Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty review: Team Ninja's SoulsBorne doesn't quite cut it
Team Ninja isn't a developer that messes about. It's had its fingers in a wealth of pies over the years, birthing both the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises, very much earning its name as a company with a keen eye for tight, snappy combat.
Since then, its works have included Zelda scrapper Hyrule Warriors and even a step into the world of Final Fantasy with Stranger of Paradise. But arguably their most important recent adventure has been with the Nioh franchise.
Standing as one of the only games that could stand up against FromSoftware's rogue's gallery in the field of SoulsBorne titles, Nioh 2 is a punishing and intricate work of escapist sadism. While it hasn't managed to soar to its deserved heights, Nioh has still proven that the subgenre of games for the casual masochist isn't a one-horse race.
It's this game's push-for-the-burn attitude and effortless mastery of historial storytelling that has served as the diving board for a new adventure from the team - Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, a romp through ancient China and its vivid folklore. There weren't many lessons to learn from Nioh, but though Wo Long carries a lot from the series, it still has its own future to carve. And it does. For better or worse.
It's gonna be Wo Long, long time
Wo Long follows your unnamed protagonist (who is as ugly as you want to make them with the game's impressively extensive character creation tools) navigating 184 A.D China, making allegiance with Zhang Jiao's Way of the Taiping to take down the growing onslaught of the Yellow Turban rebellion. All of this is further complicated by the wills of the mysterious Taoist in Black, and an infestation of Demons that seems to follow the Yello Turbans at every turn.
The narrative is chaotic by its own admission, but frankly, the story serves predominantly as a backdrop for the hacking and slashing you'll be doing in the game, led by a system of Spirit and Morale. Spirit is gained by attacking enemies and deflecting their attacks, with a higher spirit level allowing you the option to execute acrobatic martial arts attacks, use spells, and perform attacks that work your opponent's spirit down from the outside.
The first thing you'll notice about Wo Long beyond its narrative introductions is the sheer speed of your movements, which does wonders for making you feel like a true warrior, something that the game seems dedicated to but there's still much to focus on. The game also has a morale system, a level that rises with kills and determines your strength, that is depleted when killed and struck with powerful moves. It is bolstered by a fortitude rank, a level gained by raising flags around the map. The system encourages a natural exploration around an impressively realised Three Kingdoms period, and operates as a fresh way to develop linear levels.
Wo Long is balancing a lot of features to offer a pretty substantial understatement, and while some work in the favour of an experience that feels linear by design but riveting to explore - but not everything comes together in such a concise way.
Where do I Wo Long?
The game might offer players total freedom, but it's little without its crucial signposting - and it misses the mark on multiple occasions in this regard. It's largely unclear until you go out of your way to find them that there are separate sub-battlefields to explore, as the game spurs you onto the next large battlefield in spite of a hub world in its secret village area, which is increasingly frustrating when many main battlefields will have a recommended level floor that can often be higher than your own.
Equally, the game's armour weight system deactivates the deflect move when surpassed, a fact that simply isn't made clear, leading to huge degrees of confusion - which certainly doesn't help the fact that our playthrough was hindered by a game-breaking bug that forced us to start the game anew as we got close to the game's finale. Even for a SoulsBorne title, this was punishing - but it's not all doom and gloom.
Thankfully, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty wasn't an entirely sour experience in spite of the circumstances, with some incredibly satisfying kills along the way. Though the genre traditionally flexes its muscle through boss battles, Wo Long excels when you find yourself in the moments in between, slicing through corridors of demons and swordfighters with ease and finesse once you've mastered the deflect with each enemy type, and exploring mystical forests and carving up mythical horrors doesn't get old quickly.
The game's power comes from your ability in spite of the seemingly dire circumstances, and bringing yourself back from the brink always comes with a spark of glee.
Inconsistent though it may be with particularly strangely timed deflect opportunities with some bosses, there are flashes of brilliance here, with huge potential waiting in the wings for something a little more clear-cut.
Where do Wo go from here?
Ultimately, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is another crack at the Soulsborne genre from Team Ninja that becomes so caught up in its specifics that it forgets to give its players everything they need to master its gameplay.
There are moments where players can see through the mist of obscuring details to see something of pure excitement, but these moments are swiftly dulled by a seeming refusal to give players the details that they need to maintain that experience.
It's incredibly likely that a new Wo Long game would bring these issues to their knees with a slightly less intense focus on forcing players to understand what's happening in every one of the many facets of its gameplay, and allowing them a little more room to breathe and explore a world that is already incredibly compelling. Wo Long is a hair's breadth from cohesiveness, but much like the game's antagonists, it slips through your fingers just when you think you've got it. Come on, Team Ninja. You've almost got it.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Code provided by the publisher.