Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a third-person action game set in China in 184 AD during the Later Han Dynasty. Chaos spreads as the Yellow Turban Rebellion takes shape, and demons infest the land. A nameless militia soldier is imbued with a magic talisman and set against monstrous creatures, undead hordes, professional soldiers, and dark sorcerers. The soldier uses martial arts, wizardry, and adaptability to overcome the countryside’s increasingly dire challenges.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is releasing across PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on March 3. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is developed by Team Ninja and published by Koei Tecmo. A digital copy of the PlayStation 5 version was provided for this review.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a hard-hitting action game that plays well with my tastes and sensibilities, but I’m struggling to objectively see how broad its appeal is.
But first, some housekeeping.
The term Souls-like gets bandied about quite freely these days, to the point where it can become a challenge to find any meaning in the descriptor after a while. It’s like a word you repeat so often that it suddenly becomes an alien sound, no longer properly shaped or full of meaning beyond the utterance’s volume. Does Souls-like mean a game with a high level of challenge that teaches the player hard lessons? Does Souls-like infer a kind of ambient environmental storytelling where architecture and fallen corpses quietly take the place of exposition-laden cutscenes? Sometimes Souls-like is tossed out to describe a general vibe or aesthetic sensibilities, where eldritch horrors stalk lonely corridors beneath the long shadows of haunted skylines.
Honestly, half the time Souls-like just means someone saw a stamina bar on the HUD.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a third-person action game that comes to us courtesy of Team Ninja, of Ninja Gaiden, and (perhaps most relevant here) Nioh fame. Obviously, the influence of FromSoftware‘s games is readily apparent in the first Nioh, but as Nioh 2 and now Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty have come along that Souls-like descriptor has started to feel more reflex than accurate assessment. Is it still a Souls-like when Team Ninja is essentially three titles deep into their own iterative exploration of these concepts? Maybe Nioh-like would be a better fit?
Suffice it to say, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is undoubtedly in the same family of games as those mentioned above. The action is fraught with tension, and every mistake could be your last. Careful management of health and a secondary exertion meter is key. Enemies are ruthless regardless of how many times you’ve encountered them, and there are no easy fights you can auto-pilot through. You rest at designated points and spend experience to methodically grow your character stats and painstakingly attain stat bumps that grow further apart at each level. Boss monsters are immense set-piece struggles that test your patience, will, and timing. All of those elements are here for certain.
But there are also a wide array of interesting mechanical deviations from the established norm, such that enjoying one Souls-like may not universally translate here. Whatever the designation, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty does walk alongside the various Souls games and Nioh titles in many regards: it eschews the modern trends of convenience and clarity and instead embraces deliberateness and discovery.
Which I, personally, found quite intimidating at first because—confession time—I’m not terribly fluent with these titles.
I have tried multiple times to get into them. I’ve got a Steam library full of gritty third-person dungeon romps, and with each title, I get a bit further than the last. This culminated in around 25 hours worth of Elden Ring last year, which I enjoyed, and honestly got farther than I expected. But these sorts of games inevitably tend to wear on me: I see how hard the battles before have been, realize how far I have to go, and my attention wanders to other titles. To some, this is heresy, I know, but I have come to terms with the fact that it may just not be my jam as a rule.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty may have changed my opinion because I’ve been devouring my review copy, logging nightly sessions with eager abandon.
First, I’d like to discuss what differs from the expected offerings. The setting is in the iconic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, right at the start of our story with the outbreak of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. I’m already a mark for this era—both as a lover of Koei Tecmo‘s Dynasty Warriors series of games and the classic work of literature. The larger-than-life figures occupy the scene-setting cutscenes and join you on your outings to fight enemy soldiers and monstrous creatures. I perked up immediately when joined by allies like Zhao Yun and Sun Jian.
However, just because I got giddy with excitement with these additions doesn’t necessarily mean it will be that way for everyone. Saying something like “You can go kill zombies together with the Tiger of Wu” makes me light up with a big goofy grin, but it might elicit only confused looks from someone less invested in 2nd-century China. Still, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that many players have enjoyed the Dynasty Warriors franchise at one time or another, so there is a chance for buy-in on that front. Setting the game primarily within those early years of the Yellow Turban Rebellion is a wise choice in this regard, letting you fight alongside many of the heavy hitters of the era—Liu Bei, Sun Jian, Cao Cao, etc.—in a time when they are all nominally working towards the same goal. Therefore your self-insert warrior can be friends with everyone before it goes up in flames.
The established story and characters may also be a sticking point for some. Wo Long is not a game where the world is a cryptic puzzle that can only be solved by digging through out-of-context phrases uttered by disconnected NPCs that are cross-referenced with a deep wiki dive. Some cutscenes bookend the chapters as you progress through the story, laying out the growing malignant threat and serving as a highlight reel for the featured guest character’s beliefs and ambitions.
Many mechanics are the usual suspects too. You have light and heavy attacks, you can guard and parry, cast spells and summon a mythical beast aspect. Gear is critical in its function and weight, the latter of which can severely limit mobility or timing windows. Slain enemies drop loot of various rarities ala the Nioh titles, and this necessitates a lot of scrolling through your inventory to see what fits best with what you’re trying to achieve with your build.
But Wo Long also has a few mechanical tricks up its sleeve—namely, the spirit and morale systems.
There’s a jump button—and a double jump at that! That sounds minor, but verticality is critical to movement and exploration. Your character is also adept at flipping a little at the end of the double jump, allowing you to reach interesting places like rooftops easily. I spent a lot of time jumping around from rooftop to rooftop, gathering collectibles and scoping out the sights before dropping down from above on unsuspecting monsters.
Spirit is nominally like the stamina meter in most other games. You will drain your spirit by making evasive actions, taking big swings, using martial arts, and casting spells. Interestingly, your Spirit is not a bar that empties as it is used that slowly refills over time. I mean, it is, but the alignment is different because the Spirit meter goes left and right from a center marker. The more spirit you expend, the further your spirit will go to the left until it hits a lower limit. But specific actions—like landing regular blows or parrying enemy attacks—refill your spirit meter. You can even go past the center line into the positive side on the right, essentially “banking” positive spirit, which is added to future attacks as a damage bonus. This positive spirit can act as a buffer against enemy attacks, which also drain stamina, giving you more leeway before you get tapped out and exhausted.
I find this system fascinating. Because light attacks do not consume your spirit/stamina, and successful blows feed you more spirit, it encourages a far more aggressive playstyle. Once you start opening up an enemy with rapid attacks, parry a few blows, then land a big finishing blow with a stack of boosted damage on top of a flash martial arts move—wow, it really makes you feel like you’re a powerful martial champion in the setting. Despite a few grim settings and monstrous foes, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay when you’re in the zone has a sense of heroic triumph rather than hardscrabble struggle.
The morale system also sets a particular tone for the game’s levels. Each area is a separate map you fast-travel between (sorry gang, no sprawling open world here), and you have a morale rating in these self-contained maps. Your morale on the map starts at 0 when you first arrive and can go as high as 25. If your enemy has a higher morale than you, they get a damage bonus against you; if your morale is higher than theirs, you get a damage bonus against them. All enemies have a morale rank, including the bosses, so you have to work within this system.
Your morale rating goes up in several ways. The most basic method is defeating enemies. Another is to find battle flags, which are this game’s campfires/resting sites/what have you. The problem is that your morale goes down when you get hit and goes entirely back down to zero when you die and respawn, making future attempts more difficult. However, you also have a fortitude rating, and this is a hard floor on how low your morale goes when you die. Your fortitude is a combination of how many battle flag sites you’ve unlocked, but also your banner markers. These markers are not genuine resting sites but more like mini flags scattered throughout the map that help raise your fortitude.
Morale even acts as a minimum requirement for spell-casting. Not only do spells have a skill tree you must progress through along with minimum affinities for the governing element, but the spells also have minimum morale ranking requirements. This makes it such that some spells cannot be used when first arriving at an area, locking some of your more potent abilities until you’ve had a chance to bring up your morale. I found myself using an “early” spell setup for the start of a mission and a “late” spell setup when I had made enough progress to unlock my heavy hitters deeper into the map.
It should be noted that morale works alongside your character level and adjusts your stats accordingly. A high morale rank can boost your stats beyond what your level might indicate, and low morale might hold you back and make you feel under-leveled for a particular fight.
All this coalesces in play to make each map feel like a fresh start. You begin each new area with a more cautious approach, carefully locating flags and slaying enemies to get your morale to a more comfortable level (making sure to avoid enemies with morale ranks too high to risk challenging, especially if they are an enemy type you are unfamiliar with). Even a maxed-out morale score won’t leave you feeling overpowered for too long since you’ll soon be on to the next region to start it all over again.
For myself, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty created an engaging loop that hooked me early. I enjoyed the familiar setting, rewarding high-action combat, and constant sense of macro-progression via my character coupled with micro-progression in morale ranks for each stage. I’ve been hopping on and cutting up beasties with abandon every night since the review copy came my way.
Not only have I found Wo Long enjoyable, I’ve found it incredibly comfortable to play. Ironically, that latter part has given me a bit of pause. I’m doing better than I usually do with these sorts of games. Like… way better, at times comically so. Am I performing better here because Wo Long‘s setting and mechanics appeal to me and are easing some of the mental difficulty combined with more experience than when I first tried a Souls-like for myself? Or is Wo Long more of a casual hack-and-slash title that has a few of the trappings of its more challenging cousins but with more forgiving fundamentals? I love the game feel of Team Ninja projects, and the timing for combos and parry windows feels natural. Perhaps it’s a situation where after decades of playing Team Ninja titles, I instinctively pick up what they’re putting down.
It’s undoubtedly true that the game feel is radically different from many games I’ve tried in this space. The aggressive combat, positive spirit rewards, and morale system heavily skew engagements in the player’s favor, even in one-on-one fights. At the start of each map, I would find an easy loop near a flag and do a few circuits, slaughtering the same enemies repeatedly to pump up my morale score way past its value when I started. Then I’d steamroll the rest of the level, scoring enormous damage off a handful of reads… even on bosses. More than once, I beat a boss on the first try, and that’s something I’ve never had happen in a similar title. Just how much of a bonus was that 25 morale score giving me?
I often found there was no middle ground in the combat department. Usually, within one or two hits, I could tell if I needed to run away full speed and grind more Morale ranks or if I was about to annihilate every enemy within sight. It was feast or famine, slaughter or supreme victory. I died a few times when learning enemy attack patterns, but once I won, it was never by a sliver of health. Once I won, it was by a landslide, which also went for bosses.
The allies system further compounds this. The missions have you accompanied by an NPC ally, which helps divert enemy attention and add additional damage as they attack or use spells. The morale system also impacts these allies, and by the end of most maps, they were dishing out a considerable chunk of damage to the enemies in my path.
This multiplayer component does have the usual caveats that come with these titles. You dismiss the ally NPCs completely or replace them with an actual friend in online play. You can also be invaded by marauding players who rush in and challenge you to duels, suddenly altering your priorities and making you scramble for an excellent dramatic fight location.
The general ambiance is all solid. I had no performance issues and got steady framerates on my PS5. The environments and backgrounds look gorgeous and do a good job of evoking the apocalyptic feel of this era while being visually distinct from the gothic architecture that so often populates other titles in the space. The music is evocative in the moment though I can’t recall any particularly noteworthy tracks, and some of the string work was reminiscent of FromSoftware‘s titles. Because of the way exploration is encouraged and rewarded, you explore all the odd nooks and crannies of the maps, and they offer a host of neat areas and strange sights.
My biggest complaint about the visuals is the actual character models themselves. While the general designs are good, the characters look flat and indistinct compared to the environments. The textures don’t do much to impress, and the real shame is that most of the cutscenes involve being pretty up close and personal with these… less than stellar characters. The monstrous boss creatures do not suffer from this, which is good since you spend a lot of time focused on their movements and attacks during the set-piece encounters.
The loot system is also a hang-up for me, or at least an area I’m mixed about. On the one hand, I get tired of picking up nothing but trash items like burlap sacks and rusted daggers, so it’s fun to enjoy a constant stream of new loot. The problem is that, like many action RPGs with high quantities of loot, it’s easy to have your eyes glaze over merely trying to sort out what you have and whether it’s better or worse than another similar item. With so many stats to compare across dozens of similar items, it all starts to run together in one long scrolling blur, which makes the loot a different flavor of meaningless. I often checked over each weapon’s martial arts because that was a critical differentiator between similarly statted items.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a fun game in the vein of other challenging third-person action titles with a unique pseudo-historical setting and an enticing blend of kinetic combat with engaging level designs. It has some issues with loot management and character visuals, but the experience is the most fun I’ve had playing a game like this.
It’s also the easiest I’ve ever felt a Souls-like was to play and succeed at. Compared to the often brutal surprises that have taken me out in those games, this was practically a walk in the park. As someone who considers themselves something of a newcomer (or at least not an expert) in this space, that was a draw for me. But then maybe it is not any easier—maybe my brain processes “press circle to do a sick sword parry then follow up with an overhead axe drop” in a way that it cannot parse “press circle and roll around like Sonic the Hedgehog to avoid attacks.” Maybe I’ve just gotten better; this is the first time I’ve noticed meaningful progress.
Either way, there’s something here to enjoy regardless of skill level. For newish players in this space, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty has enough built-in buffers to keep the game from being too punishing. For more experienced delvers, the novel mechanics and conceit of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms period can bring interesting changes to spice up a familiar formula. Whatever camp you’re in, you’d better get real cozy with the inventory screen—you’ll be spending a lot of time scrolling there.