Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is another fantastic iteration on the Team Ninja formula

Team Ninja is a studio with a storied history of making excellent action games. In recent years, they’ve been tackling action RPGs with Nioh and rapidly iterating on it since. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty moves in a different direction, both in setting and design, so we gathered to talk about Wo Long and the ways it builds off of Nioh in exciting ways.

Callum: I think we’ve reached a point where Team Ninja’s recent action RPGs have gone well beyond just being Souls-likes or Souls-inspired and need to be considered their own thing. There’s a lineage there, sure, but I think continuing to place them into that box is reductive. Between Nioh, Stranger of Paradise, and now Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty they’ve effectively differentiated themselves from From Software’s work very well. Although I guess it would be more accurate to say Wo Long is closer to Sekiro than the Souls games if we must make comparisons.

Wo Long is a great evolution of what Team Ninja did with Nioh. The way both games focus on wearing down your opponent and the ways they achieve that are very smart. Nioh did that by emphasizing damage to the opponent’s stamina (or “ki”) while also regaining your own instantly to keep the pressure on, whereas Wo Long takes a different tact with “spirit,” which you could call the game’s equivalent to “posture” from Sekiro if you must, but has much more going on with how it’s influenced by active and passive play respectively.

I’m not usually one who likes to go for parries (it’s easy for them to be more trouble than they’re worth), but when games do it as well as Wo Long, I’m here for it. It’s a kind of action that is extremely rewarding to pull off and never stops looking sick as hell. Team Ninja’s action game experience really shines here.

Still wish they would do away with the loot system (you cannot get me to care about a 2% increase in some stat or effect), but it seems like part and parcel with these games now. Oh well. Least it’s less heavy-handed here.

Wo Long screenshot

Eduardo: I get you in regards to the loot, but it feels like they dialed it down a lot since Nioh 2. It’s not as bad in this game and from what I’ve noticed so far — I’m currently 12 hours into Wo Long at the moment — most of the stuff you pick up is more store and material fodder than anything. I’ve been sticking to one piece of gear since the beginning of the game and slowly upgrading it as I find the upgrade materials for it. It’s been working fine.

For one, I absolutely adore the deflect mechanic in this game. The timing window is generous enough to make it possible for someone like me, who had a lot of trouble nailing the move on Sekiro, to get three out of four times a deflection. And it feels amazing. I know a lot of people are throwing po-po on the first boss, but it served as a great tutorial for me. After that, I got REALLY got at deflecting, heh!

In terms of overall content, I agree that Wo Long feels like the natural evolution from Nioh. Both franchises carry a lot of the Ninja Gaiden DNA in the way they deal with countering and movement, and I think with this Team Ninja got it down pretty much pat for me, honestly whereas Nioh 2 did get a little too much towards the end for me.

So far, what has been your approach to the game in terms of gameplay style, Callum? I’ve been trying to be more stealthy than anything else, even going as far as putting points into the blue category when leveling up, you know, the one that enhances how quiet the protagonist is. And it’s been a lot of fun for me. What’s your approach?

Callum: I mean, to be fair, these games do have a tendency to make the first boss harder than they ought to be. I have very distinct memories of Nioh and Nioh 2 both giving me a rough time with their first bosses respectively. Ninja Gaiden was also famous for that, wasn’t it? I didn’t have too much trouble against Wo Long’s first boss myself, but every attempt was extremely close, doubly so when I finally won. He’s tough!

I’m playing it like I did Nioh 2, though — which is to say, very aggressive. The dual swords are really good for getting in your opponent’s face and applying constant pressure (like the tonfa in Nioh 2 were exceptional at), so I’ve been building around attacks and deflections. The fire and water (or red and blue) stats are what I’ve been focusing on to that end, and because those are what my weapon’s tend to scale with. It’s been working very well! Love to be able to break through an enemy’s guard just by attacking relentlessly and get significant gains for doing so. I have been trying to play stealthily where possible, though. Anything to help improve the odds before engaging head-on.

I feel like Wo Long is less lethal than Nioh. Like, taking any hit in Nioh can be disastrous because of how powerful every hit is. I always felt like I needed to be careful about avoiding damage as much as possible because of how quickly a couple mistakes can add up, whereas in Wo Long I feel like I can turn things around pretty easily as long as I’m not being careless. Maybe it’s just how the morale system works (I have felt some enemies become much less threatening if my morale level is higher than theirs), but I think it helps a ton with making the focus on deflections less intimidating (also the fact that the parry window is pretty generous, of course) since the punishment for failure isn’t drastic once you’re past the intro.

Side-note, but I really like the morale system. It’s a smart way of scaling difficulty. Makes moving through levels maintain a constant balance while still giving you a way to obtain an edge when you need it. Feels good being able to make quick work of lower level foes when I’m on a roll and end up being several morale levels ahead of them.

Not sure how far you are exactly, but have you noticed the bosses becoming more focused around baiting certain attacks instead of deflecting regular strikes whenever possible? I’ve noticed it happening a lot more in the later parts of the game. Lot of long, difficult to parry combos that detract from the core strengths of the combat, I feel like.

Eduardo: For sure, I do also enjoy the way they’ve applied scaling up power with the morality system — and let’s remind those who haven’t yet played Wo Long of what it is; basically you hoist a number of banners that “permanently” powers you up in a particular stage when through death. It makes exploring environments worth it in the end since once you fully clear a level out of flags to plant, you’re officially good to go for the boss and have a good chance to beat it. I agree about the overall toughness of your character and how they can take a hit or two before you’re really in trouble. I don’t find that to be a detraction from the game, far from it, there are countless other ways to screw up other than simply dying to an enemy.

I’m in world 4 currently, and yeah, that tendency for the bosses to throw red herrings does seem to be taking over simply deflecting whatever big attack they have going my way. I don’t particularly think that’s especially bad because it helps keep me on my toes when fighting them, but I admit it does seem to play against the excellent systems in place that the game initially has you learning by sheer pressure on that first boss, for instance.

Overall, though, I am finding the boss encounters to be more or less balanced. Even that first one has a mechanic in it in form of a tutorial that makes it almost a breeze once you’re on its second phase, but it’s easy to miss, which I guess it’s what’s happening to the people who are complaining about it. With that in mind… So far, what are your favorite fights or encounters in the game?

Callum: I’m not sure I have a favorite. I think that’s partially a result of how much bosses revolve around just baiting their big critical strikes after a certain point. Deflections feel like they become a better block in some cases, since I don’t always have the opportunity to spend the spirit I’ve built up to deal additional damage to their own spirit to open them up for a critical attack of my own. A parry isn’t going to interrupt their combo and give me a free chance to get a few hits in before they recover, so it becomes necessary for damage mitigation instead of being a part of my offense.

And like, that can work if used sparingly. The fight against Lu Bu is one where you have to rely on deflections entirely because he’s too strong to take on otherwise. Trying to wear him down through regular means just doesn’t feel possible (or it is, but it’s just way harder). It feels thematically appropriate with how he’s always depicted as some impossibly strong figure. Of course you can’t just beat him with raw strength; he’s got you beat on that front. It’s a good fight too! Felt like a good mid-game challenge to see how well your parry abilities have shaped up. But then so many other boss fights revolve around similar ideas that it all feels just another foe instead of a big moment.

Like, the fights are still good in that playing Wo Long just feels good and exciting (the benefits of a really strong mechanical foundation), but the actual boss fights don’t often feel memorable. There’s one fight that has you dealing with someone making clones of himself wherein every clone you beat makes the rest weaker (as well as the main boss himself), which is cool, but these games also don’t really handle fighting multiple targets at once very well, so it’s kind of a nonstarter. But the idea at least shows they could do to make the boss battles stand out.

Some of the sub-missions have you fighting allies in duels, and those are often the ones I end up really enjoying because they feel perfectly tuned to the strengths of Wo Long’s combat. I can get in and get a bunch of hits in, I can deflect attacks to create openings and to build spirit to deal additional damage and wear them down faster. It feels like there’s a proper back and forth. It’s the thing Sekiro did perfectly: pitting you against opponents who were on equal footing with you, who have the same abilities. Those kinds of fights are always some of the best you can have if done well, and Wo Long definitely excels at those.

…Wait, that might actually be my answer, now that I think about it.

Eduardo: Lu Bu is actually the boss I’m at right now and yeah, it’s the one I’m encountering the most trouble beating. I THINK it’s a matter of being slightly underleveled for the stage and the fight, so I might need to drop back and grind a little? He’s got way too much health!

I know what you mean about the duels, they were some of my favorite fights in the Nioh games as well, since you got so used to fighting alongside them, it was extremely interesting to square off against your allies in the bonus missions. That’s one aspect of Wo Long that I really enjoy, fighting actual human-sized enemies as bosses, even though they are few and far between. So there, I might have to agree with you on that one, that’s my favorite “kind” of boss fight in this.

So, to round us up to our thoughts as a whole, how high do you rank Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty among others in this sub-genre of games? I would put it somewhere between Nioh 1 and 2, since Nioh 2 is my favorite out of Team Ninja’s catalog, and probably somewhere at the upper half of From’s own Souls games. Out of all of them, Bloodborne is still far in a way my top pick, still, but I would definitely put this slightly over Sekiro, since it’s a much more manageable game. Then again, that fight with the ape is easily one of my most cherished videogame moments of all time, so it might be a toss up between them if I take that into account!

Callum: Couple quick points I want to hit before we wrap up:

One, mapping the parry onto the same button as dodging is smart. Gives you room to still get out of the way if you screw up the parry timing, which helps a lot with making the deflections feel more accommodating. It’s not quite on the level of Lucah: Born of Dream’s method (in Lucah, you parry attacks by dodging into them, meaning you’re almost guaranteed to dodge if you were slightly off on the timing), but to see another game doing something similar is great all the same.

Second, the fact that parries work on literally anything is so good. That time I parried a log in the demo was a fun surprise, but being able to parry explosions and spells that apply status afflictions via mist as well is perfect. It’s a really silly thing to see happen, but it’s great! It’s some peak videogame absurdity and I love it.

I don’t think I have an answer for ranking, though — like for real. (Also I did say at the start of this that I think they’re beyond being considered Souls-likes at this point, so…) I’d say I hold Wo Long and Nioh in equal regard. They’re of a similar type, yes, but they’re divergent enough that I can’t say I prefer one over the other. The ways both games tackle Team Ninja’s style of combat are great in their own ways and I love how quickly they’ve been able to iterate on it in increasingly novel ways. The foundation continues to be strong and I would love to see where they can take it next. Maybe I should finally get back to Nioh 2 and get to its DLC after I’m done with Wo Long. Kinda in the mood for more of this kind of action…

I’m curious to see what will be next. I’ve heard from people who are well-versed in the source material that Wo Long only covers a couple chapters of the greater Romance of the Three Kingdoms story, so they probably have a ton more to work with should they decide to make a series out of this. But then, there’s still DLC on the way, and who knows how extensive that will be. I’d be down to see them continue to iterate on what they have here. I also wonder whether they’ll stick to historical fantasy (and if so, where to next) or if they’ll branch out more like with Stranger of Paradise last year, which itself built off Nioh in a different but equally strong direction.

Whatever the case, I’m excited to see what this team does next.

Eduardo: Oh man, definitely love how parrying is so powerful in this game. You make an excellent point bringing that up, Callum. Yeah, it’s extremely silly when you think about it, but it makes for a very fun mechanic. I love deflecting normal attacks instead of dodging or simply defending. As I mentioned before, the timing window in this game is extremely generous and that makes parrying a useful tool to use all the time and not just topically.

I’m also looking forward to seeing what they have cooking. The Nioh DLCs were okay in their own right, but I’m hoping the new things coming out for Wo Long feel a little more substantial in terms of story and that like you said, new weapons come into play to complement what’s currently in the game.

As it stands, though, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is among Team Ninja’s top tier releases over the last few years. I’m still ways off from finishing it, but I’ll get there eventually! Thanks for dropping by again and chatting with me, Callum. Hope to see you sometime in the game!

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