Gaming

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty Review: Adding a Unique Twist to the Soulslike Genre

It’s no understatement to say that FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series has had a massive impact on the gaming industry. This influence is once again evident with the release of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, a new action RPG that joins the ranks of “Soulslike” games. These games follow the punishing yet rewarding difficulty of the Dark Souls series while also putting their own spin on the formula. Whether you’re looking for a sci-fi Soulslike experience or an anime-inspired adventure, there’s a game out there for you. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to combine Pinocchio with the world of Bloodborne, well, Lies of P is the game for you.

However, in 2017, Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja took a different approach with Nioh, a Soulslike game that followed the story of Irish sailor William Adams. As one of the most well-received non-FromSoftware Soulslikes, it’s no surprise that Team Ninja continues to explore this genre. Wo Long gives the studio an opportunity to further refine their craft and bring their own unique perspective to a genre dominated by one big boss.

And Team Ninja succeeds in doing so. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty possesses all the hallmarks of the genre, including a challenging difficulty curve and rewarding combat. While it may not revolutionize the genre, the game is a clear demonstration that Team Ninja understands what makes a great Soulslike and isn’t simply copying another studio’s work.

Dark Souls — but with a Chinese Twist

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is set in China during the Later Han Dynasty. The rulers of this land are obsessed with a substance called Elixir, which is said to grant eternal life. A sinister Taoist, driven by his desire for immortality, will stop at nothing to create the most potent Elixir. The player assumes the role of a militia member who becomes entangled in the Taoist’s plans, fighting demons and monsters along the way.

The game takes a creative approach to historical fiction, similar to Like a Dragon: Ishin!. It features characters inspired by real-life figures such as Chinese military warlords Cao Cao and Sun Jian. Team Ninja takes some artistic liberties with Chinese history, infusing the time period’s political backdrop with magic and demons.

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Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty monster
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Unlike the cryptic storytelling of Dark Souls and Elden Ring, Wo Long’s dialogue is much more straightforward, making it easy to follow the narrative. The main characters and warlords interact with each other, creating a strong sense of camaraderie on their high-stakes journey.

Wo Long offers both Japanese and English voice-over options, but the Chinese dub adds an extra layer of authenticity that immerses players in the setting. I also appreciate the English dub, as the voice actors correctly pronounce the characters’ Chinese names with their appropriate tones. It’s a small touch that shows Team Ninja’s commitment to staying true to the game’s setting.

The game features a wide variety of monsters to fight, ranging from huge, ferocious tigers to imposing ogres. These creatures and bosses are based on Chinese mythology, and the development team has created some incredibly memorable designs, especially for the bosses. One such boss resembles Horizon Forbidden West’s Tremortusk, while another takes the form of a voluptuous snake lady inspired by the Chinese mother goddess, Nuwa.

Wo Long’s Chinese setting is more than just a backdrop for the typical Dark Souls formula. The game’s story, characters, enemies, and lore all draw inspiration from China’s rich history. With Koei Tecmo’s expertise in historical games, Wo Long engages with its subject matter in a meaningful way that distinguishes it from other Soulslike games.

Exploring Ancient China

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty follows the core gameplay loop that fans of the Soulslike genre are familiar with. As an action RPG, players traverse different areas, fight enemies, and eventually face off against brutally difficult bosses at the end of each level. You’re bound to die numerous times, but as with any Souls game, success comes from learning a boss’s attack patterns and understanding how to counter them. The sense of satisfaction that comes from finally overcoming these challenges is truly rewarding.

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While this basic structure may sound familiar, Wo Long differentiates itself in several ways. One noticeable difference is the Morale Rank system. As players enter new areas, their Morale ranking starts at 0. As they progress and defeat enemies, the Morale increases. A higher Morale Ranking leads to enemies dropping better loot, increased damage output, and access to more powerful magic spells.

However, dying reduces your Morale, and the only way to regain it is by defeating the enemy that killed you. This boosts the monster’s Morale, making it harder to defeat. This risk-reward dynamic adds a devilish twist to the genre, contrasting with the typical process of retrieving lost experience from your last death site. It forces players to consider whether it’s worth returning to a stronger enemy to regain lost Morale or if they should move on and build Morale elsewhere. These questions bring a fresh perspective to the genre, injecting a new level of strategy.

Wo Long's setting
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Morale system also encourages exploration. By finding and placing Marking Flags, players can limit the amount of Morale lost upon death. Larger flags act as save points and permanently raise the player’s minimum Morale Rank. Taking the time to discover and place flags in an area can make a significant difference during boss fights. I recall a boss battle where a single attack wiped me out when my Morale floor was at nine. I retraced my steps, searching for any remaining Marking Flags and raised my floor to 15. This change drastically improved my survivability since I took less damage. While this doesn’t eliminate the game’s difficulty, it does provide a glimmer of hope that players can overcome the boss with persistence.

Another interesting addition to Wo Long is the presence of AI companions like Sun Jian and Cao Cao. In a game as challenging as Wo Long, having a companion by your side can make the journey feel less lonely. Companions can also play a crucial role in boss battles, acting as useful distractions to give players an opening to heal. It’s always a triumphant relief when my partner deals the final blow needed to defeat a tough boss.

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However, boss fights do suffer from one consistent issue: inconsistent arena sizes. For instance, during my battle with the Tremortusk-like boss, I found the arena too small, making it difficult to dodge its high-speed, head-on charges. In another fight, I was confined to a narrow hallway, leaving me with limited space to maneuver around a gigantic boss. On the other hand, some encounters with human-sized enemies took place in massive rooms with more space than necessary. I also encountered some frame rate hiccups and performance issues during boss battles, which momentarily stopped my heart. Split-second reactions are crucial, and any drop in performance can impede players’ progress.

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty tiger enemy
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Despite these minor gripes, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty strikes a good balance within the Soulslike genre. It includes enough unique mechanics to stand out, yet retains the familiarity that veterans of the genre appreciate. While it may not be groundbreaking, the game’s difficulty and the satisfaction derived from overcoming challenges make for a fun (and at times frustrating) experience. Combine that with its thoughtful incorporation of Chinese mythology, setting it apart from other games, and Wo Long proves itself as another strong Soulslike title that will keep players engaged until FromSoftware’s next epic release.

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty was reviewed on Xbox Series X. It is also available for PC, PlayStation 4, PS5, and Xbox One on March 3.

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