When FromSoftware hit the gaming scene with its popular Dark Souls series, many game companies attempted to capitalize on its success by emulating or putting their spin on Dark Souls’ trademark difficulty and gameplay, giving birth to the “Soulslike” genre. One of the most notable examples of this was Nioh, a series of action games where you fought monsters and powerful warriors from Japanese folklore and history.
They were beloved for their fast-paced gameplay, a vast range of character customization, and challenging boss fights, which some would argue could give Dark Souls’ bosses a run for their money. In 2022, the game’s developer, Team Ninja, and publisher, Koei Tecmo, unveiled a spiritual successor to Nioh called Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. It is an action game set in a grim interpretation of China’s Three Kingdoms era, where you are tasked to save the land from being destroyed by hordes of demons.
I admit I never played the Nioh games when they first came out, as I had only just become a fan of the Soulslike genre in recent years, so I was interested in checking Wo Long out. Thankfully, the kind folks at Koei Tecmo have sent us a preview code for the PC version of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, showcasing the first few hours of the game. After spending some time with this build, I came away thoroughly enthralled by what I’d seen, and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it.
A land gripped in demonic turmoil
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty takes place in China in the year 184 A.D. The land was engulfed in chaos as a rebel army called the Yellow Turban Rebellion carved a bloody path throughout China to overthrow the Han Dynasty.
What started out as a righteous group striving to topple a corrupt government fell to corruption themselves. In their desperation to achieve victory, the Yellow Turbans acquired mysterious, mystical drugs known as Elixirs. Elixirs are said to enhance one’s Qi (a person’s life force), granting them ungodly abilities beyond mortal men. However, when used improperly, Elixirs can cause one’s Qi to mutate out of control and transform that person into a demon, which is what happened to the Yellow Turbans.
Now warped beyond recognition, the Yellow Turban Rebellion is massacring everyone in their sight in the name of their cause, even innocent bystanders. This is where the player comes in. You play as a militia tasked to quell the Yellow Turban Rebellion and protect villages from their rampage. Without getting into spoiler details, your mission quickly escalates from keeping the peace to embarking on a dangerous journey where you fight hordes of demons, seek to discover the source of the Elixirs creating these monsters, and save the world from falling to ruin.
Exploring a war-torn world
After learning the stakes and creating my character, I was thrust into a battle where I had to safeguard villages from the Yellow Turbans. As someone who spent the last few years playing traditional Soulslikes like Dark Souls and Elden Ring, I was initially shocked by how different Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty felt.
While this game may have familiar mechanics like resting at checkpoints, losing your currency upon death (which can be retrieved if you grab them before dying again), online player invasions, and NPC/player summonings. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s gameplay structure and combat system are completely dissimilar to many of FromSoftware’s titles, aside from perhaps Sekiro.
Unlike most Soulslikes which take place in a giant, interconnected, Metroidvania-like world, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s gameplay is set in smaller-scale, mission-based levels. In each of these levels, you will explore the locale for gear to collect, slay enemies, and defeat the boss at the end to progress to the next level.
During your trek through these levels, you will spot places where you can plant one of two types of flags. Battle Flags act as checkpoints where you can rest, refill your healing potions, purchase supplies, etc. In comparison, Marking Flags simply restore your health. However, one thing they all do is raise your Morale Rank and Fortitude Rank.
Raising your morale
Morale Ranks are a gameplay mechanic which grants you access to Wizardry spells you learn as you level up your character stats; the higher the ranking, the more powerful spells you can cast. This ranking can be increased by raising Battle Flags, Marking Flags, and defeating enemies.
However, enemies have Morale Ranks too, and they determine how powerful their stats are. If their Morale Rank is way higher than yours, then it indicates they will be a tough opponent to defeat. To make matters worse, if an enemy kills you, you will lose Morale Ranking points, and their Morale Rank will increase, making them even harder to fight the next time you challenge them.
If you manage to defeat the foe that killed you, you will gain your lost Morale Rank points back. Just make sure you don’t die again along the way; otherwise, they’re lost forever. You can also lose a Morale Rank by getting hit by an enemy’s Critical Blow, which is an unblockable attack where the enemy glows red and can only be parried or dodged.
You can lessen the amount of Morale Rank points you lose by increasing your Fortitude Rank by raising flags. The Fortitude Rank determines the maximum level your Morale Rank can fall to upon death. For example, if your Morale Rank is Lv.15 and your Fortitude Rank is at Lv. 12, your Morale Rank will never fall below Lv. 12, no matter how many times you die or get hit by a Critical Blow.
Mastering the art of combat
If you don’t want to die and lose your Morale Ranks, your best bet is to get to grips with the advanced combat system of Wo Long. In stark contrast to combat systems from the likes of Elden Ring and Dark Souls, which emphasized patience, methodical planning, and waiting for the enemy to leave themselves open for an attack, Wo Long demands pure aggression from the player. Nearly every enemy in this game is relentless and will never stop rushing you down with an onslaught of attacks.
Your main form of defense against this offensive maelstrom is to kill the enemy before they kill you by unleashing a whirlwind of combo attacks and magic spells and deflecting an enemy’s attacks. This is emphasized further with one of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s unique gameplay mechanics – the Spirit Gauge.
The Spirit Gauge is a stamina/posture meter below your health bar that can be filled in different ways depending on your actions. The Spirit Gauge is filled through two resources: Positive and Negative spirit. You accumulate Negative Spirit by performing heavy attacks, using special moves unique to your chosen weapon, activating spells, deflecting or blocking attacks, or taking damage. When the Spirit Gauge is filled with 100% Negative Spirit, you will become stunned the next time you get hit, and you will be left vulnerable to a potentially life-ending blow.
The Spirit Gauge will gradually reset back to the neutral position if you hang back and do not perform actions that generate Negative Spirit, but you can quicken the process by generating Positive Spirit. Positive Spirit is gained by successfully deflecting/dodging enemy attacks. Not only will this keep you from going too far into the Negative side of the Spirit Gauge, but it can also grant you access to its Positive side. Positive Spirit can allow heavy attacks to deal more damage depending on how much Positive Spirit you have built up and activate certain passive traits from the gear you have collected throughout the game.
Understanding the Spirit Gauge is critical to your survival as all the enemies have Spirit Gauges as well. If you allow the enemy to build up Positive Energy from beating you down, they will become much stronger and almost impossible to defeat. So, it is in your best interest to reduce their Spirit Gauge by parrying their attacks and hacking them to pieces. Once their Spirit Gauge is 100% Negative, you can perform a cinematic finishing move on them that can chop off a good chunk of their health and even dispatch weaker foes in one hit.
This fast-paced, risk vs. reward style combat system was immensely satisfying to learn and master, especially during the boss fights. Each encounter with these grotesque abominations was an exciting dance of death, examining their attack patterns to see what could be parried and whittling down their Spirit Gauge until they were open for a mighty deathblow. Even when I was dying left and right, I was still enjoying myself as I got better at deflecting their attacks, culminating in a flawless victory where I practically ran circles around the boss, never getting hit.
Summon the Dynasty Warriors
Throughout the story, you will come across many warriors based on famous figures during this time period fighting against the Yellow Turban Rebellion. Without giving away spoilers, if you happen to be a fan of Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors franchise, you may recognize some of these characters. They will join you in each level as you trek across the lands of China and aid you during battle. They are very competent in battle; they hit hard and can endure a lot of attacks before going down.
As you fight alongside these warriors, you develop bonds with them that level up the more you spend time with them. Increasing your bonds will make them stronger and even offer rewards for your efforts. Judging from the few characters I have met so far, I found this to be a welcome gameplay feature that can help less experienced players get through the game without taking too much of the challenge away.
However, for those who wish to play Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty completely solo for the extra challenge, you can use the Willow Branch item in your inventory to remove them from your party. Should you wish to summon them again, you can do so at a Battle Flag by using the Tiger Seal item.
A promising start on a dark journey
Overall, I was very impressed and enjoyed what I saw of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty thus far. The controls are tight and responsive, the combat system is deep and complex, and the boss fights are over-the-top crazy. Not to mention, I already see hints that this game will have a huge diversity of weapons and armor to customize your character with to suit your preferred playstyle. My personal playstyle during the preview was a tank build that focused on wearing heavy armor, parrying attacks, and crushing skulls using a giant club and rock-elemental spells.
If this was just the opening act, I can’t wait to see what the rest of Wo Long has to offer. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is set to release on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, PlayStation 5, and PC via Steam on Mar. 3, 2023. If you’re a fan of Soulslikes titles or Team Ninja’s action games, I highly recommend you keep an eye out for this title as I feel it could be the first major hit of 2023 and one of the best Soulslike games on the market or even one of the best games on Xbox.
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Alexander Cope is a gaming veteran of 30-plus years, primarily covering PC and Xbox games here on Windows Central. Gaming since the 8-bit era, Alexander's expertise revolves around gaming guides and news, with a particular focus on Japanese titles from the likes of Elden Ring to Final Fantasy. Alexander is always on deck to help our readers conquer the industry's most difficult games — when he can pry himself away from Monster Hunter that is!