There’s a deliciously delicate dance that weaves its way throughout Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, a dance of blocks and lunges that choreograph a combat system to rival Sekiro. I’ve not played any of Team Ninja’s previous games, but if their combat is half as good as Wo Long’s, I’ll be diving in as soon as I’ve finished the upcoming action-RPG.
Set in second century China, Wo Long uses the myths and iconography of the Three Kingdoms era to provide a wide-range of human, demon, and twisted animal enemies for you to face off against. Unfortunately, they aren’t offered any context beyond being cool opponents to fight. There are rebels marauding through villages for some reason, and they have these powerful monstrosities on their side. Stop asking questions and start killing.
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However inexplicable, the diversity of foes keeps the core gameplay loop from getting stale, but with a combat system as satisfying as Wo Long’s, it’s hard to imagine ever getting bored. The spirit gauge mechanic works brilliantly as a replacement for the standard stamina bar as, like Sekiro and its posture, it lulls you into a state of flow as you balance deflecting, counterattacking, and using powerful spells. Each fight has its own tempo you have to adjust to, with even small enemies offering a challenge when they up the aggression.
While the weapons, gear, and spells all aid you in combat, the biggest hurdle to overcome is mastering the rhythm of each fight. Hesitate for even a second once your spirit is filled and you risk getting caught in a combo and having all your effort wasted. Deploy an ability too early and it’ll be underpowered, so timing your moves is key. Bosses and minibosses require a measured approach. I got my arse handed to me a dozen times by one boss until I realised we were dancing in two different steps. I needed to focus on deflecting its critical attacks to break its spirit rather than chipping away at its health.
The morale feature has been expanded in this preview – if an enemy lands a critical attack it now lowers yours, so you’re encouraged to actively block rather than just tanking hits. Each time an enemy kills you, its own morale increases. It’s legally distinct enough from the Nemesis System(TM) to avoid a lawsuit, but functions similarly. Getting revenge on foes that felled you multiple times is sweet, and you can even avenge other players through the game’s online functionality. Wo Long has flags of the fallen, akin to the Souls series’ ghosts and messages. Make an offering and you’ll boost the strength of an enemy that killed someone else, and you’ll get accolades for taking it out. I don’t know what these do yet, but the tantalising promise of them scratches an itch in my monkey brain and encourages challenging yourself and taking on more powerful bosses, forcing you to engage with Wo Long’s core mechanics and work to further understand the combat’s rhythm.
Unfortunately, the story present in the preview leaves a lot to be desired, and the insular levels – open as they are – feel like the wrong move for a game like this. Each character is different enough to feel fresh, but you don’t get to know them very well in just a single area. Worse still, I don’t feel connected to the world because I’ve barely traversed it, each new chapter simply skips you to a new location. It’s necessary for the morale system, but the trade-off isn’t worth it. The environments are very distinct from each other, however, and previews show that Wo Long intends to take full advantage of the many different landscapes China has to offer. As it stands though, while the scenery is nice, my lack of attachment to any of it is a hindrance.
Those faults are far from my mind when I’m clashing with a tough enemy, though. Regaining my composure when I’m caught in a combo, managing to deflect successfully before launching a counterattack that utilises a mixture of spells and acrobatic skills is thrilling. It’s just a shame the story isn’t as captivating as the ringing of steel.