For all intents and purposes, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is Nioh ported to a different setting. That of Three Kingdoms era China, where history melds with a liberal dose of the fantastic. A curious concoction known as the Elixir, capable of transforming a grumbling grunt into a fierce demon, has the ambitions of warlords bubbling over, engulfing the land in a fraught conflict. As these things go, no one seems to mind an upstart meddler swooping in to save the day, in this case, you. Believability is thrown out of the window here, but play into it and accept that the story is largely dressing, and it’s a fun, if a little silly narrative to keep you trudging forward.
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Gloomy dungeons bleed into sprawling regal complexes, lush forests, and scorched battlefields peppered with the remnants of fallen soldiers. It’s all familiar stuff from Team Ninja. It’s a world of stoic heroes and rescuers, telegraphed backstabs and switcheroos, doused in an endearing bombast and almost sycophantic praise for your character’s battle prowess and unwavering moral compass, that only just starts to wear thin as the game nears its conclusion.
Rather than the clever interconnected worlds of From Software, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty leans on levels, called battlefields. These are contained levels that stick to a defined formula: a handful of check-point flags, a mini-boss or two, a smattering of mobs to dispatch, and a more or less linear pass leading to a boss fight. You’ll slink across rooftops on the way there, kick down ladders to unlock shortcuts, and hunt down minor moral rank-boosting flags, while hovering up an abundance of loot along the way. Standard Souls-like fare, then, and similar in style and function as previous Team Ninja efforts.
The lengthier battlefields take no more than half an hour to complete, framing them as welcome bite-sized adventures, accessed from a travel hub, divided into chapters you can revisit and replay freely. They amass quickly, and near the end of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, there’s a sense of repetitious glut. The initial novelty of these levels wanes, as the game leans on repetition, whether that’s limited enemy variety (a third of the way through the game you’ve encountered all the basic mob types) or sub battlefields, short, leveling-up runs, that offer a condensed revisit of previous mainline battlefields with a rejigged path or single boss encounter.
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As you dive into the later parts of the game, they start to lose their intrigue, so overbearing is the recycling of layouts, enemies, and and you can almost anticipate with a solid degree of certainty when the next offshoot path to an optional loot area or the next boss spawn spot will appear in each successive level. That’s not to say, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty doesn’t have its surprises, such as the occasional well-hidden mob that jumps out to end your fun, teleporting you back the last visited flag and re-spawning all non-boss enemies in the process. But, in the same way each level is structured around a strict formula, so becomes the way you decide to beat each one.
Despite banking so heavily on this formulaic repetition, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is dense and, at times, overbearing. The sheer amount of weapons, from sabers to halberds and everything in between, each with their own special attacks, strapped-on stat, passive bonuses, and rarity levels, quickly fill up your 500 item inventory cap. You’ll spend an inordinate amount of time sifting through these, mulling over how to spend scarce upgrade materials, while musing over the best way to branch out an exhaustingly large tree of Wizardry Spells (ad hoc, short burst attacks you can bust out mid-battle). RPG elements are taken to extremes that border on filler.
But for all this glut, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s combat is an absolute delight. If you’re partial to a good Souls-like, you’ll gladly tuck into what Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty cooks up. There are basic attacks, your bread and butter swings and slashes, then spirit attacks and martial arts that lean on a tidy gauge sitting at the bottom of the screen that’s filled with each successive attack or deflection. And, deflecting is key, borrowing the rhythm-like precision solidified by Nioh and Sekiro. The real delight is in chaining these deftly while also periodically unleashing Divine Beasts, spiritual monstrosities picked up after beating a varied catalog of well-wrought and compelling bosses. Fights are expressive and anchored to a sleek flow, an aggressive ballet of back and forth. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s combat offers a breadth of options, and these expand only further as you experiment with different weapons.
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Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s difficulty is a curiosity, in that it’s unquestionably Souls-like and anything but pedestrian. But, at the same time, it’s inconsistent. The challenge wavers between plowing rather haphazardly through levels with little thought to tactics, to the occasional boss fight that stops you dead in your tracks. There’s one mid-game boss in particular that ramps up the difficulty so much that you’ll go from besting bosses in one or two goes, to having to meticulously learn every attack and repeat the fight two dozen times before you come out on top. When he emerges, strutting his stuff atop a huffing steed, there’s the sense of playing a different game.
A Souls-like’s quality banks on how the game shepherds the player to assimilate and use lessons learnt to get ahead, diligently and progressively, through trial and error, through skill and focus. At times, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty invites you to forego this hard-fought progress and instills a false sense of security, and then blindsides you with a major skill check. What made Nioh 2 such a landmark game was its tough-as-nails appeal that permeated the entire experience. Every inch of progress was earned and deserved. Here, the sense of accomplishment isn’t served up in quite such meaty, satisfying cuts.
Despite some misgivings, most of which are compensated for by the stellar combat, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is another confident outing from Team Ninja, who despite operating in the shadow of From Soft, continue to stamp the genre with their own signature. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is an engrossing, dense, and hard-fought slog, but nevertheless a slog weighed down by some heavy recycling and inconsistent difficulty.