Let's not beat around the bush. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is one of the most exciting new IPs in development right now. If you didn't have the chance to play the public demo of the game in September, fans have largely praised Team Ninja's dark-fantasy adaptation of the Three Kingdoms era from the producers of Bloodborne and Nioh. Said another way, it's Dynasty Warriors by way of Dark Souls. And after playing a new 25-minute PS5 demo of the game behind closed doors, I am all here for it.
China isn’t sleeping anymore
Apart from the Three Kingdoms games, Jade Empire, and maybe Dragon Ball in a broad sense, Chinese fantasy and mythology are rarely used as a primary setting in gaming. That's a part of what makes Wo Long intriguing. Set in the Late Han Dynasty in 149 AD, the game casts historical heroes and legends like Zhao Yun, Zhang Liang, and Lu Bu during that era in a much fiercer light. Sure, Dynasty Warriors fans like myself will recognize some of the officers from the Yellow Turban Rebellion, but I bet that most players will find the Chinese monsters and cultural references throughout the game to be a welcome change of pace. The Team Ninja devs said as much during the demo, wanting to create a game that was similar to Nioh but wasn’t set in Japanese history. Between Wo Long and Black Myth: Wukong, the reemergence of ancient China as a source of inspiration already looks in good hands.
With a quick explanation of the controls, the Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja team sent me straight into the middle of the game, on an arid mountain called Dongshan. Between the different choices for starting builds, each represented by one of the five traditional Chinese elements, I went with Fire for the extra attack strength. While it would have been prudent to switch to a Water build in hindsight, given all the Fire-element enemies I was about to face, I stuck with Fire throughout the demo. (And it was a wise choice in the end.)
Crouching Dragon, Hidden Spirit
It became clear from the start that Wo Long is swift. Your character has far more agility and movement speed than a protagonist in a typical Souls game. If I had to place it somewhere on the Team Ninja scale, it's somewhere between Nioh and Ninja Gaiden. The developers wanted to stay true to the flow inherent in weapon-based Chinese martial arts that shifts easily between offense and defense. No matter whether I was holding a spear, glaive, or double sword, I could gracefully evade an enemy attack with a butterfly kick before striking with a flurry of quick stabs. As the game leans on weapon-based attacks, it’s less Bruce Lee and more Crouching Tiger, which fits because “Wo Long” translates to “Crouching Dragon” in English. That said, I imagine that some extremely skilled streamer will attempt an unarmed, fist-based run of the game in due time.
Without a stamina system, Wo Long opts for a spirit system that keeps tension high while ensuring that players don’t exhaust themselves or play too defensively. The best way to explain how it works is to think of a seesaw that represents both momentum and stamina. If you block, evade, or cast wizardry spells too often, you’ll lose spirit until you are stunned for several seconds. In turn, landing hits and deflecting or parrying attacks at the right moment build your spirit. It took me about five minutes to understand what Team Ninja was going for, as it became clear how the spirit system emerges naturally from the game’s conceptual ease of motion between offense and defense.
Embrace your inner flag bearer
Before I faced my first enemy, I was prompted to rest at a battle flag, which ties into how both the respawn system and the morale system operate. Like a traditional Souls-like, planting a flag is like lighting a bonfire. It serves as a major checkpoint, returns all the enemies to the battlefield, allows you to convert qi from fallen enemies into points for character leveling, and restores all your restorative Dragon's Cure Pot consumables. There are also minor flags on the map that you can raise as well, which are important to discover even if they only provide minor boosts.
Meanwhile, the morale system serves as an overall character boost of sorts, with certain enemies having different values of threat. Defeating enemies will build your morale, with more dangerous enemies raising it faster. Every time you die, though, you will return to the last major flag point and your morale is reset to the Fortitude level, which is determined by how many flags you've established in the level. However, the enemy that killed you (or even another co-op player) will gain morale and thereby become more difficult to defeat next time. Risk and reward, as they say.
Learning the hard way
That's partly how I got a crushing defeat multiple times by what looked like a demonic cross between a giant pangolin and a honey badger. I'm sure it has an actual name, but it might as well be an Evil Sonic Spinball that knocked me around like a human-sized bowling pin. On my third attempt, I only barely managed to skewer the beast with just a blip of health, to the rousing fanfare of the developers. There were a few other monsters in the area, but without any health consumables left, I quickly mumbled to myself "yeah, no thank you" and sprinted toward the last checkpoint before the boss.
Unceremoniously, I was suddenly planted in the center of a circular, dilapidated arena against a giant boar. It trampled me several times, flattened me with a belly flop, and effectively crushed me until I was paste. But with each defeat, I learned its attack patterns and became more proficient at parrying its charging attacks. With feedback from the public demo, Team Ninja had adjusted the timing window for deflections and I could sense the improvements. More importantly, I decided to use my fire magic and Divine Beast Zhuque summon aggressively. Combined with my proper timing for parries, this strategy allowed me to burn the boar with steady damage over time, whittling it down until it was finally barbecued pork. Simply delicious.
On the path of harmony
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty already looks as challenging as a Souls-like game while being approachable and accessible for any fans of the action genre. I was surprised at how easily I was able to pick up what looks like a very complex system at first glance, to learn how to defeat a series of tough enemies through trial and error. The Team Ninja devs don’t plan on having another public demo before launch and will continue to refine the game as it heads toward its release date of March 3, 2023. It will release on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC via Steam and Microsoft Store. Even better, Wo Long will be available day one on Xbox Game Pass as well.
Nick Tan posted a new article, Wo Long: Fallen Warriors preview: Dynasty Nioh Warriors
Crap. I was gonna ask if Wong Fei-Hung or Liu Hsu Hai were in it, but they're like 1700 years later.
Is there dual wielding? Is it a dual wield SET (like Nioh and Dark Souls 2) or just 'can use two weapons at once' (like Dark Souls 2 and kinda Elden Ring)?