Feature Article

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty Is A Faster, More Aggressive Souls-Like

Team Ninja puts a different spin on the Souls-like genre by combining the stakes of games like Nioh with the high-speed gameplay that made the studio famous.

With Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, developer Team Ninja feels like it's riffing on a riff. The action game studio has already given its spin to the Souls-like genre with the Nioh games. In Wo Long, Team Ninja once again borrows some of the underpinnings of From Software's lauded series, but takes a faster, more Ninja Gaiden-like approach. It's some of the same ideas but with a different feel, which will challenge action game fans in a lot of different ways.

GameSpot got an early look at Wo Long's playable demo on PlayStation 5, which gives a snapshot of the game's combat systems. A lot of the foundation will be familiar to Souls-like fans--enemies hit hard and are tough to kill, often sporting unblockable or uninterruptible animations. Whenever you stop to rest at a checkpoint, enemies respawn, forcing you to fight them again. Healing is limited to a small set of flasks you carry, and using them takes a very long time, leaving you open to attack. Most fights come down to analyzing or memorizing enemy attack patterns so you can exploit weaknesses and avoid taking an abundance of damage.

But as mentioned, Wo Long takes a much faster and more aggressive approach to that foundation than most other Souls-like games, making it most comparable to something like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Wo Long focuses on Chinese martial arts, and thus, much of its gameplay is about speedy strikes and redirecting your opponent's force. Its biggest adjustment from similar games, though, is that it drops the usual stamina gauge that dictates how many moves you can make before you stall out.

Instead, Wo Long sports a "spirit" gauge, which dictates how much you can block or dodge, as well as special abilities, like martial arts or magical "wizardry" attacks. The spirit gauge is less of a limitation than it is a gamble, though. The gauge starts at zero in the center, with a negative and positive side. When you take damage, block attacks, dodge, or use your special abilities, you "lose" spirit, so the gauge pushes into the negative. If your gauge fully fills up on the negative side, a hit from an enemy will stagger you, leaving you vulnerable for a long time.

Conversely, though, striking enemies fills up the positive side of the spirit gauge, which allows you to use special attacks or to dodge and block more with no penalty--so you're rewarded for fighting aggressively. What's more, enemies also have a spirit gauge; when they hit you, they gain spirit while you lose it, and when you hit them, they lose spirit while you gain it. So not only are you rewarded with more chances to use your abilities or magic when you lay into a baddie, you also push them closer to being staggered, leaving them open for an execution move that does massive damage.

Combat, then, becomes a sort of tug-of-war match between you and your opponent, where you're always paying attention to your spirit and their spirit. Enemies come at you fast, and the best way to deal with them is to block their blows--but you need to be ready to exploit an opening or you risk being overwhelmed.

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Enemies also have unblockable critical attacks that can do major damage if they hit you, but this is where Wo Long's dodging mechanics come in. Under normal circumstances, dodging costs a lot of spirit--more than blocking, in most cases. If you dodge at exactly the right time, however, you can redirect an enemy past you, or instantly counter them. Executing a perfect dodge on a critical strike does major harm to an enemy's spirit gauge, while leaving them vulnerable to your attacks, so mastering the timing of dodging critical strikes is key. It's a big risk that comes with huge rewards, giving you the chance to turn your enemies' best offenses against them. It also always feels great to execute a perfect dodge, with Wo Long providing a cinematic moment to really sell just how capable a warrior you are.

The tug-of-war metaphor extends beyond the spirit system to Wo Long's other major development: the Morale system. It's a way through which Wo Long feels like it's marrying Souls-like action game encounters with RPG-like systems. Throughout the game, you have a Morale level, as do your enemies; it's a measure of confidence, and the higher your Morale, the more capable you are against foes. If you face an enemy with a lower Morale level, you're likely to stomp them; opponents with higher Morale are tougher. Your Morale goes up as you defeat foes, so if you run into an enemy with a higher number than you, it's possible to leave and go take down some lower-level enemies in order to build up your Morale and even the odds.

Morale is fluid for your enemies just as it is for you, however. If an enemy hits you with a critical strike, it'll deal a blow to your health as well as your Morale--so mistakes can be punishing. If an enemy kills you, your Morale is reset, and that enemy gains a boost in Morale. So you get an incentive to go get revenge on the foes that beat you; you get a big boost to your Morale if you do so, as well as your lost Genuine Qi, the currency you use to level up. Morale also plays into Wo Long's online multiplayer system; as in the Souls games, Wo Long is played online, allowing you to summon other players into your game to help you or to invade other players' games to hinder them. Just like Dark Souls tracks other players' performance, often showing you the ghosts of players when they die, Wo Long takes into account which enemies beat other players--and those wins can boost that enemy's Morale in your game. But just like taking revenge on an enemy that beat you, avenging other players dishes out extra rewards for you, as well.

All those systems work together to create fluid battles that are both fast and aggressive, and require you to use your head. Taking out a bunch of smaller foes before facing a tougher leader enemy can give you an advantage, for instance, both by raising your Morale and by cutting off bonuses the leader character gets from their allies. There's also good reason to explore other paths if you hit an enemy you can't beat, because finding checkpoints where you can place Battle Flags raises the floor of how low your Morale can drop if you die. That way, if an enemy kills you, less time is needed to raise your Morale so you can face them again.

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We only got a small sampling of Wo Long's combat, but there also seem to be a lot of different elements of customization. At the start, you can create a character and choose one of five elements for them to specialize in, each with its own brand of magical spells and stat bonuses. As you level up, you can also choose where to invest points to change your stats, allowing you to adjust your character to your playstyle. If you want to favor defense over attack, magic over stealth, and boost your spirit gains, you can do so. Which gear you choose to equip affects your elemental affinities as well; you can have two melee and two ranged weapons equipped at a time, allowing you to swap between them on the fly for different fighting styles. You'll also meet divine beasts that can help you in battle, once you've defeated enough enemies; with the fire beast, we were able to do a big hit for massive damage on enemies, with fire lingering on the battlefield that could continue to damage them if they wandered into it.

The Wo Long demo culminated in a tough, multi-phase boss fight that really brought all the systems together. In an extended battle, you really get a sense of how Morale and spirit influence the game. The fight is as much about dishing out a lot of damage and avoiding attacks as it is about managing spirit, to make sure you can deal with the boss's next round of attacks, or push him to the brink so you can land a powerful execution move. In truth, it wasn't until the boss fight that I really started to get how Wo Long wanted me to play it--it's less about dodging attacks and minimizing health loss, and more about blocking, staying close to foes, and hitting them hard when the window opens up.

The speedy gameplay, the variety of attack options, and the push-and-pull nature of the spirit system make Wo Long feel like a fresh spin on Souls-like games. It captures the difficulty and skill players like about the genre, while pushing a different kind of action game feel, one more akin to some of Team Ninja's other titles. Though we haven't seen all of Wo Long in action yet, Team Ninja's demo does a great job of giving a snapshot of a tough game that starts at the same place as other Souls-likes and goes in an exciting new direction.

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philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a former senior writer at GameSpot and worked as a journalist for newspapers and websites for more than a decade, covering video games, technology, and entertainment for nearly that long. A freelancer before he joined the GameSpot team as an editor out of Los Angeles, his work appeared at Playboy, IGN, Kotaku, Complex, Polygon, TheWrap, Digital Trends, The Escapist, GameFront, and The Huffington Post. Outside the realm of games, he's the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero's Guide to Glory. If he's not writing about video games, he's probably doing a deep dive into game lore.

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

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