Team Ninja is one of those developers that doesn't need to prove itself in regards to action games, having developed some of the best games in the genre, like the Ninja Gaiden series. And yet, in recent times, the team must have felt the need to prove that they can create different sorts of games with the Nioh series, one of the very few Soulslike franchises that can stand on its own without relying too much on the formula created by From Software for its series.
Following the release of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, a very unique take on the Soulslike formula enriched by mechanics borrowed from the Final Fantasy series, the Japanese studio revealed Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, another action game that blends together Team Ninja's action games' expertise with a setting that is synonymous with publisher Koei Tecmo: the Three Kingdoms era. How well the two will blend remains to be seen, but the recently released playable demo did show how the game will be quite different from recent games made by the studio, although their trademark mechanics still play a part in the Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty experience.
On the surface, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty feels heavily simplified, especially compared to the Nioh games: the unique stance system, the traditional Stamina bar, and the complex combo strings are gone, leveling up is more straightforward with fewer stats to enhance, and the loot system has been streamlined, with gear now granting far fewer bonuses. At first, these changes felt very disappointing, as they make the game feel like a step back, mechanically, but after the first few enemy encounters, it becomes clear that the whole experience is not that much focused on the RPG elements but on the actual action.
While exploring the mountainous region featured in the Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty demo, it is impossible not to notice the similarities with another From Software game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. While the player-created character is not as agile as Wolf, they can use the improved movement options, including a double jump, to further explore stages. The demo stage has a decent amount of verticality, which made exploration quite fun. Many optional areas and items can be found by exploring thoroughly, and doing so extends the playtime quite a bit. Exploration also seems to be somewhat mandatory due to the new Morale system, which influences how powerful the player and the enemies are.
Every enemy in the game comes with two bars, Health and Spirit, and a numerical value indicating its Fortitude level. The higher it is, compared to the player's, the harder it will be for players to inflict significant Health and Spirit damage, and the more damage they will deal. Raising Fortitude basically involves defeating enemies, but if the player is killed, their level will drop to one unless they have unlocked Battle Flags and Marking Flags, increasing the base Fortitude level. As many of these are located off the beaten path, exploring stages will net additional benefits outside of loot.
As mentioned above, combat has been streamlined in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, but that doesn't mean that the game is easier than the Nioh titles. On the contrary, it can be more challenging for some players due to the major emphasis the combat system places on parrying. Dodging is still available, but it's not particularly effective due to the very low amount of invincibility frames, so parrying is always the best option, as it also depletes the enemy's Spirit quite a bit. The parry window, however, is extremely strict, so players need to learn the enemies' movesets perfectly to use it effectively, which will require quite a bit of time and effort since movesets are varied and have wildly different timings. If the parry window is not lenghtened a bit in the final game, I can see it being one of the mechanics that will make Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty divisive among fans.
While the complete removal of the Stamina mechanics may feel like an incentive to go crazy on the offensive and unleash weapon Arts and Wizardry Spells, this isn't quite the case, as players will need to manage their own Spirit to defeat enemies in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. If it goes into negative value fully, the player will be staggered and open to attacks, but if it goes positive, the heavy Spirit attack will be more powerful and capable of depleting the enemy's Spirit in a single hit. Because Arts and Spells do require Spirit to use, as does parrying and dodging, managing it is super important, introducing an element of risk versus reward that is extremely engaging once the player understands the combat flow and the various mechanics involved. The extreme importance of Spirit management, especially during boss battles, makes Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty feel like a mix between Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Even though Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is setting out to be a challenging game, Team Ninja implemented some systems that will allow players who are not action game experts to enjoy their title. By using Tiger Seals, which can be found pretty easily in the demo, players can summon an NPC ally and other human players to help them out. Even though the AI isn't particularly smart, they do a decent job of drawing the enemy's attention, so having the option to summon them is definitely welcome. Taking down enemies unseen is also a viable option to reduce their numbers before fighting a particularly strong enemy head on. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty's combat seems to be geared more towards duels, so fighting multiple enemies at the same time can be very, very challenging.
Multiple playthroughs of the demo have sold me on Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, but some of the gameplay mechanics, such as the streamlining of the combat, which doesn't allow much player expression even with multiple Arts and Spells, and the major emphasis on parrying, can put some players off. As Team Ninja is gathering feedback with the demo, however, I expect some things to change in the final release, but even if things do not change that much, I do not doubt that Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty will be among the finest action games coming in 2023, even with its lack of broader appeal. The game will be available early next year on PC (Steam, Microsoft Store), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S|X.
Demo tested on PlayStation 5.