order to mark your progress.
In addition, placing battle flags and defeating enemies raises your morale up to 25. Overall, this applies when your morale and an enemy’s morale has a significant difference between the two. The higher the difference, the more statistics like damage and spirit damage are impacted. Typically, this is used to soft-gate pathways or bonus loot. If you explore most of the level, you will actually have significantly higher morale than most enemies. Even bosses have their morale capped at 20.
As for what there is to find in these levels, it really is only the battle flags, side quests that relate to the hermits of Tianzhu, and a placid panda-like demon that you drop equipment at to get an accessory. Otherwise, you are mainly finding equipment and consumables, as well as defeating enemies to gain genuine qi, which is effectively experience. Considering the actual level design, it would be nice if there was slightly more to find; however, it’s also inoffensive as to not be an issue. It helps that the weight on the influence of item rarity has been decreased. Equipment base stats are no longer influenced by rarity, only the amount of special properties they hold.
Character progression also received some changes. Truncated down to five primary stats, you have wood, fire, metal, earth, and water, the five aspects of Taoism. Each stat has particular secondary stats it affects, such as fire decreasing the amount of spirit martial arts use. Investing into stats also unlocks more of their respective wizardry spells. These spells provide buffs, area of effect, and more. Wizardry also has a negation side system where one element beats another, thereby neutralizing their effects. This isn’t something to plan around but is an extra layer to the game. There are also the divine beasts, gained at certain points in the story. These are similar to guardian spirits in Nioh, providing passive bonuses. Once their gauge is full, you can unleash your divine beast to rapidly apply an element and do significant damage, along with a lingering form of their element. Alternatively, you can also unleash your beast to provide a passive buff for you and your allies that cannot be neutralized, as well as imbue your weapon with their element.
So, I mentioned martial arts. How does one even get them? Well, they aren’t tied to stats. They aren’t even tied to a skill tree, which has been done away with barring the basic tree for wizardry spells. No, they are tied to weapon drops — as in they are random in what you get. Many specific weapons do get their unique martial art, particularly those that belong to the sets of other characters. Barring that, you don’t get a choice in what you get. Thanks to the fact that you get, at most, two of them at a time based on item rarity, this means the player’s moveset is lacking, to say the least. One chain of attacks, two spirit attacks for doing a spirit attack by itself or cancelling a normal into a spirit attack, four wizardry spells at most, and two martial arts. This isn’t a lot to work around with, so barring spells, character progression begins to stagnate significantly after a certain point.
This isn’t like Nioh’s extensive amount of moves per weapon type, all of which is tied into three stances or even stowed away. Sure, you can still equip two melee weapons, but that only means you have an extra attack set and two other martial arts. It doesn’t help that weapon types can pull from the same pool of martial arts, like with the polearms, dual weapons, and single swords. Combined with the inability to cancel martial arts or wizardry spells regularly at any point in the animation, this can make any attack with a long duration unappealing, limiting the desirable pool even more. Having played a vast majority of the game already, this is the biggest part that sticks out to me. In Nioh 2 and even Final Fantasy Origin: Strangers of Paradise, you are able to use commonly accessed resources in order to cancel all of your attacks and chain them further. This made moves with longer durations more appealing to use, as you can minimize the risk behind using them, especially if you space well. In general, it also allowed you to have a more defined kit.
While Wo Long does have martial arts that have utility like an attack that then sends you flying back to create distance, the fact you are only allowed to have so few limits the skill ceiling. The skill ceiling’s limit is also apparent since there is not a single attack in the game you can’t deflect. You can deflect everything, even though you can’t block everything. As such, the mental stack becomes surprisingly minimal, basically only looking out for critical strikes or attacks that might break your guard due to spirit loss. It isn’t like Sekiro where there are some attacks you cannot deflect, instead having to either avoid or stomp the opponent’s weapon to destabilize them further. It’s why in my experience I haven’t used the jump’s ability to avoid attacks or affect enemies since there really is no reason to. The award for deflecting is gaining spirit and a slight amount of spirit damage to the enemy. As such, I’m practically only encouraged to use that exclusively for defensive purposes barring combining it with blocking for option selecting.
In retrospect, I wonder if this is a compromise to make PvP manageable. Invasions are implemented, most likely thanks to one of the producers being from Bloodborne. Nioh 1 had PvP after an update, but due to the combat system not being designed around it initially, there was genuine insanity when it came down to it. You can even turn off invasions, just like Bloodborne. I do believe this is an aspect best done away with, as Team Ninja’s action RPGs are at their best when the skill ceiling is fairly high. It doesn’t help that humans and demons operate under the same spirit mechanics, unlike Nioh where yokai ki was actually different from normal. In Nioh 2 specifically, once a yokai’s ki was depleted, they were staggerable from all attacks, only going down once their full ki gauge was reduced to nothing via yokai skills in order to be grappled. This was coupled with the confusion status that prevented a yokai from recovering their ki at all while in effect. Due to the lack of both such things, you are forced to go back to neutral after a fatal strike to just repeat the process again.
It’s telling since in Nioh, even though there were unblockables there as well, there was more to look out for. Due to the fact that a dodge couldn’t neutralize an attack entirely, you were encouraged to position yourself to just get out of the way of very active attacks. This in turn made you care enough about spacing and positioning in order to really optimize your gameplay. Coupled with yokai skills in Nioh 2 that made you invulnerable to grabs during the animation, you had a decent response pool for defensive purposes. Here, while defense is stronger, it is monopolized by one action. It got to the point where once I unlocked more side missions that had you fight the other officers, I started to just deflect their critical strikes towards victory, especially when it involved two on one or even three on one fights. It doesn’t help that I really only died in boss fights due to critical strikes, since many of them have strong tracking, large area of effect, or even both. As such, unless your dodge afterwards saves you, it becomes deflect or take a large amount of damage.
To be fair, it does remind me of Nioh 1 in a number of ways; inability to use a resource to cancel anything beyond normal attacks, basically only two defensive options in the form of dodging and block, which was often combined anyway, and longer duration attacks being harder to use were all flaws in the original game. I wouldn’t be surprised they adjusted a lot of the issues in another game styled like Wo Long. If anything, the best of both worlds seems easily achievable thanks to having the blueprints already available. While it is possible to cancel normal attacks into martial arts or Wizardry spells as well, I would like if there was some way to cancel martial arts or spells at any point of the animation using a resource.
For other aspects of the game, the character creator was fine tuned even more. It essentially keeps everything from Nioh 2 but it hosts more options to subtly tweak things. UI is also relatively good; everything was placed well and large enough to easily recognize on a peripheral glance. The gauge for divine beasts can be easy to forget but once full, it glows exceptionally bright so you know it is available regardless. My only issue with the UI is that, unlike previous games, consumable items are displayed one at a time. As such, instead of having four mapped to four buttons like a D-pad, you have to switch between them one by one. That said, it was nice to have two separate slots for throwing weapons in addition to your two ranged weapons, where the extra utility is appreciated.
Graphically speaking, it is a bit better than previous games in Team Ninja’s action RPG line up. Character and demon models look even sharper, where even props seemed to have been touched up. Animations, from the looks of it, seem to be rigged better, with less snapping into place, despite different body sizes. Some specific animations I prefer in earlier titles, like the running animation, but that comes down to taste. Overall, it is nice to see the studio’s animation department is still in top form.
What did get a significant glow up was the game audio. Sound effects are even cleaner than ever before, with a distinct punch at that. Deflect is rewarding by the sound alone, you can hear the impact upon a blocked attack, and demon groans and roars exude the menace they should exhibit. The soundtrack was also quite enjoyable, reaching many of the same heights in previous titles. They have moved away from the more subdued tracks used for outside of combat for more distinct area themes. I prefer these personally, but Nioh 1 and 2‘s ambient music was something that should be recognized as well. Music used for combat is as great as ever, however, really putting into place the scale of battle that takes place. In terms of voice-acting, they have included three languages: Japanese, English, and Chinese. The option for Chinese was actually very nice, due to the setting.
However, on PC the engine runs somewhat chunky. I am not sure why but it seems to only default to low spec settings after launching the game despite my machine being able to handle it. At high settings, there were instances of shadows flickering in and out and even the program shutting down. Even at low settings, a small amount of subtle shadow flickering happened and has closed while loading between stages. It’s odd to me since both PC releases for Nioh 1 and 2 were perfectly fine, even if they came out later. Apparently, mouse control is also broken on PC, though I do believe this game is played best on a gamepad regardless. The console release will most likely be best until further notice.
Otherwise, the game runs very well. In my experience, there was only one oddity that happened after vaulting over a ledge, where my character got stuck behind a shelf. Even then, it was easy to get out. There weren’t even any quirks in regards to the system itself. From the looks of it, every aspect of the game essentially operates as intended, barring the PC specific issues. Considering the tendency for games to have a fair share of noticeable bugs and glitches, this is quite an achievement. It definitely helps the game had testing from both the studio and public thanks to the pre-release demos meant to refine the game.
Overall, I am in a very strange spot with Wo Long. I wouldn’t be surprised that most of my comments about the game are not something to be concerned about for a vast majority of players. After all, the skill floor has been raised, even if the skill ceiling has been lowered. In turn, you would have had to play Nioh 2 at a sufficient enough level to even notice some subtle differences. This is the main thing that would cause my viewpoint to differ from most, since I loved the nuance with the stance and ki game systems. As such, I personally felt underwhelmed in a game that wasn’t, strangely enough, disappointing.
As such, I will put it like this. If you are looking for a game for that feeling of martial arts and feeling untouchable once you get deflection down, this is the game for you. Even if you like to have games with nuanced use of game mechanics and deep character building, the combat feel of Wo Long is still something it does exceptionally well. If nothing else, this is a good way to branch out into the older titles, despite it having a higher floor to overcome. At full price or not, it is hard to not at least respect what the developers offered.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Action RPGKoei TecmoPCPlaystationTeam NinjaWo LongXbox