For all its power and imposing nature, the trial by fire is a delicate thing in games. Make your gauntlet too tough, even players who beat it won’t be satisfied. Make it too easy, and you run the risk of cheapening all the effort put in by the player thus far. How important it is, then, to find the balance. To get it just right, with not a single element off. Trials by fire are just that for players and developers—both parties have to be aligned.
It’s fortunate, then, that I ended up so wonderfully in-sync with Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a Soulslike action RPG from Team Ninja, creators of the Nioh series. With the familiar features and ferocity of FromSoftware’s games, the parry-intensive Wo Long feels like Team Ninja’s own spin on something like Sekiro. As a seasoned Soulsborne player with no previous experience with the developer (aside from this game’s first demo, which I did not beat), I was curious to see how I’d fare.
That mindset is where the joy of Wo Long lies. The thrill of the challenge, of seeing just how well you’ll do against whatever is thrown at you. Immediately after my first successful parry, I was having fun. This romp through the Three Kingdoms is incredibly fast-paced compared to its contemporaries, and I felt that from the jump. Even with that speed, though, Wo Long does a number of things to create a comfortable ebb and flow throughout its roughly 15 hour runtime.
Admittedly, the slew of mechanics can feel overwhelming at first. There are normal attacks, spirit attacks, martial arts that require two buttons, wizardry spells with two buttons, projectiles, bows, dodges, and the ever important parry. Yet, all of these things follow a simple learning curve, and are gradually understood while playing. They’re also well suited to different playstyles, as no fight in Wo Long is dependent on any of the additional mechanics. You can use wizardry, martial arts, and projectiles as much—or as little—as you like.
The same cannot be said of the parry. Wo Long allows experimentation to a great degree, with different weapon types and spells aplenty. The parry, however, is your bread and butter. Landing one can completely reverse the flow of any fight, and will definitely rejuvenate your spirit. Literally—successful parries are the best way to refill your spirit bar. The spirit bar rests underneath your health, and has both positive spirit (in blue, in the right half of the bar) and negative spirit (in orange, to the left). Positive spirit lets you pull off spirit attacks, more powerful blows which do more damage to enemies. Negative spirit works similarly to poise in other games of the genre. Block or suffer enough hits (or use too many spirit moves while in the red), and the next hit you take with a full orange bar will break your guard and leave you stunned.
Again, this may sound like a lot when explained on paper. In reality, that is not how I learned any of Wo Long’s finer details. No, that came from Zhang Liang, the first boss of the game. Zhang Liang very quickly cements his place in the pantheon of great first bosses, while also cementing his weapon’s place in your skull. Here, we see the start of Wo Long’s excellent trial by fire design. The first big bad is hyper-aggressive in his attacks, yet is built so that the best way to meet him is with intense aggression of your own. Zhang Liang destroyed me for almost an hour straight. In that hour, though, his beating fuels a very fast learning curve. The complex technicality of Wo Long’s moveset quickly became second nature as I kept throwing myself at the boss. I parried, I chipped away, I found windows for spirit attacks and cheeky heals. By the time I managed my winning run, I was consistently beating Zhang Liang’s first phase hitless. The feeling was sublime.
The same things that make Zhang Liang and other bosses fun are what also make the regular levels and enemies of Wo Long a joy to encounter. Learning tells, delays, and specific parry windows is incredibly fun. This approachable complexity is bolstered by a great audiovisual feedback loop. Parries make a satisfying clash sound, while deathblows offer a bombastic animation leading into the most grin-inducing shattering sound I’ve heard all year. So many of Wo Long’s hardest earned attacks truly make you feel powerful, and that goes a long way in making even its most punishing fights a great time.
How you get to those fights, however, is not fully carried by the combat. Wo Long sports level design that feels delightfully old-school at first. Early levels, called battlefields, are mostly linear. There are clearly identifiable camps and groups of enemies, usually with one foe standing out as the most powerful. Some exploring off the beaten path will reveal additional items, and higher level enemies to test your mettle if you dare. Side routes also often end in a shortcut, looping the level back on itself. It’s nothing spectacular, but taking the time to see more of what a battlefield has to offer is mostly worth the effort.
This level design slowly falls apart by endgame, however. Wo Long is split into seven major parts, a structure that generally helps with breaking the game up into manageable chunks. Unfortunately, the latter parts suffer a bit of winding, uninteresting level design. The promise of loot does little once you’ve found your winning combo of weapons. Visually they’re eye-catching, but more than one battlefield ends up little more than constant repeats of the same upper ground and catacombs combo. I got to the end of multiple battlefields in Parts 5 and 6 with barely half of the mini flags (health-restoring checkpoints, not to be confused with Battle Flags) raised, simply because I never found them despite extensive exploration.
What disappointment these flaws bring are quickly forgotten, however, upon reaching a battlefield’s end. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty sports one of my favourite boss gauntlets in recent memory. First, there’s the difficulty curve. Rather than an aggressive ramping up, Wo Long opts for a seesaw of difficulty. It works wonderfully: if you can beat Zhang Liang, you can beat the whole game. After the first boss comes a few others of similar difficulty, made slightly less taxing by AI companions aiding you. They don’t do much damage early on, but they’re not bad for trading the boss’s attention. Next, skill-check bosses that end up regular enemies later on. Then comes Zhang Rang: an easy, gimmick-focused boss who’s preceded by a generally easier battlefield and miniboss. And at roughly halfway through the game? Enter Lu Bu.
Lu Bu is an early contender for best boss fight of 2023. This glaive-wielding general begins his assault not just on your person, but on your mind. He immediately challenges everything you’ve learned up till this point in Wo Long, denying every attempt at aggression and placing the player firmly on the defensive. To triumph over Lu Bu, I had to let him come to me, and parry my way to victory. It was nothing short of a deadly dance, a vicious test of my parry ability, and I loved every second. Masaaki Yamagiwa, a producer on FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, also produced on Wo Long and it truly shows. The Lu Bu fight encapsulates that peak Bloodborne flow of learning the moveset, waiting for an opening, then utterly annihilating any who come near with nary a hint of aggression. It’s not a concept exclusive to the grimdark world of the Hunters, but it made up so much of what makes that game great, and it is on full display in Wo Long from Lu Bu onwards.
The ebb and flow of Wo Long’s bosses is fitting, as it mimics the natural progression of the kind of war that has swept the land in this story. The narrative centres on an evil Taoist who spreads Elixir, an empowering liquid that bestows men with beastly power—while also driving them to the brink of insanity. He controls the war from behind the scenes, shaping the events of history in his pursuit for the Ultimate Elixir. Standing in his way are the warring factions he does not control, which include prominent figures from the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms tale. It is this key influence that is both blessing and bane to Wo Long’s narrative.
Put simply, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a fantastical take on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Take great generals Cao Cao, Lu Bu, and their cohort of comrades, then throw dragons and divine beasts into the mix. It’s a clever spin, one that clearly revels in its own identity. Cinematics are extensive without feeling overly expository, and there’s some great direction here. The introduction of one Miss “Diao Chan” (put in quotes for… reasons) is a particularly captivating scene. Yet, the game’s take on the story is ultimately a simple one. When consulting a friend who knows the Romance well, I learned that Wo Long’s story is full of great fanservice for fans who have that prior context. For people like me, though, who are missing it, the story is just fine. Not terrible, but nothing overly memorable, save for a great performance by Julia Gu as our stalwart companion Hong Jing.
When all is said and done, Wo Long offers a short postgame experience. There’s some fun to be had, but the less said about some of the sub battlefields (three-on-one and two-on-one boss fights are never good, please stop), the better. On the bright side, the soundtrack never stops hitting, with composer Kenichiro Suehiro delivering a masterclass on both versions of Wo Long’s title theme. Add to that high fidelity visuals in pretty environments, an approachable take on the Soulslike formula, and a parry that just won’t quit, and it is easy to find a good time in this fallen dynasty.
Sarim played Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty on PlayStation 5 with a code provided by the publisher. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is also available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC.