Review: Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

2 Mar 2023

Since the release of 2017’s Nioh, developer Team Ninja has been having something of an action RPG renaissance. While the impetus of Nioh’s continued development was the success of From Software’s Souls series, the game managed to not only carve out its own unique space in the genre, but carve it with beta tests and feedback that turned into actioned improvements in the full release.

It’s a trend that’s persisted through Nioh’s sequel (which we enjoyed quite a bit here at Gamer Escape), Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, and now Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, which takes Team Ninja’s action RPG stylings to the Three Kingdoms period and draws heavily from Chinese mythology and martial arts. It’s set to release on March 3rd, 2023 from publisher Koei Tecmo for PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S, with the PS5 version being played for the purposes of this review.

And just like Nioh 2 before it, Wo Long is excellent.

Kingdoms and Qi

Once you finish toying around with the surprisingly in-depth character creator, you assume control of a mute soldier on the frontlines of the war between the Three Kingdoms in the Later Han Dynasty. At the root of the conflicts in this fantasy take on the time period is the quest for Elixir, a mysterious substance everyone wants to get their hands on for its magical properties.

There is a bit more to this basic premise—the game spends a decent chunk of its short cutscenes focusing on individual characters and their histories—but Wo Long doesn’t provide much of a through line or arc for them, nor does it try to contextualize the events that affect them beyond telling you, “Hey, this thing happened, and now another thing is happening over here!” to get you to the next stage.

It’s interesting to see fantastical interpretations of historical figures and events, and the most prominent individuals of the era very much get their due, but that’s more of a novelty the story provides than anything else; Wo Long’s narrative feels more like an adaptation of events in an outline than a fully fledged story.

And yet despite this, it does feature some notable improvements from its spiritual predecessors with the inclusion of a hub area. Rather than booting you to a menu after each mission, your character can instead return to a large village filled with useful NPCs and the various people you’ve come across over the course of your adventure. Returning to the village and seeing the population steadily grow adds far more emotional impact to the proceedings than interacting with a menu would, minor though it is.

Once More, With Spirit

A playthrough of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is laid out more or less as you’d expect. The game is comprised of a linear set of lengthy stages based on conflicts of the period, each of which end in a challenging boss fight. There are a few side missions thrown into the mix, but they’re typically short affairs that reuse the main levels.

One of the things most readily apparent when beginning Wo Long is the high degree of verticality and openness in the level design, particularly when compared to Team Ninja’s other action RPG works. The inclusion of a double jump and branching pathways in so many sections of the areas really lends itself to a feeling of freedom to tackle a level as you see fit. It also ensures that the levels loop around and reconnect in ways that are more unexpected than if the verticality were lesser, and this design extends through the whole experience.

At the heart of combat itself is the Spirit Gauge, a meter with a clearly demarcated left and right side that’s constantly on display at the bottom of the screen and beneath enemy health bars. As you successfully attack, parry, and generally play well, a blue meter will rise to the right portion of your spirit gauge. You can then consume this blue meter to execute more powerful versions of your melee attacks that effectively sap the gauge of your enemies. Conversely, if you take damage or try to spam magic attacks, a red bar will fill in the left portion of the gauge. Take damage when it’s full, and your character will be staggered and primed to be skewered by everything in the immediate vicinity.

This is all to say that the Spirit Gauge has a hand in almost every gameplay mechanic in Wo Long. It’s your primary resource, an indicator of your current performance, and an objective to work toward all rolled into one. Its deceptively simple design, when combined with the blazingly fast pace of combat as a whole, creates a fantastic sense of forward momentum that pushes you through each level. It provides a constant game of trying to raise your own Spirit Gauge while depleting the enemy’s in order to unleash a powerful attack to take them down—something much easier said than done, given the challenging move sets some enemies have and the necessity of parrying them in Wo Long.

Parrying is very much the primary method of defense, and fans of deflection won’t be disappointed. The fluidity of the animations and the wide variety of attacks at an enemy’s disposal causes some regular foes to feel just as satisfying to take down as the bosses, which feels like a rare feat in a game of this ilk. I never got tired of sprinting down a high path, descending on an enemy like Batman for an instant kill, and then negating the attacks of nearby foes that aggroed onto me as a result with parries. It was equally fun to look at the meter and realize I should be backing off a bit and play the rest of the encounter more carefully. When I died, rather than being disappointed by my lack of progress, I was excited to jump back in and get better at dealing with a particular enemy’s attack patterns.

This mechanical emphasis on parrying and the Spirit Gauge does mean there’s decidedly less focus on itemization and build variety compared to Team Ninja’s preceding titles, but there’s still room for player expression in which weapons they prefer, the elemental spells they choose to equip, and which stat they decide to specialize in.

Supplementary to the Spirit Gauge, but vitally important for encouraging exploration, is the morale system represented by a number above your health bar. As you successfully take down enemies in a given stage, you sap their morale and strengthen your character’s overall attributes, but when you get taken down yourself, the enemy that dealt the deathblow becomes stronger instead, requiring you to kill them in order to regain your lost currency and strength.

Players aren’t left entirely in the lurch though, as progressing through the stage and putting down battle flags at specified locations will raise your minimum morale level. This ensures the player doesn’t get caught in an endless loop of getting weaker when they hit an especially challenging stretch of a mission, and raising the floor of your power without trivializing the morale/revenge system is the perfect motivator for thorough exploration.

Wo Long is also quite a bit more accessible than one might expect. It takes a note from Stranger of Paradise in that every mission allows NPC allies to follow you and assist in combat. You can order them to go all out in a fashion similar to that game, and their skills can be helpful in a pinch to stagger an opponent. They certainly aren’t strong enough to carry you through a stage or the boss battle at its end, but it’s easy to be grateful for enemies having another distraction.

Unrefined Elixir

There’s no doubt Wo Long is a decent looking game. It presents itself competently and the visuals are never a distraction from the fun of playing it, but it still feels like the overall graphical fidelity is a bit lacking. Its visuals lean far more into realism than a more stylized look, and this works to the benefit of the enemy and equipment designs, but it’s the root of some inconsistent execution in other areas.

Distant objects typically look gorgeous and everything looks fine in motion, but once you get up close to something the lighting tends to feel flatter and the texturing more basic. Oddly, this isn’t nearly as true for the equipment, characters, and enemies as it is for the environments, which can make for an occasionally incongruous look despite the generally pleasing aesthetic.

Earlier I noted how enjoyable the speedy pace and unique mechanics are in Wo Long, but a major part of the gameplay’s success is found in the stellar animation work, which is perhaps Team Ninja’s best yet. Proper parrying results in a burst of sparks around your character and an earthshattering shing! sound effect, player attack animations are stylish, and enemy attacks are precisely as fluid as they need to be to telegraph their timing.

It isn’t much of a deal breaker given the basic narrative, but the English voiceover work is pretty rough around the edges as well, though not unbearably so. Unfortunately, there’s no such concession for the music; there are a handful of standout tracks, but none that stick with you for even a moment after leaving the level it backs.

Another One

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is an impressive iteration for Team Ninja. It’s a more accessible title without sacrificing the challenge intrinsic to its success, it features one of the developer’s most satisfying combat systems to date, and it accomplishes this in levels that sport more verticality and exploration than ever before. It falters more than it probably should with regard to storytelling and graphical presentation—a somewhat consistent shortcoming in Team Ninja games—but it’s an exceptionally easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys more tasking action RPGs.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review code provided by Koei Tecmo for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Koei Tecmo.