Our Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty review finds the game treading familiar Koei Tecmo territory as, like the developer’s Dynasty Warriors series, it’s based on Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Dynasty Warriors is a popular hack-and-slash/strategy hybrid in which players choose a general from one of three armies and use them to wipe out thousands of soldiers in epic battles for territory. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a darker, Soulslike interpretation of the same material. There’s more magic and more supernatural creatures lurking around, fewer campy moments, and significantly more taxing gameplay.
You take the role of an unknown soldier during the Yellow Turban rebellion, fleeing a burning village with a blind companion who’s just saved your life. This is the setup for a plot that blends a shady arcane conspiracy with the events of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Along the way in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, you meet and greet many notable characters from the Romance. If you’ve read the book – or played Dynasty Warriors or Total War: Three Kingdoms – you’ll know that Zhang Fei is a brash fellow, tempered by his brothers Liu Bei and Guan Yu. You’ll recognise the calculating and ruthless side of Cao Cao. The design of these characters and their weaponry is familiar from Koei Tecmo’s previous interpretation, but the supernatural elements of Wo Long give our allies a more foreboding outlook, as they know of a great evil that’s causing instability across Ancient China. It’s a nice new twist on a story that, while still unfamiliar to some, especially in the West, has been told and retold since the 14th century.
You can bring these generals and celebrated fighters along as companions. The more you fight alongside a specific character, the higher their Oath level grows, making them more useful in battle. This system has the added benefit of easing you into the more complex combat mechanics, allowing you much breathing space to heal if you mess up dodging a big attack.
Combat does take a bit of time to get used to, as you’re actively encouraged to deflect attacks. Thankfully, the deflection timing is rather generous. It works on almost every kind of attack imaginable, even the magic from the sniper-like mages that fling spells across the battlefield with suspicious precision. It won’t be long before you’re weaving through a hailstorm of savage blows and striking down your foe with a satisfying bonk to the skull.
Part of what makes the combat so much fun is the fluctuating ‘Spirit Gauge’ under your life bar. Depending on your ability to parry away enemy attacks while landing your own, a full spirit gauge can give you opportunities to deal a huge amount of ‘poise’ damage – a secondary form of damage that doesn’t deplete the enemy’s health but rather their guard, setting them up for a deadly blow when broken. As in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the inverse applies: if you exhaust yourself, you too are equally vulnerable. Enemies also have a spirit gauge, though their thresholds are typically far greater than yours. The trick to whittling enemy spirit gauges down to manageable levels is to deflect any attack that begins with your opponent glowing a sinister blood red. Doing so will shave off a chunk of their maximum spirit gauge, making their staggering point easier to reach and thus allowing you to do loads of damage.
Your character progression is more straightforward than in most games like Dark Souls. By investing points into one of the five virtues, you can increase your stats and gain points to spend on Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty spells. You have a cap on when you can use spells linked to territory you have claimed throughout the level, which also bolsters your defence and attack stats, much like how the morale system from Dynasty Warriors works. However, the bulk of the spells you can cast will only inflict tiny amounts of damage, which isn’t all that handy or rewarding. Instead, the incantations I find most useful are those that affect the Spirit Gauges of my allies and adversaries. As such, it incentivised me to explore each map and claim territory across the map to keep my Fortitude level high.
Despite all of these mechanics gelling well with each other to make a generally fun experience, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty has the occasional spike in difficulty that comes from out of nowhere. For example, while I had a deathless run against several Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty bosses in the Yellow Turbans chapter and even a few beyond that, my progress would occasionally grind to a halt because of a specific foe that felt way harder than they should be given my level and their surrounding context. We won’t spoil here which ones proved to be formidable opponents, but let’s just say I wasn’t quite prepared for the disturbing damage that even one of their attacks could deal. It’s not a problem – certainly not in a Soulslike – that the game gets more challenging, but rather the colossal leap from trampling over almost every boss easily to running into a brick wall.
Like Team Ninja’s Nioh series, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a sleek-looking game with smooth animations and freakish monster designs. The fluidity of the combat complements the visual style well, with a character creation tool that allows you to match the quality of the purpose-built NPCs. However, I just couldn’t appreciate the sound design. The voice acting is rather wooden in places, weapons sometimes don’t have enough oomph, and there are very few standout tracks. When boss music is repeated across this RPG game, as contemporaries and even older comparable games are able to offer unique tracks themed around the boss, it’s hard not to see this as a bit threadbare.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a worthy new entrant to the Soulslike genre, bringing fresh ideas in its focus on area control and going to war with your new bezzie mates. Those looking for an action game to tide them over until the Elden Ring DLC launches could do far worse than picking it up, but lacklustre audio and jarring difficulty spikes are worth being aware of.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty review
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a thoroughly enjoyable Soulslike with intensely fun combat mechanics, slightly marred by jarring difficulty spikes and by-the-numbers music and sound.