As a giant beast swiftly rolled at me, its tough spines turned into a viciously sharp vortex and I panicked and hit the dodge button. As luck would have it, I timed it just right and deflected the Sonic-esque foe onto its side. I seized my opportunity and delivered a flurry of attacks at its stomach, diminishing its spirit and leaving it open for a fatal strike that took off a huge chunk of its health. I imbued my sword with fire and spat flames at the monster, before finishing it off with another flurry of strikes. “Revenge accomplished” appeared on screen. I’d defeated the demon hedgehog that had bested me earlier. The combat in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is fluid and unforgiving, but once you’ve mastered it, defeating your enemies is rewarding beyond compare.
Developed by Team Ninja, Wo Long is set in a dark fantasy version of China in the build-up to the Three Kingdoms era. The demos I played didn’t give away a single ounce of the story, all I know is I played as a nameless warrior, carving through man, demon, and beast alike to challenge a boss at the end of the gauntlet. Fans of the Soulslike genre and Team Ninja will be familiar with this type of gameplay – paths littered with lesser opponents for you to hone your skills on before taking on a tough foe at the end.
Wo Long doesn’t feel like a simple copy of FromSoftware’s formula – you can feel Team Ninja's experience with the Nioh and Ninja Gaiden series reach a peak here. Instead of a stamina bar that limits you and prevents you from simply rushing enemies, the spirit gauge encourages you to stay on the offensive. Using magical spells and martial arts abilities depletes it, and the only way to build it is by landing attacks and deflecting incoming strikes. Deflecting is a visual treat, as Wo Long boasts phenomenal animations that made me feel like a real warrior who mastered the art of combat when I sent an enemy’s barbed grab attack flying back at him. Mistime it or get hit and your spirit dwindles, leaving you without the extra powers that give you the edge in battle. Failing starts a cascade effect that can see you being quickly overwhelmed – mustering courage and returning to the offensive is the only way to turn the tide back in your favour.
Enemies have spirit gauges too, and they work in a similar way to Sekiro’s posture bars. Deplete an enemy's spirit using regular and spirit attacks – the latter of which uses your own charged-up gauge to deliver devastating spirit damage to an opponent – and you leave them stunned and open to a fatal strike, a critical hit that takes a good chunk off their health bar. The more successful hits they land on you though, the more their own spirit gauge charges and the deadlier they become.
Striking the right balance between normal attacks to build up my spirit gauge and utilising powerful abilities to overwhelm my foes is the most engaging and challenging part of Wo Long, and it’s taken to the extreme during the boss fights. An enormous, twisted warthog was the first boss I faced, and raining down icicles, spraying it with poison mist, or searing its flesh with fire after a flurry of successful strikes and deflections shows off the game’s combat loop beautifully. Putting the work in and nailing the basics makes the magical finishers feel earned. The times I used too many abilities and missed a dodge or two though saw me punished harshly, as my warrior became stunned and unable to move out of the way of a devastating combo attack. It’s the most gratifying dance of combat I’ve experienced since Sekiro.
As well as the spirit gauge’s iteration on the classic stamina bar mechanic, a morale system forms an engaging evolution of the penalty for death in Soulslike games. Besting foes in skirmishes raises morale, something required to use higher-powered abilities. However, if an enemy kills you, you lose your morale and its own goes up, making it more deadly. “Crushing defeat” spreads across the screen, mocking you and daring you to try again. Every time the “Revenge accomplished” message appeared when I finally took them down made a smile spread across my face, as I cursed their family name and moved on to the next fight. It's as close to the patented Nemesis system as it could be without inviting a lawsuit. It makes for thrilling rivalries and personal triumphs within Wo Long, and hitting the maximum morale level gives your Divine Beasts access to their most powerful forms.
The five Divine Beasts represent each of Wo Long’s five classes. I tried the aggressive Fire phase, the debuffing Metal phase, and the stealth-based Water phase. They each impacted the way I played dramatically. Fire invites a more Bloodborne-style approach to combat, rewarding more spirit per successful attack, meaning as long as I kept up the offensive I could crush enemies with my magical powers. The Metal phase encouraged a mix of attacking and positioning. I’d get in close for enough strikes to spread poison mist on a foe, then use a martial arts ability that combined a strong hit and acrobatic backflip to create distance. The Water phase showed me just how powerful stealth could be against individual foes, as sneak attacks that, with other classes just did more damage, became a one-hit kill.
The Divine Beasts themselves act as powerful summons that aid you in battle in a similar vein to Elden Ring’s Spirit Ashes. Some bring forth a single, large attack, others stay by your side and fight with you, while some heal. All offer passive buffs for having them equipped, like higher spirit strike damage or more physical resistance. They can be mixed and matched as you progress, as level increases work by putting points into one of the five phases, meaning your character will be a hybrid tailored to your specific playstyle. I found a mix of Metal and Fire to offer the most robust offense while also giving me the skills needed to maintain distance when I needed it. I found the boss much harder when playing as the Water phase, but equipping heavy armour helped get the scales back in my favour, so any build can be adapted to the situation at hand.
I can’t wait for Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty to launch. After a series of disappointing Soulslikes that bring little to the genre, it's refreshing to see one confidently introduce new ideas while still executing the core pillars well. It’s the first Soulslike I’ve played that isn’t trying to be Dark Souls, but is instead iterating on the genre staples introduced by it.
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