WO LONG: Fallen Dynasty (2023)REVIEW

Staring into the neon lit, sword-and-spear clashing action of this Chinese period piece (Han dynasty per Romance of the Three Kingdoms) video game one should naturally come to the conclusion that it has no soul, no artistically driven heart or love to share as it presents a nakedly derivative, uncreative experience which is void of any truly resonant statement or personality. The Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty experience is one of plainest, seemingly cynical game design centered around bullet points pertaining to what they can borrow from their past games (and other popular games in the sub-genre) within reason while producing the most cost efficient “triple A” video game experience possible, complete with thirty percent of the game being sold to the customer at a later date as DLC. If this begins to sound familiar, yes, in most ways Team Ninja have produced what is clearly the bones of Nioh 2 with a Three Kingdoms-era skin, a parry focused combat system, and a jump button. Early-set artificial spikes of difficulty and faceless reskinning aside the general loop of Nioh-style games is still tightly tuned in terms of the action and the overall mechanics of combat are satisfyingly different to the point that this game cannot help but be quite a lot of fun. The catch is that there’ll be no respite from its bland storytelling, rehashed puppet-like characterization, and cheap level design beyond a “skip cutscene” option and a bit of skill developed for its deflect/parry timing focused combat.

When Team Ninja produced Nioh back in 2017 it was nothing short of a surprise for its decent enough Character driven cinematic storytelling alongside its forward-thinking and deepest yet take on the Souls-like third person action RPG headspace. It was a much-needed variant in the character action side of things and the systemic depth was certainly there for those willing to engage its almost too richly fleshed out mechanics. All signs point to the company themselves being somewhat surprised that it became as big as it did, basing their relatively simple plot around an unfinished Akira Kurosawa script and creating an almost ridiculously indulgent set of loot, slash n’ craft systems which directly encouraged the player to beat the ~40 hour game on escalating tiers of difficulty with better loot rewards. Think of it as a Souls-like with a Diablo II level of replayability and customization. This was a brilliant, rare moment from a developer who had long been known for the diminishing returns they’d produced for the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises in the early 2000’s, cheap re-hashing and reworking of each product was basically their thing, whenever a good (or even great) idea came along they frickin’ milked it. The point I am attempting to build toward here is that nothing has changed and this has been obvious enough since 2020 when Nioh 2 released, them milkers had been pumping for a couple years preparing the efficiency needed to iterate quickly.

Ah yes, our unsung savior _______.

The bones were there and people liked them, meaning we’ve gotten Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, and (soon) Rise of the Rōnin to iterate on the same basic engine and gameplay loops (with slight modifications) as they adapt them with the times. On paper and from a business minded point of view this is brilliantly aimed at a broadest possible audience but as a fan of video games I’ve found each of these titles ring less and less considered, failing to find their spark of artistic merit and memorability within the increasingly less sophisticated level design, bog-standard enemy combat AI, and the often shoddy polish of their setting. In the walk-up to this game’s announcement and release Team Ninja promised something special, touting the involvement of producer Masaaki Yamagiwa as if he’d been a key component of Bloodborne (with all due respect, he’d had more to do with Sonic: Unleashed and a few GameBoy Advance games…) and suggesting it would be a streamlined experience with action early previewers in the mainstream press likened to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The truth of it is that, yes, this game uses stamina management and deflects/parries as a focus in combat and, yes, the game has a jump button. In my case the end result is appropriately cynical by design, the developers have re-used so many elements of Nioh 2‘s presentation and style here that any boredom I’ve experienced in-game might only be shared with folks who’d given that game due diligence and explored its far, far deeper experience for hundreds of hours. If you know, you already know: Amrita is replaced by Qi, Guardian Spirits are replaced by Divine Spirits, and the loop of fighting NPCs and gaining their fealty + a cut-scene gifting you a Divine Spirit allows you to align with them and summon them in battle… Anyhow, I’ll cut to the chase and broadly suggest that the ~50 hours I spent in this game was generally equal in quality and quantity to the side content you’d find on the first third of Nioh 2‘s storyline. It all hits kinda B-tier, but still benefits from an inherently fun thing.

For anyone who hasn’t played any of the aforementioned games Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty could potentially serve as a strong enough introduction to this type of loot heavy, combat heavy, and level-based style of third person action game but I’d at least suggest that the first two Nioh games offer three or four times as much “content” in terms of hours of gameplay, replayability, and general variety of builds and playstyles available. I’ve written about each of those games far too extensively at this point that I’d just as well skip over my general complaints with their design and shift focus to what is good about this one. Though there are some major hiccups along the way the net positives for the gameplay experience begin to mount quickly:

I. Combat mobility and general traversal now match up more reasonably thanks to the ability to jump (also: automatic wall-jumping). — Although adding a jump button to the From Software formula took Sekiro to a brilliantly vertical place, expanding their already clever level design between grappling and stealth mechanics… in the hands of Team Ninja this means we have an easier time doing drop-in attacks, levels now have more alternate paths and smaller areas to explore. Yes, this all uses up stamina even outside of combat but at this point the speed of movement is a great addition and makes past games feel sluggish.

Wood, Earth and Water were an exceptional balance of SPD, DEF, and DMG.

II. The reinforcements system (summon up to two NPCs to help) paired with easier co-op matchmaking make for a more accessible experience — Without a doubt more people will complete this game compared to past Team Ninja/Koei Tecmo games for the sake of never being left alone with the hardest challenges of the game. There are two exceptions to this, the first boss and the (technical) final boss. Now, you do have a companion on the first fight but he is generally of little help compared to the distraction which reinforcements offer later on. Since that first fight is test to make sure you’ve used the deflect and dodge-counter mechanics effectively there is no true way out of that fight without getting the timing of attacks down. If you started with a heavy weapon and aren’t sure how the stamina management works in this game understand that your parry/deflect window is also much, much less accurate than a smaller/faster weapon and tanking hits is not an option. In terms of the final boss, you simply face him off one-on-one but this shouldn’t be a terrifying challenge if you’d made it that far. The difficulty of all bosses can be eased by companions but learning the parry/deflect timing for each is the only way to win.

III. The loot grind is (for now) less intense, the management/sorting of loot isn’t. — The big bummer about the Nioh games and Stranger of Paradise was the grind of seeking rare sets in pieces specific to certain areas, bosses, and these usually came with a general starting level. Grinding enemies/bosses that dropped certain sets and continually upgrading your preferred set to match your current level ended up costing tons and tons of currency and resources. Though you get a ton of loot in the form of gear and weapons most of the upgrade currencies are separate between those two categories in Wo Long. Likewise if you’d like to avoid grinding them altogether many sets come from maxing out Reinforcement relationships, you can easily do this by keeping one specific companion in your party at all times until you’ve gotten their fealty through level nine wherein they gift your their armor set. The rarity of these sets varies and their value is questionable depending on how much you’d like to focus your build but as long as you fully upgrade your decided upon set, whatever it is will carry you through to the end of the first playthrough. I’d recommend at least getting four star gear and weapons which sync up in terms of benefits, don’t worry about elemental (phase) resistances, these do not indicate scaling.

IV. The level grind might seem intense to start but it is less of a limiting factor for casual players. — Levels come fast without grinding and in general you’ll average anywhere from 3-5 levels per hour of combat as opposed to Nioh‘s quick ramp towards 1 level per hour. Likewise if you’re not getting where you want to be in terms of gear or resources the side content here provides generous rewards, sometimes even moreso than repeating the main story levels might have. Using the reinforcements for tougher levels and online co-up recruits for tougher boss fights should ease the difficulty one might face in terms of being ‘under-leveled’ for a certain area. I personally never had that problem, beating the game at level 125 (the cap is 150) while I believe the recommended level was 93.

A typical loop of a level before addressing the boss.

V. Change your weapon, change your life. No ragerts. — Respecs are initially gated until you reach the hidden village which acts as your quasi home base, this shouldn’t be entirely necessary no matter how dumb you were with your first twenty or so levels. Changing play style (read: weapon type) is not heavily dependent upon stats but you will need to try different things out and experiment with certain magic types to get a feel for what effects might benefit your style best. I chose to focus on Earth (Stagger, Stone DMG, Fortify DEF), Wood (Lightning DMG, Fortify DEF, Team Healing) and Water (Stealth, Water DMG, Ice Status SLOW, Support spells). What if your favorite type of weapon only comes with Fire DMG bonus? This doesn’t scale wildly anyhow, and you can transform the characteristics of your weapon/armor to aid all types of effects. If you’re not keen on a more demanding three phase focused build put all stat points into two attributes, match your phase focus to that and your choice of weapon should line up accordingly. Anyhow, the customization is there for folks who are willing to learn by trial and error. Magic is nothing new, in Nioh your spells were limited to numbered casts here it has to do with stamina, but it can be well implemented into a variety of co-op based builds which are very effective.

VI. Expert level Souls defeaters could probably easily cut through this game in about twenty hours. That doesn’t mean you should expect or even want to, just have fun with co-op and try to level up. — A shot at a quick playthrough really does defeat the purpose of these types of games, which are generally created to engage the player for multiple playthroughs with friends and without. If one focused on learning the timing of bosses by trial-and-error alongside focusing all resources towards upgrading their main weaponry, most of the game should be easy enough up front, since none of the bosses are technically “gimmick” focused. Rushing through the game will eventually hit a frustrating wall since you won’t have made good use of all of the options available but, the success rate of folk with good timing does speak to the fact that learning to deflect and parry into a counter really is important above all else.

51:26 hours after beating all missions, completing all levels, flags and challenges 100%.

That pushes us right into the most important part of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty: It only gets better when you beat it 100% the first time and in doing so properly prepare yourself for beating it again on the second difficulty. NewGame+ is not a full reset so much as it unlocks access to the first three chapters of the game right off the bat under the new Rising Dragon difficulty, the same levels from the full game (which expand into the full 7 chapters) with a recommended level of 100+, enemies hit harder and drop loot which can now be 5 star in quality rather than the 4 star cap of the first playthrough. I know, it won’t seem different enough and you don’t -have- to play through the whole game again but this is where the real challenge of the game starts, where the most impressive builds are tested alongside your mastery over the game. Granted Nioh had something like three or four tiers of NewGame+ difficulty compared to this one step up but, those games are enormous and deep in the available mastery between countless specialties that it made more sense.

The fun of mastering the moment-to-moment combat and the satisfaction of beating each boss might not be initially evident to those who intend to simply “beat” each game they pick up and move along. As much as I could drone on criticizing the general formula Team Ninja have stuck with for their last four games the fact of the matter is that they are not only fun to play but each one offers an insane value proposition for folks willing to immerse into their worlds and engage in their sometimes ludicrously deep systems of loot, crafting, combat, builds and even PvP. Having spent 100 USD each for both Nioh games (I spent 150+ hours in each) and now faced with buying three sets of DLC for Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty I can actually recommend the full price for the base game bundled with its expansions if the art style, gameplay and presentation are to your taste after demoing the game since I know from experience that this will extend the life of the game to the point of being worth it if you intend to master the game. For the more casually interested folks seeking a combat challenge I’d recommend waiting for a half-off sale. For those with zero interest in Chinese period war intrigue and the general Romance of the Three Kingdoms storyline, or if you’d just hated the way Nioh 2 told its story in such a formulaic and soulless way I’d suggest skipping this game, it won’t do you any favors to skip through the world building here, no matter how generic and dry it can be. A moderate recommendation overall.

Though Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is an engaging and at times challenging action RPG its frankenstein'd game design manages a lukewarm, asleep at the wheel experience by way of ideas borrowed from much better games. A lack of identity and any tangible artistry is not yet a good enough reason to not have fun with its enjoyable depth and strong value proposition overall.


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