Perhaps the most telling Wo Long: fallen dynasty is that it took me about three hours to knock down the first boss, a towering figure of a commander named Zhang Liang. During a litany of my futile attempts, he staggered me repeatedly with a giant mace, wiping out nearly a third of my health each time it bloodied my face. Within seconds the battle was over, a dull red haze over the graceless sight of my crumpled, defeated body, and the Chinese expression for “crushing defeat” was on the screen. It soon became clear that what I was doing was not only wrong, but hopelessly inelegant: running headfirst into the fight with a fragile sword, slashing stupidly in the hope that something I did would leave a mark.
Wo long has no patience for ineptitude – a refrain you’re probably expecting if you’re familiar with No or No 2, Team Ninja’s crushing ruthless games set in feudal Japan, as well as its unwillingness to tolerate negligence. Take my fight with Zhang Liang, which could only be won when I finally mastered his attacks and moves, which were meted out in quick, erratic intervals: a leap into the air and the slamming of his mace to the ground; several hefty swings of the same weapon, twirling like a weightless twig; and unblockable critical attacks that quickly drained my health. To achieve victory, I need to be familiar with the game’s key maneuvers, such as quick ripostes, dodges, and magic spells, and be able to perform them on precisely the right time – before my enemy gets the upper hand. I should understand the cadence and flow of this seemingly impossible skirmish. And just when I think I’m done, I have to arm myself for an even tougher second phase.
This is the kind of demanding, almost strenuous exercise you have to keep up to overcome the hard encounters Wo long. You traverse a fantastic Chinese countryside and spend your time collecting loot; recruit companions in the form of military generals and mythical allies; and unlocking checkpoints and shortcuts along the lines of Dark Souls, Bloodborneand, most directly, Sekiro: Shadows die twice. As was the case No and its sequel, Team Ninja demonstrates a deep understanding of what makes the “Soulslike” genre tick, and it puts those lessons into its most ambitious project yet with an expert hand.
Perhaps even more impressive Wo long‘s meticulous, borderline reverent approach to its narrative source material, at least in the chapters I’ve completed so far (I’ve spent about 14 hours with the game). Like a fantastic retelling of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga — one of the most famous Homeric epics of Chinese literature — Wo long begins in a smoldering village, in the heart of a vicious war known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion. As a nameless hero gifted with a mysterious power, you’re unceremoniously thrust right into the middle of the action. You’ll explore desolate foothills, derelict palaces and grassy plains and lakes nestled between towering mountain peaks – much like a pilgrimage through both pastoral and war-torn scenes of medieval China.
Wo long avoids the clumsy heavy-handedness typical of games inspired by Chinese literature, where random Oriental-inspired motifs are injected as a symbol of otherness. You can finish off enemies with a mix of supernatural powers and physics-defying reckless stunts, along with companions who speak of righting wrongs with their steel, swearing eternal allegiance and making lifelong pacts. Mythical creatures – such as the Zhu Yan, a monster plucked from the pages of the Chinese text on mythical beasts, Classic of mountains and seas – appear regularly. This is the story of the Three Kingdoms reimagined as wuxia, a Chinese genre with swordsmen bound by a knightly code; Wo long borrows generously and effectively from this lexicon.
Wo longThe game’s backstory may be rich and elaborate, but so is its elaborate combat rules system. Combat is primarily centered around your rotating armor, be it a combination of sword and colossal halberd or ax and elegant spear, as you loot new armor and items and aggressively slash your way through the fleshy bodies of your enemies.
Still, there’s a fine line here; carelessness can be fraught with cuts and grievous wounds, and even simple foot soldiers can bring you an untimely death. On the other hand, Wo long rewards consecutive victories with a feature called moral rank, which temporarily increases with each enemy you slay. That being said, the game takes as much as it gives. Your enemies also have their own morale, which rises every time they kill you, be it an imposing boss or a humble man. Along with your equipment stats, your moral rank – in relation to your enemy’s – directly affects how much damage you deal and receive. At the same time, there is also a way to regain your lost morale: by taking revenge on the same enemy who killed you. It’s an inventive twist on the Soulslike formula, as it indicates how challenging a given match is likely to be from a distance – without having to die multiple, needless deaths by plunging your head into random encounters.
There are also experience points in the form of what the game calls “real qi.” (This is a bit of an odd choice of translation, by the way; a similar Chinese phrase, “essential qi,” is often used in wuxia stories and has roots in traditional Chinese medicine.) Qi can be used to improve your character’s stats, and after certain intervals of upgrades, unlock points that are distributed among five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These further affect your hero’s passive stats, from strength to vitality, but also grant new active abilities and magical powers. The game’s wizard spells, which are based on these five elements, can mostly be used to boost your melee attacks and inflict status effects on your enemies. its place of impact. However, these mostly feel like flourishes, at least in the first few chapters; at that point, melee combat is still the core of the game.
If a single mechanic is at the core of Wo long‘s intense combat, it is the defense movement. In fact, so many of the game’s encounters rely on this one balletic move that wins can seem almost out of reach if you just can’t get the timing right. As is the case in Sekiromonitor and evade attacks Wo long offers only a temporary reprieve, giving you a few precious seconds to heal, cast a spell, and better understand the tide of battle. Block a wave of attacks and your defenses will be broken, leaving you reeling and wide open to more incoming blows. Deflect a smidgen too early or too late, and your health bar will quickly transfer the foul.
But time your deflection just right, and Wo long gives you plenty of space and time to retaliate, even allowing you to launch a powerful “fatal attack”.
The defense maneuver is a microcosm for it Wo long‘s high-risk, high-reward ethos. This is a game that’s as much about immersing you in the breathtaking flow state of a prolonged duel as it is about throwing you into a detailed and dangerous mythical world set around the Three Kingdoms saga. Publisher Koei Tecmo’s extensive portfolio in Three Kingdoms games – from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy wargames to the Dynasty Warriors series – is perhaps why Team Ninja was given the space to fine-tune its world and its mechanics in equal measure.
Surviving the calamities of Wo long requires almost obsessive hours of practice. But what comes next is the thrill of being able to deftly execute hordes of enemies and demons with just a reflexive flick of your well-sharpened limbs. With its intricate combat system and an equally evocative setting, Wo long is a journey worth embarking on – even if it means spending another three hours on your next boss fight.
Wo Long: fallen dynasty will be released on March 3 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X. The game has been reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code from Koei Tecmo. Vox Media has partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.