Review : Wo Long Fallen Dynasty : The Soul of a Ninja

When Hidetaki Miyazaki and FromSoftware released Demon Souls on the PlayStation 3 way back in 2009, I don’t think anyone quite understood the ripple effect that game would have on the industry. The “Souls” genre of video games had been born. The genre would grow into the preeminent form of RPG following the release of many more titles from Miyazaki-San, as well as “Souls-like” games inspired by his work.

The key elements of the genre are usually understood to follow a pretty specific checklist. Difficult combat, reliance on environmental storytelling, epic bosses, and collecting a resource (souls) that is tied to progression, the latter of which is of relatively high stakes as there is always an opportunity to lose progression upon consecutive deaths. While I appreciate everything that makes a Souls game a Souls game, I also believe that the most important part of that checklist is the “difficult” combat. Although, I would prefer to describe it as “meaningful” combat. The combat asks a lot of you; every swing of your sword needs to have purpose, otherwise you risk a swift defeat.

Giving meaning to each encounter, or giving meaning to the combat, is what delivers that sense of euphoria that you feel as you stand on the mountain top of victory. It is a mountain built by a mastery of the game, growing bigger with each failure, that, in turn, makes the view from the top even more beautiful. That is what I, and many other Souls-players, chase when playing these games.

However, there was a game that evoked that same feeling for me well before that watershed moment in 2009. That game was the Ninja Gaiden reboot from Team Ninja in 2004. As the Souls genre grew throughout the years, Team Ninja has embraced some of Miyazaki’s teachings with the release of Nioh and its follow up, Nioh 2. While a lot of the “Souls-like” checklist had been filled out in these games, Team Ninja held a tight grip on the soul of their past games as well, never sacrificing the breakneck speed of combat that fans of Ninja Gaiden expected. These games had their problems, but, nevertheless, they had offered some of the most unique takes on the burgeoning genre.

And that brings us to today, as Team Ninja is back with a brand new IP in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. It is the first new action IP to be a multi-platform release in quite some time, and it is also the first time that Team Ninja launched a game on Gamepass. It’s safe to say this is a big release for Team Ninja. And so, the question remains: will they address some of the missteps in Nioh and drift even closer to the Souls formula? Or will they continue to follow their own soul, the soul of a Ninja?

Old Habits Die Hard

Wo Long takes place in the Three Kingdoms Era of ancient China, during the final days of the Han dynasty. In this supernatural retelling of the events of that era, you play as a nameless soldier fighting in the Yellow Turban Rebellion. The story features several of the major figures from that era; however, it only loosely follows those tales, which is something that is evident almost immediately as you battle against many different forms of ancient Chinese demons. Even the major characters from the story of the Three Kingdoms are often mutated into unrecognizable beings after ingesting an “Elixir,” this games McGuffin that allows Team Ninja to make sure the bosses are giant monstrosities instead of what would otherwise be relatively grounded foes.

To say that the story of Wo Long, its characters, and the way they are portrayed is, by far, the weakest element of this game is an understatement. While Nioh is often criticized for its story, Team Ninja somehow managed to lower the bar even further with Wo Long. The game fails to coherently tell its story or make you care about any of the many characters it introduces. Character introductions, motivations and, in some cases, entire arcs, play out as bookended cut scenes before and at the end of each stage. With the cast being as large as it is, you will quickly forget who is who, severely muting the impact when they sometimes return to the story.

To that end the plot itself is nonsensical; every moment intended to evoke an emotional response falls flat, and the performances are some of the worst I’ve seen in a very long time. It was to the point where a cringe and an eye roll accompanied nearly every cut scene. At the very least, they could have included the Japanese voice overs, something they clearly had recorded as the characters lips are not in sync with the dialogue. This might have at least improved the delivery of the dialogue, which may have slightly improved things.

I even watched a documentary of the Three Kingdoms Era in an effort to better understand things. However, even having a heightened knowledge of the subject matter fails to save what is a very lackluster narrative. The only saving grace is that some of the action scenes played out in cut scenes are pretty interesting, and ever popular Lu Bu gets some nice moments. In the end, though, I genuinely think that the game would be better off if it simply placed you at the start of each level without any context, which is a big shame.

A Chinese Odyssey

While Wo Long struggles to re-imagine the story of the Three Kingdoms, it does a better job re-creating the locations in which the Three Kingdoms took place. With Nioh, a fair amount of criticism was levied at Team Ninja for its overly dark and dreary atmosphere. It’s an issue that was somewhat addressed in Nioh 2 but completely erased in Wo Long.

In the game’s 40+ levels, there are tons of unique environments on display, ranging from beautiful lush forests, to snow covered mountains, to gloomy sewers. You might not fully understand the reason why you are in these places, but the scenic variety definitely makes you feel like you are on an expansive journey. The game’s soundtrack is also very fitting for the period and presents some of the studio’s best work. The calming music that plays in the game’s hub area is especially good, as well as some of the heightened music that plays in some of the game’s biggest battles.

There is also a fairly strong variety in the enemies you will face, most of whom have varied attack patterns and combos you will need to learn in order to effectively dispatch them. They also run the gamut of typical soldiers to mythic beasts and monsters, but they fit elegantly within Chinese mythology. The more animal-like enemies stand out as well as some of the more impressive looking creatures you will battle. They are given a nice touch of color, and their ferocity really comes through in their aggressive animations. Given the length of the game, though, you are bound to see several familiar faces in the back half of your journey.

Level design, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. The game is not open world like Elden Ring, nor does it take place in a smartly connected labyrinth like Dark Souls. Instead, the game is completely level-based, meaning each section is broken up by a level selection menu and two loading screens. This is not a bad thing on its own, but the end result has some levels feeling like a pretty compact version of a typical Dark Souls map, while others are very much A to B in nature. A common trait that most levels share, though, is that they often have minimal exploration or agency in how you will progress them. Sure, there are some shortcuts to unlock and some things to find off the beaten path that are worthwhile, but they often feel like small side steps instead of actual exploration.

Raise Your Flag

Perhaps the most worthwhile reason to peak around every corner is to find battle flags, a key component in perhaps the game’s most unique mechanic. Wo Long actually has two levelling systems: you have your overall level that increases as you invest “Qi,” this game’s version of “souls,” into different stats, and you also have a morale rank. Morale rank is your power level for a specific stage. It starts at zero every time you enter, or re-enter, a stage. The enemies within the stage will range from level 0 to 20. The higher your morale rank is in relation to the enemies you are fighting, the more damage you will do and the less damage you will take. Every time you are defeated by an enemy, your morale rank will swiftly drop while their own will rise. This is in addition to losing half your Qi. Hunting them down and killing them will restore your Qi as well as some of your lost morale. Where the battle flags come in is that each time you claim one of them, your “Fortitude” rank will increase. Fortitude acts as the floor for how far your morale rank can fall. So having a higher fortitude means consecutive deaths will not be as devastating to your morale, at least literally speaking.

At first, this system felt really fun, and when I played the pre-release demo, it was, in fact, the aspect that I boasted about the most since it felt like a truly unique addition to the genre. However, after playing over 40 different levels and starting at level 0 every single time, it ultimately felt like a bit of a mixed bag. It is fun to hunt down the flags the first time through a stage, and it definitely squeezes out every ounce of exploration that these sometimes small stages can muster.

However, given how many stages there are in the game, and factoring in replaying levels to grind materials and items, the eventual tedium really starts to set in. On top of this, it somewhat robs the overall feeling of progression and power. As when you venture back into a level 30 stage with a level 80 character, starting over with morale rank 0, you don’t have that feeling of power you would expect after all the investment you made since your first run through the stage.

Speaking of robbing you of the feeling of progression, let’s talk about gear and items. The game has a pretty great loot system on paper: you have several different armor slots, there are accessories that provide buffs, and you can wield two different weapons. Each piece of gear shares an affinity with one of the 6 core stat categories and will have its own unique perks, with weapons having unique skills attached to them. Aesthetically, the gear does start out to be very grounded in the time period but, over time, you can get some pretty awesome looking stuff. And, thanks to a great transmog system, you can really fine-tune your look.

However, the game constantly floods you with this gear, and it quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s normal to get 30 or more pieces of gear within each stage, quickly filling up your 500 slot inventory capacity. It got to a point where I had to spend the first 5 minutes of each stage in the back half of the game deleting 50 or so things from my inventory in order to pick up new things. Since all drops look the same before you loot them, this is something you have to do in order to not miss out on quality upgrade materials or upgrades to your main source of health regen, the Dragon Cure Pot (aka Estus Flask).

You can sell or scavenge the gear at a blacksmith NPC instead of simply discarding it, but the blacksmith is not present in the majority of stages. In fact, the only way of reliably reaching them is by going through two loading screens, round trip, and/or disbanding your party if you are playing online. Selling gear is absolutely pointless as I have over half a million dollars and still haven’t found something worthwhile to spend it on. Salvaging is more worthwhile as it rewards you with upgrade materials, but I was never short on those based on how much I naturally picked up by just playing through the stages.

Perhaps the worst thing is that the stat differences, as well as the stat scaling, on the gear is so small that, even if you sift through and examine the hundreds of items in your inventory in an attempt to craft the best build possible, the reward is very minimal. I personally invested a large part of my skill points into the “Wood” skill tree and do less damage using weapons that have A rated scaling in that category than I do with weapons with D rated scaling. The whole system really disincentivized me from wanting to put time and energy into it. Personally, I just wanted to move on to the next battle instead of trying to determine if the pair of identical pants with +14 health was better than the ones with -1.9% ranged damage received.

The Saving Grace

Up until this point in the review, the positives have been few and far between, but there is one saving grace, and that is the combat. Like I mentioned from the top, Team Ninja has been known for their incredible combat systems for decades. It was what made Nioh so exciting as a Ninja Gaiden/Dark Souls hybrid. This is why I’m so happy to report that Wo Long just might be their best implementation yet.

The trademark breakneck speed to the combat is here, but it’s far from mindless button mashing as the enemies are often just as fast as you. To that end, the game has a very heavy emphasis on parrying over dodge rolling or blocking. This is exemplified by the fact that you can parry any attack from any enemy, including attacks that are unblockable. Given the fact that enemies can range from slow, meandering zombie soldiers to extremely agile (and angry) tigers, enemy attacks come at you in a lot of different ways. Memorizing attack patterns and enemy move sets are absolutely part of the path to mastery.

As I mentioned earlier, you can equip two different weapons at any given time, with the addition of two ranged weapons, two throwables, and up to four magic spells to complete your arsenal. Despite having seemingly so many options to dish out punishment, the game does really force you to play it the Team Ninja way. Ranged weapons are clunky in that the pace drastically slows down when you pull them out, and, once the battle starts, they are just not super effective. There is a wide assortment of magic, as well, but for offensive uses, the only thing that I found to be very effective was magic that gave an elemental bonus to your melee weapons. There are some spells, however, that provide utility in terms of damage reduction and minor healing, and that is what I relied on the most.

The game has a large variety of weapons to choose from in your primary and secondary slots, and they all have their own unique move-sets. On top of this, they all come with a random assortment of weapon arts which can deal out some serious damage at the cost of stamina. These weapon arts all feel great, for the most part, and they can be thrown into most combos at any time, really adding some flair to the combat. Each weapon also has a transition attack that activates when you swap to it, and this also can be activated mid combo, leading to some incredibly satisfying combinations.

This speed and grace of combat is facilitated by the game’s clever stamina system, shared by both the player and the game’s various enemies. Using magic or weapon arts, along with blocking, will increase your stamina meter. Taking damage will also increase your stamina meter on top of lowering your health; however, taking damage with a full meter will result in you getting staggered. Your stamina will slowly recover naturally, but the only way to reliably prevent getting staggered and being wide open is to press the attack. This encourages you to keep up the pressure and press the attack more often then retreating. On the flip side, landing hits on enemies increases their stamina meter, with parries filling it up in large chunks. When they are staggered, they are open to devastating critical attacks that are a joy to witness.

Overall, the combat system is fast and furious, rewarding you for fully embracing the way they want you to play. While some may be turned off that the way they typically play “Souls-Like” games is non-viable, those that embrace the Team Ninja way will be greatly rewarded. There are few things in gaming that feel more satisfying than parrying every swipe of an enemy’s multi-hit combo, or the thrill of parrying a large boss’s unblockable attack that would have killed you had you missed. It all comes together as a shining achievement in the storied legacy of action games from Team Ninja.

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The game also fully embraces online co-op and PvP in the form of invasions. Once you get out of the game’s tutorial stages, you can freely invite up to two friends to join you. This doesn’t require any resources or anything like some of Wo Long’s contemporaries; it acts more as a typical online lobby system. Progress does halt in terms of your single player campaign, though, as you will teleport back to wherever you left off before starting your co-op session. If you don’t have friends to join you, you can also recruit NPCs to aid you in each level. These NPCs are great at holding some aggro from various enemies, but don’t expect them to last very long in a boss fight.

The game also offers a new higher difficulty option upon completing the game, which comes with the promise of higher odds for better loot drops. However, like I alluded to earlier, the gearing system’s quirks deflated a lot of my motivation to play too much of that.

Final Thoughts

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a very mixed bag. There’s a lot of ways in which this game falls short, and it is definitely not a game for everyone. In fact, I suspect the first boss encounter to be one of the biggest gatekeepers in gaming history. If you are coming into this as a curious fan of the Souls series, there are a lot of commonalities that may be intriguing, but those are merely accents to what is truly a classic Team Ninja experience. However, if you are willing to embrace that style of combat and look past all of the many rough edges, you are in for some of the finest combat in recent memory.

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By Eric Bezanson

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