ninelines

Half Mag / Half Zine

There’s prolific, and then there’s Team Ninja. No sooner had I wrapped up an evening with the demo of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty – a demo that’s just gone live to all on PlayStation 5 – than the news broke of another in its long line of action games with Rise of the Ronin. And all this before I’ve even had the chance to finish the team’s take on Final Fantasy, Strangers of Paradise, or even managed to fully get my head around what exactly Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is.

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty preview
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Played on: PS5
Availability: Out 2023 on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S
There’s plenty that’s familiar in Wo Long, though, both from the Nioh games it builds upon – themselves a pair of hard-edged, deeply enjoyable spins on the action RPG template laid out by FromSoft’s Souls games – and Koei Tecmo’s broader history with the Three Kingdoms periods. Because, in the simplest terms possible, Wo Long is Nioh transposed to the mythology and legends of third century China.

It’s more than that, though, with an all-new approach to combat and an entirely different feel to it all. Nioh was a game of studied composure, and one that rewarded consideration in your attacks. Wo Long, on the other hand, flows like water and invites you to lose yourself in its combat, pulling you through its stages with a momentum quite unlike that which you’d associate with your typical Soulslike. It’s not quite a musou – that brand of crowd-clearing action that Koei Tecmo has made a craft of over the past 20 years – but it weaves in some ideas with its morale system that sees you conquering the map to earn more power. The end result is something that feels surprisingly novel.

“We wanted a new flavour for the next Team Ninja game,” Wo Long’s producer Fumihiko Yasuda tells me earlier in the week as the studio were making its final preparations before the Tokyo Game Show. “We were thinking what are we going to do for this new action RPG, and we really wanted to make a title with the core themes and setting of the Three Kingdoms – that Chinese setting brings in a new country to explore, and the main focus for the combat and the game itself is Chinese martial arts, so it’s about bringing that to life.”

That’s what’s impressed the most after an evening with Wo Long, and is certainly what sets it apart from the likes of Nioh. There was a complexity to the combat of both Nioh games that’s been funnelled down into something more immediate in Wo Long, with systems in place that reward a more aggressive style of play.

“With Nioh we were going for samurai action, that was our big focus. And because of that we had the stamina bar, and each specific attack had a lot of weight,” explains Yasuda. In Wo Long, the stamina bar is effectively flipped on its head and instead there’s a spirit gauge that fills up as you attack, but that’s also drawn upon when dodging or performing specials, putting an emphasis on attack. “What we’re going for here is free flowing action, free flowing combat, and we’ve added in a jump to give you a lot more options. What you actually do when you’re controlling your character makes the game a lot more instinctual.”

In the hand it feels fantastic, the fast-flowing fluidity of your moveset making for a distinct take on the action RPG. It’ll be interesting to see how Wo Long’s pronounced flavour impacts on build variety and viability, as while the starting class I went with tended towards stealth it seemed the only way through enemies is relentless attack, suggesting there’ll be a more defined path ahead of you. There is breadth there, though, and a moveset that’s extended outwards in other ways; there’s a deflect in your arsenal that lets you soak up attacks, while that spirit gauge encourages a certain toing and froing in combat. It’s similar to Sekiro in that it puts an emphasis on the timing in combat, but Wo Long has plenty of its own quirks too.

Perhaps the most distinctive is its morale system – something that’s a bit fuzzy in that having had it explained to me and fiddled around with in the demo I’ve still not entirely grasped, although as there are similarities to Demon’s Souls world tendency, a system I also never fully understood, that’s might be unsurprising.

“The initial inspiration was taking the level design of these kinds of games and combining that with this Three Kingdoms focus, and the strategic elements of those games,” says producer Masaaki Yamagiwa, a producer who brings experience from the likes of Bloodborne from his previous role at Sony’s Japan Studios. “There’s a rank and number value for your character and the enemies. You can defeat enemies to get stronger, and it shows you how strong they are and how strong you are – and you can get stronger as you raise it by securing the map. That’s kind of a general explanation of it.”

From what I can ascertain from the demo it’s a world levelling system, essentially, that sits apart from how you level your character up in traditional RPG fashion (something that’s done in Wo Long by assigning your skill points to one of five affinities, each one of them granting you different attributes). It all adds up to a game that feels very malleable, with multiple ways to overcome the challenges inherent within the Soulslike genre.

“This is another option to adjust the difficulty level in their favour,” says Yamagiwa, “because the game itself could potentially be seen as a very difficult thing. If players are having difficulty, the morale system is something they can focus on and try to keep increasing their rank, to try to help them decide how they want to get through the game and get stronger. We also want to add that we want all players to start on the same footing – everybody’s on the same level, but they have all these different options on how you want to adjust it.”

It’s an interesting take on the perennial question of difficulty in this district of games, and I’m fascinated to see how it pans out – and how the wider audience adapts to and makes sense of a system that helps set Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty apart. Like both Nioh games before it, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty feels like a more than worthwhile twist on the ever-popular action RPG template. The demo itself has just dropped on PS5 and Xbox Series X, where it’ll be available until September 26th.