Team Ninja are synonymous with games that have a high skill ceiling, but rewarding combat. As a young lad, I have fond memories of the Ninja Gaiden series and Nioh amplified that formula. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin was something of a misfire, with a lack of identity and balance that permeated the game. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty presents an opportunity for Team Ninja to perfect their approach to combat, without sacrificing what makes the combat of their games so mesmerizing.
Does Wo Long achieve such a feat though? I wanted to find out…
The Elements of Narrative
Story here is not one of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s strengths; I must stress that off the bat. Set in Ancient China, you find yourself embroiled in a war between a rebel militia and the dominant forces of the Yellow Turbans. It’s loosely based on the 14th CE novel of Luo Guanzhong titled Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Despite the historical influence, Team Ninja introduce their typical Eastern demons, to provide the player with a mystical world to explore.
Along the way, you meet various NPCs, who aid you in your quest to vanquish the Yellow Turbans from the land. Not only will said NPCs aid you in combat, but your bond with them can grow, which can allow you to earn their armor sets — choose the right NPC to bond with and you can earn a set that perfectly aligns with your build.
Despite the historical setting and the daemonic elements, there isn’t a lot about the story which really grips the player, or, for that matter, is even particularly relevant. What really enables Wo Long to stand out is the extremely tight combat.
Unlike the most obvious comparison, Nioh, Wo Long has a much more streamlined approach to enemy encounters. Firstly, with regards to leveling, instead of having seven individual attributes to allocate points into, Wo Long opts for an elemental approach. There are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Dumping points into each element gives you a specific benefit. For example, Wood dictates your max HP, whilst Earth dictates your equipment weight, and so on. However, each element affords you points in “Wizardry Spells”, which you can spend to learn spells and then assign them to your slots. Wood offers a lot of augmentation spells, whilst Water offers a lot of ice-based spells which can be used offensively. As you can tell, I went with a Wood/Water approach and had a great deal of versatility at my disposal.
Outside of the leveling system, you have two melee slots. I went with a sword and dual halberds, which were essentially axes. You are taught early on to make excessive use of deflections. Holding back on the stick and pressing the dodge button at the right moment initiates a deflection. This gives you an opportunity to follow up and depletes your opponent’s spirit. There are certain attacks, particularly with boss encounters, where deflecting them will open the moment for you to execute a critical attack, dealing massive damage. Encounters then, meander between deflecting and creating openings for big damage. You can, of course, use your spells to buff yourself or inflict status ailments on the enemy. I focused on Chill, which slows the enemy, making it easier to evade and respond to their aggression.
As has become a staple of the Nioh games, there is the option to visit a blacksmith and upgrade weapons, dismantle ones you don’t use for materials, or even alter the way your weapons look. Fashion is important! Armor sets are present also, each with their own scaling and passive benefits.
The elemental leveling, deflection system, and gear upgrades lend themselves to the kind of freedom you want with these games — to be able to approach combat your way. There are a multitude of options in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, despite it being mechanically simpler than Team Ninja’s previous outings.
The game progresses in a fairly linear fashion. That said, if you check the option to Travel at any site of rest, you can pick up side missions to obtain extra gear and increase your bond with NPCs. The levels themselves feature a vertical design, allowing you to jump from platform to platform, ledge to ledge, to find loot and marking flags. The latter increases your morale, which not only makes you more effective in battle but allows you to utilize certain wizardry spells.
All-in-all, Wo Long rewards exploration and commitment. Practice to find that rhythm in combat and sweep the levels for flag spots and you’ll have few issues grinding through this demanding title.
There is a lot to praise about Wo Long. The combat here is not only some of the tightest Team Ninja have produced, but also some of the tightest in gaming. Nioh, Nioh 2, and inevitably Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty will be compared to the Souls games. However, they have little in common. Combat in Wo Long is leaps and bounds beyond anything Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Elden Ring ever produced. A comparison can be made to Sekiro, but even that is loose.
Wo Long beckons you to learn the game and once you reach that point, everything feels incredibly smooth. It’s extremely satisfying to deflect a boss’ super attack and then follow up with your own big hitter. Casting spells feels really intuitive and if you’re okay with crunching the numbers, you can make something godlike very quickly.
The score in Wo Long is what you would expect. It’s decent and appropriate, but nothing groundbreaking. I adored the elemental leveling in Wo Long. One of the things I found so tricky in Nioh and in Stranger of Paradise was the obscurity of the system they had in place for fleshing out a character. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty fixes this by focusing on the important stuff. Do you want to have lots of health and defense? Wood and Earth is your go-to. Would you prefer to be adept with magic? Invest in Water. There’s something here for every playstyle but the way in which you create your character is accessible, without being patronizing.
Speaking of, it’s worth mentioning the boss battles in Wo Long. They are fantastic! Fast-paced, intense, and well-animated. This latter point applies to the deflections. Getting off deflections and riposting with a powerful attack is critical, but it also feels absolutely satisfying.
The Negative Elements
Technical issues are evident here. I heard of folk complaining about screen and audio flickering on PC, but this happened on PS5 too. I assumed it was my HDMI cable, so I had a fiddle. It seemed to alleviate the issue, for around 20 minutes. That said, after around an hour or so of playtime, the screen flickering was a guarantee and it was very annoying.
As mentioned, the story in Wo Long is also nothing to compliment. Evidently, the focus here was on gameplay, but the narrative does nothing for me. It really doesn’t do anything to keep players invested. In fact, there came a point where I had no idea what was happening — I just wanted to get to the next boss. The NPCs are okay, but they do get in the way in boss battles. The deflection system means that you actively want the boss to target you, but instead, they will target your allies and you’ll miss your chance for a deflection and big damage.
Gear is the biggest disappointment for me. Albeit, the game is shorter and more accessible than Nioh, the endgame gear is very disappointing. Sub-5% bonuses, crappy fashion, and expensive upgrades make the Wo Long grind dissatisfying to engage with.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty deserves praise as an ambitious title — one which tries to expand upon a formula that many thought could not be improved and a title that wants to pull in new players. You needn’t be intimidated. Wo Long can be played by anyone and it truly is the cleanest title Team Ninja have produced.
Technical issues aside, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is challenging, tight, and focused. It’s a fantastic game, which will hopefully provide Team Ninja a foundation on which to develop even slicker games in the future.
WO LONG: FALLEN DYNASTY IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Koei Tecmo for a PlayStation 5 review code for this title.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.