In most games, going into a fight underleveled means almost certain death. Wander into the lair of the Fire Giant in Elden Ring without adequate preparation, and you’ll meet your end before you can so much as raise your blade. Stride into Gehrman, the First Hunter’s arena without grinding out the whole game and eat a face-full of trick weapon. That’s not really the case in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty – a curious Souls-like experiment from Nioh and Ninja Gaiden developer Team Ninja. Here, your level does matter… but the game cares far more about your Morale.
Each level takes the form of a battlefield, and the paper-thin premise is that you’re reclaiming the field from whatever the enemy of the day is – Yellow Turban rebels, Lu Bu’s army, treacherous allies that have turned on you in the name of power. As such, you need to claim the territory back by planting flags, and each flag gives you and your troops Morale. The higher your Morale, the more damage you can do to your enemies, and the more likely you are to wear them down in a duel. Keeping track? Good, because we’re just getting started.
Every boss has Level 20 Morale when you first face them. Per level, you need to explore everything and everywhere and claim all the flags – both the bonfire-like ones that act as checkpoints, and smaller ones smugly hidden away in the most obscure parts of the map – in order to keep your Morale at Level 20 when you die. If you’ve missed one, you will need to go out into the level and kill things (without taking hits yourself) in order to get your morale rank back to a boss-ready level.
The sadism in Wo Long raises its head in unexpected areas, then. Delighting in hiding the flags from you and making you sniff them out with the devotion of a bloodhound, and planting late-level enemies in places liable to syphon your morale away, you’ll smirk as much at the bastard game design as you’ll curse it. FromSoft taught Team Ninja well.
This honey-trap that forces you to explore means that you get to chew on the combat more, at least. And here, the game excels. Per encounter, you can feel the momentum slowly swing into your favour, and a few well-placed parries and special moves injected into the rhythm of the combat will see you absolutely dominate your foes. Learn the intricacies of the deflect system (which basically steals Morale from enemies and empowers you even more) and you’ll feel like some crazed berserker as you cut down swathes of soldiers and demons in Han Dynasty China – dancing and twirling and effortlessly crushing anyone that dares cross your terrible path.
This isn’t an open world game. The structure is more traditional; more manageable levels, sorted into chapters and supported with smaller side-missions. It’s good for anyone suffering from open world fatigue, actually: you can blast through productive sessions of Wo Long, bit at a time, taking a breather and letting the cortisol leave your body after the boss fights that cap off each level.
And you probably will need to take a breather. There’s a lot wrong with Wo Long, but that combat gels it all together and makes the whole experience feel greater than the sum of its parts. There are more crap bosses than good ones, and playing through the game on New Game+, I’ve found some levels make me roll my eyes when they load up. For all the cool areas with loads of verticality and exploration, there’s a poison swamp or uninspired network of caves to endure. Team Ninja 101, at this point.
To smooth over the rough levels, at least you’ve got friends. If you’ve ever wanted to play a dating simulator baked into Dynasty Warriors, you’re in luck! Wo Long wants you to be best buds with Guan Yu, Cao Cao, Sun Ce, Hunag Gai and all the other names you might recognise from Koei Tecmo’s other historical fantasy game set in ancient China. Bringing your Three Kingdoms pals along for the ride is practically essential: they’re good meat for soaking up enemy attacks and giving you windows of opportunity, and the gear you’ll get gifted for reaching ‘sworn brother’ level with them is top-notch. Just don’t expect them to help out, because the AI is feckless and confused. At times, the whole thing plays like a lesson in ‘how to make friends and annihilate people’; you’ve got Sun Ce with you for a day trip as you slaughter hundreds of Lu Bu’s men. Wholesome!
I cosplayed as Guan Yu for the entire game after he gave me his armour set and I did not change clothes once (grim, I know). Finding materials in the world let me upgrade this set I wore since the third level, and the set bonuses it gave me meant there was no point in getting dressed for different fights. And that sort-of weaves into one of my main issues with Wo Long: it’s got slick combat and densely-layered, intricate levels, but its systems are overdesigned.
Every weapon you pick up – and you’ll pick up hundreds – has a different ability tied to it, and different stats related to the ‘five phases’. This is your stat basis: Water is Dexterity, Fire is Strength, Earth is Endurance, and so on. But there’s also a rock-paper-scissors flow to the elements, too… and you can ignore it entirely and complete the game without even knowing about it. The same goes for the special moves on your weapons; you’re better-served mastering the basics of melee combat than trying to weave in flashy Soul Calibur-like special moves that you’ll just get combo’d out of, anyway.
I can’t help but feel that a bigger enemy variety and greater selection of sub missions would be preferable over the 8,000 different weapon variations and spell synergies that many people are simply going to overlook. In New Game+, these systems come into their own and actually matter, but what percentage of the playerbase is going to engage with that? More content and creativity in the meat of the game would have gone down better than this fancy side salad.
It’s odd, a lot of the complaints I have about Wo Long almost exactly mirror what I didn’t like about the first Nioh: gear menus like Excel spreadsheets, tiny variety of enemies, ill-explained magic systems. You can wrap up the campaign (all major and minor missions) in about 40 hours, and a third of that could be spent in menus. In the pre-release build, you can’t access your storeroom from mission, you can’t auto-refill necessary items, and sorting/breaking down your weapons and armour is a poorly-designed slog made by some sort of spreadsheet sadist. Nioh 2 fixed so many of these things – so why have we backpedalled so far?
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is an excellent action game, and a tightly-focused, well-executed example of why Team Ninja is often mentioned in the same breath as FromSoftware. Razor-sharp combat that wields the power of momentum with deft ease, supported by intricate and well-designed levels, against the backdrop of an over-the-top historical fantasy? It’s just a shame about the quality-of-life aberrations that constantly chip away at your morale.