I awoke one sleepy Saturday morning in 2003 to find my brother playing Dynasty Warriors 3 on our CRT TV, running around fighting Yellow Turbans as Xiahou Dun. Instantly enraptured with what I saw, he and I spent well over a hundred hours in cooperative melee glory as we tossed nameless soldiers around like bales of hay. The action and campy dialogue were excellent, but what I actually fell in love with was this time period. So many dramatic heroes clashing across seemingly endless battles–was this actual history?
The Three Kingdoms era has enjoyed popularity for hundreds of years since Luo Guanzhong wrote the over 2000-page epic in the 14th century, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After reading up on the actual time period on my own and later constructing an independent study in college in which I wrote several essays on Luo Guanzhong’s book, I just couldn’t get enough. Of course, the authenticity of what truly occurred was lost during this chaotic period, but we enjoy the myths anyway.
Team Ninja has found tremendous success creating magical takes on actual history in Nioh and Nioh 2, focusing on Japanese history. Explaining history and doing a bit of retelling using demons as motivation for people’s evil deeds not only makes for a fun story, the games are addicting. With a formula and design model carving a distinct identity in a sub-genre defined by Dark Souls, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty’s retelling of the early Three Kingdoms era just makes sense.
With that lengthy introduction out of the way, let me cut to the chase: this is Nioh 2 with a Three Kingdoms coat of paint. For those unfamiliar, Wo Long is a frenetic take on the Soulslike sub-genre in which players engage in frequent high-stakes battles involving parrying, attacks of opportunity, and a bit of stealth. Of course, players can tackle the game using wizardry or archery, but most people will probably use some kind of melee build boasting swords or spears.
Using the third-person camera makes stealthing enemies incredibly simple, as players can evaluate enemy movement patterns safely from behind a corner, then slowly walk up to them to either one-shot them or deal significant damage. Enemies also seem to suffer from myopia, which also helps facilitate stealth. I focus on this first because running in with blades blazing is a good way to get overwhelmed and murdered. While stealth isn’t the only option, I found this to be an effective strategy for the majority of the game, which leads me to my first complaint.
Wo Long is easy. Like, really easy. As long as you’re intentional in every map, thinking about enemy positions, and timing at least some of your parries well—and the window of success is generous—Wo Long is a 30-hour breeze. I also beat most of the bosses on my first try, while a handful took a few tries, and one boss in particular (Three Kingdoms fans can probably guess who I’m talking about) took me about two hours. Believe me, this is not a cheap attempt at bragging. I’ve had my fair share of challenges across most Soulslikes, but this one might be the easiest.
Part of what makes Wo Long so easy is its repetitive nature. After about ten hours, a formula becomes apparent. While some variety in enemies exists, the same enemies get used constantly for the entire game. Once I figured out how to tackle each enemy, all I had to do was copy my plan for each fight and win. So, the routine is partially my fault, as I could have spiced things up by changing my stats and weapon, but to be completely honest, I was having a ton of fun.
Despite its shallow bag of tricks, Wo Long is addictive as hell. Killing demons and ne’er-do-wells over and over again is borderline Zen. I was zoned in for almost the entire game; I lost track of time and even forgot to eat. Those are ringing endorsements. Since I opened with some serious concerns—what makes it so enthralling? The visuals and map design help a ton. While enemy placement becomes predictable, navigating flooded towns, lush forests, and well-maintained Chinese castles is an absolute pleasure. Without any enemies or fighting, I would have gladly walked around and stopped to marvel at the outstanding detail and technical prowess Wo Long boasts. Keeping in mind PC owners will need a beefy rig to run this game, Team Ninja justifies the barrier with brilliant visuals.
Visual finesse extends to fighting, as well. Depleting an enemy’s spirit leaves them panting and open to a critical attack, which pans differently depending on the enemy and weapon, making each strike an adrenaline rush. Watching my character spin about with his spear or enemies leap into the air for a brutal strike made for a constantly intense adventure through pre-modern China.
So, spirit, morale rank, spells, divine beasts—what are all of these? At its core, Wo Long is all about killing the enemy before they kill you. Hit them enough, and they lose all of their health, and vice versa. Being a competently designed game, some systems add a degree of depth, though some of these systems don’t do much except arbitrarily set up hurdles.
Spirit is a sliding scale that goes up when you do well and down when you do poorly. When the bar is high, the gauge gradually depletes, and when the bar is in the negative, it moves toward neutrality. Getting a full red bar leaves the hero panting and open to attacks, while doing the same to an enemy leaves them available for the aforementioned critical attack. Having a full bar is useful because it allows the hero to safely cast spells without going deep into the red, or they can use a spirit (heavy) attack to spend the entire bar and knock out the enemy’s spirit; the higher the bar, the more spirit the hero chunks out of the enemy.
Deflecting (parrying) uses up some spirit unless the player successfully deflects an attack, which adds a hefty amount of spirit. Landing normal attacks adds spirit, while getting hit by big enemy attacks depletes spirit. All of this to say: win by winning. Out of all the systems, I enjoyed the spirit system the most. Rather than using light and heavy attacks based on a stamina gauge, Wo Long sets itself apart from its ilk using spirit.
Spells assault enemies in a predictable fashion, or they can buff and debuff. I went hard into melee, so lightning bolts didn’t do me a whole lot of good, while the shield buffs were huge. The skill trees lack a meaningful amount of depth, but I’m grateful that they grant interesting spells rather than generic stat growth. That’s what vendor trash is for.
Wo Long throws a ton of pointless garbage your way, and Nioh 2 fans will be well aware of this. For whatever reason, the developers have not figured out how to make equipment interesting. I found a set I earned from bonding with an ally early on and kept upgrading that with infrequently discovered steel and leather, and I never looked back. Leaving this set behind would require me to grind for additional leather specifically, as upgrading all armor parts is a resource-heavy task. Not only do I have to get the leather, but I have to guess if the armor’s even going to be better than my current equipment by investing said resources into the upgrading process. This was a problem in Nioh 2 that I wish they had found a way around.
On the other hand, the blacksmith allows players to change out buffs from a generous list of buffs to customize equipment. A four-star piece of equipment has several buffs which can be hammered out and replaced with something a player prefers. Don’t want to lose less qi (souls–experience) on death? Swap that out for more flame resistance. However, once buffs are set, they’re likely set for good based on player preference.
By the way, players can fight with other players or AI companions. The AI companions are the heroes you might expect from the Three Kingdoms era, and they’re competent enough in fighting and feel helpful without winning the fight for you; the developers found the sweet spot with allies. If players fight with them enough, their oath level increases, offering different passive buffs to the player and eventually a replica of their signature equipment.
Divine beasts are fine. Players gradually accrue points into a gauge while fighting that allows players to summon an equipped divine beast to either unleash a super attack or buff the hero significantly. I almost always buffed, which saved my butt in a few boss fights, but divine beasts don’t do a whole lot beyond that.
Morale rank is a hard sell for me. While the character has an overall level where players can allocate a stat point into one of the five elemental phases to boost aspects like spirit growth and elemental resistances, players start at level zero morale rank on each stage. After doing well, players gradually gain morale rank, making them stronger relative to enemies with lower morale rank. Enemies with higher morale rank are generally extremely difficult and feel like minibosses. Fortunately, the map design is so good that stages often have multiple paths to either buff up morale rank on easier foes or offer a roof to jump down on the enemy with higher morale rank for a critical strike. Morale rank also offers access to some spells, as learning the spell isn’t enough to cast it. For example, an earth spell that granted me bonus health could only be used once I hit morale rank 15, which meant that I could use other spells up until that point. Since only four spells can be equipped at once, swapping out abilities at battle flags—checkpoints similar to bonfires in the Souls series–can be a valuable tactic for those who want to use the wealth of spells available.
To be honest, morale rank felt like a minor annoyance rather than something that added to the game. While it never got in my way too much, I didn’t feel like I had to do anything that differently to build up my morale rank. I will say I felt extremely powerful every time I hit 25—the max rank—on each stage, which likely contributed to how easy bosses were to fight (assuming they didn’t knock down my rank by blasting me out of the gate).
Like Batman and the Joker, every creator’s got their take on the Three Kingdoms heroes. Some paint Cao Cao as a supervillain, while others make him a little sympathetic. Generally, though, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhao Yun are pristine goodie-goodies, while Lu Bu is someone you don’t ever want to mess with. (Seriously, don’t mess with Lu Bu.) Team Ninja does the source material justice with fun dialogue and by avoiding caricaturing some notable figures too much. What I especially loved was how all of the famous fighters reacted to the nameless protagonist, who starts as some nobody grunt. Using the player as the foil for their personalities made the experience charming. However, since Wo Long is so focused on action, I didn’t get to see this as much as I would have liked.
The English voice acting leaves much to be desired. Fortunately, the Japanese and especially Chinese voice acting are outstanding, though the subtitles disappear quickly, making following along in a foreign language difficult. Musically, the orchestral pieces add volume to momentous fights and dilapidated villages, though this often fell into the background because I was so focused on combat.
Undeniably enjoyable, Wo Long skates the line between tired, repetitive design and immersive action. Anyone with an itch to get away from the Dynasty Warriors series is going to fall in love with what Team Ninja has put together, but not without wondering if more could have been done. With three DLC planned this year, I cannot wait to get back into the saddle and hopefully get out of my comfort zone.