Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s action is ferocious and mesmerizing in the moment. Following in the footsteps of FromSoftware’s parry-heavy Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, its slick and punishingly precise combat stands tall among the greats of the Soulslike genre, including developer Team Ninja’s own Nioh 2.
Perhaps more than any similar game, Wo Long makes you work for that feeling of mastery over its mechanics, as it throws rapid-fire parrying, dodging, magic, special attacks, and a novel take on a stamina meter at you - all within its first level, which promptly rains on the parade by culminating in a bafflingly tricky and poorly explained boss fight that gives a false impression of the challenge to come. It’s an awkward start to what ultimately proves to be a disappointing project for Team Ninja, one that carves out a new identity for itself through its strong combat but eventually falls into the same pitfalls as the Nioh series and the much-memed Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin.
The basic concept of inserting hulking demons and Lovecraftian weirdness into Three Kingdoms-era China certainly makes for wild cutscenes and grotesque designs, but the narrative bolting Wo Long’s several dozen missions together is messily told. You’re an unknown warrior destined for great feats of parrying, who teams up with legendary heroes that you may or may not remember from Dynasty Warriors to fight those abusing a magical elixir, which brings both immortality and often some funky new limbs.
Unfortunately, I soon struggled to keep up with the sheer number of characters being introduced. Most drop by for a mission or two before disappearing for hours, then when they finally deigned to show their face again, I’d already forgotten them and how they relate to the ten other characters I’d met since. You can force them to hang out with you by calling them in as reinforcements, but there’s simply not enough time spent on justifying a cast this bloated or making the narrative more than an excuse to get you from castle to castle and battlefield to battlefield. Perhaps that’s for the best, as characters and plotting have never been the developer’s strong suit, though I’d rather have either less or more emphasis on narrative than this half-baked, borderline incoherent approach.
But it’s a Team Ninja Soulslike; this is all typical, as is the fact that the slicing and dicing feels almost transcendent. At your disposal is a wide range of swords, spears, bows, and my personal favourite: a giant, acorn-like hammer. Most attacks carry a good sense of weight, though it’s arguably defensive play that’s the most enjoyable, as you race to parry and counter lengthy attack chains, all while building up your spirit gauge. Rather than a traditional stamina meter, you can instead accumulate spirit by landing a blow on enemies and parrying their attacks, or you can lose spirit by getting hit. It’s a constant battle of push and pull, as saving up spirit lets you unleash extra-powerful attacks, while losing it all results in you getting staggered and likely beaten to a pulp.
Add in weapon-specific abilities and dozens of magic options and you’ve got yourself a combat system that is just deep enough without dragging in superfluous mechanics. It’s a shame then that the enemies you’ll face off against grow stale so quickly, as the same mobs are used endlessly throughout the game’s roughly 30-hour runtime. This overfamiliarity limits the action’s full potential and creates a difficulty chasm between the pushover grunts and their bosses. Every main mission here ends with a boss fight, and each one feels largely distinct. As is typical in the genre, it’s the humanoid bosses that pose a real threat, while the bus-sized brutes require less memorisation of movesets. Even the gimmick fights are well-conceived, and while the game’s overall difficulty curve is turbulent, I rarely felt less than satisfied after stomping a boss.
Outside of these epic duels, your character’s double jump and mantling abilities allow for a good bit of verticality in levels, which is great for exploration, even if all but a few areas start to blend together into a generic mush. That said, scouring nooks and crannies has never felt more crucial in any other Team Ninja project, as you will almost certainly need to seek out both battle and marker flags. The former act as checkpoints where you can regain health, level up, fast travel, and summon some NPC help. More interestingly, however, both flag types give you a morale level boost, which is a mission-specific buff that makes it easier to take on mobs and bosses. Every enemy you’ll come across has their own morale level, and you’ll often bump into foes with high morale early on in a mission that you can then backtrack to once you’ve boosted your own to even the odds. I can’t tell you how lovely it is to get crushed by an overpowered enemy only to return via a newly opened shortcut 20 minutes later to show them what’s what.
Being a bit nimbler also opens up some stealth options, including backstabs and vertical takedowns. I appreciated how often I was able to stealthily whittle down a group before going loud. Sure, it can turn some fights into a bit of a joke, but isn’t being a sneaky little guy in spirit - whether by cheesing bosses, deliberately overleveling, or literally sneaking your way to success - a core pillar of the Soulslike experience? I do wish that you could toggle a crouch state, as moving at a glacial pace towards an enemy by delicately nudging the analog stick forward never feels natural.
Another ongoing annoyance in every Team Ninja Soulslike is the loot system: there’s simply too much junk to sift through. Stranger of Paradise was perhaps a worse offender in this regard, but it at least let you sidestep the crushing dullness of min-maxing an endless stream of ever-so-slightly-better trousers and hats thanks to an auto-equip button. This option is nowhere to be seen in Wo Long, and that’s not the only quality-of-life regression. I was also irritated by the removal of the zone-connecting map after missions, which is now only accessible from battle flags. After you’ve completed a level, you need to return to a hub area to then travel to another, which means multiple loading screens when you’re hopping between side and main missions. This hub is so devoid of life that its practical functions could be replaced by a few extra menus without losing anything of interest.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is therefore a curious side-step for Team Ninja, as its terrific combat fundamentals and strong boss fights must do some heavy lifting to offset forgettable missions, slim enemy variety, and a messy narrative. These issues tend to melt away in the heat of its blistering action, but once the fight was over, I’d sit and wish the rest of the experience was even close to that level of excellence.