Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty certainly knows how to make a first impression. A lovechild of Fumihiko Yasuda and Masaaki Yamagiwa – of Nioh and Bloodborne fame, respectively – its recent gameplay trailer left the nethers of die-hard soulslike fans well and truly quivering. Since then, there’s been a lot of chatter about how much Wo Long is likely to resemble Team Ninja’s Nioh, FromSoftware’s Sekiro, and even Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors. Our first impression of Wo Long’s public demo promises to put all that speculation to rest.
Wo Long is set in China during the Three Kingdoms period, and follows the journey of a nameless militia soldier simply fighting to survive. It’s a time period that’s been featured in many games before, but its large-scale turbulence and localised conflict is a fitting backdrop for a soulslike. However, it’s unclear what degree of historicity we can anticipate. Wo Long is a dark fantasy, where demons roam the land and you can summon divine beasts to do your bidding. As far as the demo is concerned, its setting serves as an anchor for Wo Long’s aesthetic and tone, much like Nioh and Sekiro utilise the Sengoku period.
Team Ninja is known for its buttery smooth combat systems, but before we get into all that, just hear me out: the character customisation in Wo Long is good. Like, really good. There are sliders for just about everything, from hair texture to makeup. You can choose skin tone from a colour wheel, and there’s even a personal pronouns menu. My militia soldier sports a tangled mane of greying curls, a nipple tattoo, and eyeliner so sharp you could cut yourself on it. Oh yeah, he’s hot. That said, if you don’t get any enjoyment out of poring over character creation options, don’t worry – the usual feature presets are available as well.
Once satisfied with the yassification of Wo Long’s protagonist, I’m let loose in the Valley of the Crying Wraiths, a surprisingly compact level jam-packed with stuff. Its largely linear path is characterised by scaleable ledges and rotting wooden bridges that facilitate verticality and flirt with interconnectedness, creating those lightbulb moments of peering over the side of a cliff and discovering how far you’ve come. Of course, verticality cuts both ways, and when I wasn’t mindful of my positioning during a fight I would inevitably tumble into ravines full of monsters waiting to tear me to shreds. Zombies and tigers and mermaids, oh my.
There’s an echo of Nioh in the rhythm of Wo Long’s combat, but the cultural disparity between the two games demands markedly different fighting styles. Instead of samurai stances and weapons, Wo Long’s combat is built upon Chinese martial arts, incorporating a flurry of jumps and kicks alongside usual swordplay. Wo Long’s combat marries caution and aggression, punctuated with sudden bursts of dynamic animations and finishing moves that will keep Nioh fans very happy. The satisfaction of successfully executing a Fatal Strike on a hulking demon tiger never grows stale.
In a welcome deviation from traditional soulslikes, Wo Long replaces the stamina bar with a spirit gauge. It prompts comparisons to Sekiro’s posture system, but unlike the tug of war that occurs between an enemy’s posture and your own, Wo Long engages you in a tug of war against yourself. Sustaining damage, deflecting, and dodging will lower your spirit gauge, while maintaining an aggressive front and executing complex moves will raise it. Effectively, the cooler you look in battle, the greater your spirit gauge. A full spirit gauge allows you to cast spells and execute punishers; an empty one traps you in an animation as your militia soldier tries to catch his breath, leaving you completely open to attack.
Wo Long also offers an elegant solution to the death loops you can easily become trapped in while finding your feet in a soulslike. The routine chore of battling through hordes of easily dispatched enemies to repeatedly come up short against a punishing foe can quickly become an exercise in frustration, but Wo Long’s morale system adds value to those minor engagements. A high morale rank grants additional strength in battle, allowing you to tear through enemies that may have otherwise given you a lot of trouble. Team Ninja understands that, as much as soulslikes are about strife and perseverance, they’re also about those brief moments of feeling like an absolute badass. Once you hit the upper echelons of your morale rank, you certainly get a taste of that power fantasy.
However, to compensate, the price of failure in Wo Long is steep. After you die, your morale rank drops all the way down to your fortitude rank – the base strength gained from raising banners as you explore. What’s more, throwing yourself against an enemy over and over again can put you in some seriously dire straits. Every time you fall to a particular enemy, their morale increases, just as yours would if you’d killed them. All it takes is a run of bad luck, and even the puniest guard can grow in power to become stronger than some of the more intimidating enemies out there.
Like Nioh, Team Ninja has described Wo Long as a masocore game. The official definition of the genre is somewhat contested, but what particularly strikes me about Wo Long is its preoccupation with balance. It’s built into Wo Long’s theme, reinforced by its mechanics, and as a result the game is incredibly fair despite the substantial punishment it’s capable of doling out. Wo Long doesn’t feel designed to frustrate you; like Nioh, it wants you to succeed, or at least pick yourself back up every time you fall.
As far as first impressions go, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty offers the comfortable familiarity of a traditional soulslike, with a compelling twist on established mechanics that breathes new life into an oversaturated genre. Wo Long’s public demo will be available from today until Monday 26, September, so there’s plenty of time for you to take it for a spin ahead of its release in early 2023. If you’re a fan of soulslikes you won’t want to miss it.