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March 2024

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: March 3, 2023


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PS5 Review - 'Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 2, 2023 @ 3:00 a.m. PST

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty follows the dramatic, action-packed story of a nameless militia soldier fighting for survival in a dark fantasy version of the Later Han Dynasty where demons plague the Three Kingdoms.

Buy Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

From Software is probably the biggest trendsetter in video games at the moment. From atmosphere to aesthetics to mechanics, its games have had a massive impact on gaming. Nioh was an attempt at mixing that gameplay style with some "character action" gameplay. It's not a huge surprise that Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty also borrows from FromSoft. This time, it's a take on Sekiro instead of Dark Souls, and that gives it a lot of interesting personality.

Wo Long is set during the infamous time period chronicled by the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Much like that story, it begins at the tail end of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. You play as an everyday soldier whose death on the battlefield is cut short by a blindfold-wearing boy. You quickly discover that a strange man in black is bringing unholy demons and horrifying corruption to the land, and only the era's greatest heroes can stand up to the darkness that is coming. You set out on an adventure to unite with those heroes and find a way to stop the evil once and for all.

With or without fantasy elements, Wo Long's plot is going to feel familiar to fans of the Dynasty Warriors franchise. You're meeting the same characters with the same personalities and in many of the same events. Sure, some of those events now have horrifying eldritch beasts involved, but the Romance of the Three Kingdoms atmosphere certainly brings to mind the Dynasty Warriors series. The plot isn't particularly great, but it's full of cackling wizards and bombastic heroes, so it can be fun in a cheesy way.

Wo Long takes on the same basic Soulslike formula but has a few twists. Most notably, there is a much heavier emphasis on parrying and dodging, in addition to stealth kills and avoiding foes entirely. The gameplay has a whole lot in common with Nioh, but it's somewhat more focused on very specific styles of gameplay that (like Sekiro) expects you to wear down foes. Throw in a bit of Dynasty Warriors for flavor, and you've got Wo Long.

Everyone in the game has a spirit bar, which is similar to Sekiro's stamina bar. When you attack and injure a foe, you'll build up spirit, which can be used for special techniques, magic spells, and spirit attacks. Likewise, the enemy's spirit bar will be drained, with spirit attacks doing more damage to the foe. Get the foe's spirit to zero, and they'll be broken and opened up to a powerful finishing blow, which does a huge amount of damage. However, the same rules apply to you. Take damage or overuse abilities, and you'll find your own spirit drained, so a single stray hit can stun you and leave you vulnerable to an enemy's counterattack.

Deflecting is almost Metal Gear Rising is how you can use it on basically everything. Time your deflection well, and the enemy will be knocked aside, lose some spirit, and leave themselves open to damage. Magic spells also have elements: earth, fire, metal, water and wood. These form a circle, where one element is strong to one type and weak to another, and proper magic use can even counter enemy spells.

All of this makes combat a constant back and forth of clashing blades, narrow dodges and hard counters. A well-fought skirmish makes you constantly aggressive, clashing and parrying and deflecting blows like an unstoppable behemoth. Mistime your deflections, and you might get smashed into the ground and lose two-thirds of your health in a single attack. This keeps it from just feeling like Nioh, despite the gameplay similarities. Instead of long combos and powerful arcade-style action, you're focused on building up to one strong attack.

Probably the most distinctive feature of Wo Long is the morale system, which is at the center of the game. Both you and the enemies have morale, and it determines everything's relative strength. The higher a difference in morale between you and the enemies, the greater the difference in damage dealt and damage taken. Morale isn't a leveling system, though. Not only does it reset on each stage, but morale can also be gained and taken away in moments. Even your combat abilities rely on morale, with certain magic spells only available at higher morale levels.

You begin with zero morale (some stages start you higher) and gain morale by fighting and defeating enemies. You lose morale if you die or take a critical blow from an enemy. Since the game is fairly lethal, this makes it very easy to lose a lot of progress, which is where capturing enemy flags comes into play. For each flag you capture, your fortitude level rises. Your morale can never go below your fortitude level, so the more you capture, the easier it is to maintain a high morale. Sometimes it's better to sneak around dangerous foes and capture bases behind them so you can face them with less risk, but some bases require you to defeat a leader to continue.

Enemy morale can also change. For example, an enemy who kills you will gain morale, making them a bit stronger the next time you face them. (Bosses seem largely immune to this effect, thankfully.) Some enemies are also called leaders and gain morale from their subordinates. You can dive right in and fight the leaders, but picking off their allies makes your life easier and weakens them. Stealth attacks can be incredibly powerful and allow you to take down weaker enemies that might be a huge risk in hand-to-hand combat. In big boss battles, you can deflect an enemy's critical blow, which drains their spirit bar and morale.

It's a pretty darn cool combat system where you focus on gaining every possible advantage. If you're confident in your skills, you can charge in, but you're at risk of being overwhelmed. Progress carefully, pick off vulnerable foes, capture resources, and gain strength until you feel confident enough to take on deadly foes. Unless there is a huge morale difference, you're never quite unkillable, but it can make a difficult fight a little easier. (Most bosses are going to be at or above your morale level.)

You also have plenty of tricks at your disposal. You level up your character by investing in one of the five elements. Not only does this increase your basic stats, but you also gain wizardry points, which you invest in magic spells. The spells vary from support and defensive buffs to powerful elemental attacks. It's entirely possible to play as a wizard if you want, but even a wizard needs to get close to build up spirit. You can also find and equip powerful divine beasts who can be summoned to initiate a powerful (and often morale-dependent) attack or provide a useful party buff.

Probably the biggest trick available are reinforcements. The closest thing I can compare it to is the Mimic Tear Ash from Elden Ring. By using a (plentiful) item, you can summon classic Romance of the Three Kingdom heroes to your side to fight, giving you infinite access to competent AI companions. The game forces some of the heroes on you for certain missions, but at other times, you can take on situations either alone or with AI or online friends.

Despite Wo Long's difficulty, reinforcements arguably make it one of the most accessible games in the genre. You can build up relationships with various characters and bring them along to serve as meat tanks or powerful fighters for boss battles. You can even invest in buffing and healing spells and let them do the brunt of the work, but they'll never be quite as effective as a real person. Not having to wait for online help means that you're a lot more capable of taking on tough challenges without another player. They may make the game too easy, but even at their strongest, you'll need to pull your own weight.

Wo Long is a whole lot of fun, showing that the design chops of Nioh haven't been forgotten. The stages are often multi-layers and vertical in a way that encourages exploration, as you'll never know when you'll find a rare item or flag to claim. You have more chances to climb and jump; in combat, this allows you to scramble away from enemies and force them into more beneficial engagements. The core visual design isn't as exciting as Sekiro, but it makes good use of what it has.

Most of the game has Nioh's DNA embedded within it, including a randomized loot system. This is one area where I wish Wo Long had differed more. The morale system adds an interesting system of strength and weaknesses, so the super-customizable loot feels needless. Getting new weapons and gear is fun, especially since it unlocks new special attacks, but like Nioh, it takes a really long time to reach the point where the stats feel meaningful. In a game with such an emphasis on tricks and stealth, I wouldn't want to consider if my +2 Sword of Stabbing needs an upgrade over investing in the more instantly fun parts.

Wo Long is a good-looking game, but it's clearly reusing a lot of Nioh's designs where it can. Thankfully, that means lots of grody-looking monsters and neat character designs in addition to the return of Nioh 2's phenomenal character creator. The game runs smoothly in performance mode, which is important for such a timing-heavy game. The voice acting hearkens back to the early days of Dynasty Warriors. Everyone is overly bombastic, chews the scenery, and speaks in stilted dialogue. It's wonderful if you feel nostalgic for that kind of cheesy dubbing, but it's easy to imagine viewing it as just bad instead of B-movie bad. The music is quite good and fits the game well.

Overall, I really enjoyed Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. It's a distinctive game, and the morale mechanic changes how you approach combat. It suffers a bit from the world being less exciting than Sekiro's world, and the loot system feels a lot more stapled on than it was in Nioh, but those are both minor complaints. It's fresh enough that I didn't feel like I was playing Nioh 3, and it kept enough of the core mechanics that it retains its own flavor.

Score: 8.0/10

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