Team Ninja has been dipping its toe into souls like games for a while now, and Wo Long Fallen Dynasty marks probably its most ambitious attempt at the genre yet with a few fresh ideas all of its own.
Fallen Dynasty takes place in a supernatural take on Chinese history, focusing around the Three Kingdoms era and the various factions vying for control of the land. Thrown into the action at a rapid pace, you battle your way from location to location meeting real life historical figures and all manner of supernatural ghouls and beasts along the way. A lot of these supernatural enemies are based on real life folk law, and there's some really interesting character design going on throughout the game. For me the story telling is probably the weakest part of Fallen Dynasty.
Perhaps if I were more informed about this particular period of time I would find it more engaging, but at the same time storytelling has been something Team Ninja have struggled with in previous games. The cast of characters you meet along the way rarely stick around for long enough for anything even remotely close to character development, often jumping in out of nowhere at the start of a level to deliver a few lines of dialogue, following you around for a while and then peacing out right after you have defeated that levels boss.
Essentially there's a lot of factions who are mad at one another, there's some sort of elixir of power, or immortality, or something else, and somehow you are in the middle of it all and have a bunch of magical powers for reasons I forget. That's how much of the story I can bring to mind right now due to how little impact it had on me. I can on;y remember one characters name and thats Lu Bu, b ut i kind of knew who he was before this game.
Keep Calm And Parry On
Luckily what Fallen Dynasty lacks in memorable storytelling, it makes up for by way of its gameplay. I would imagine if you are reading this review, then you are going to have a reasonable grasp on what a soulslike game is and Fallen Dynasty tick all the boxes you would want to see. Tough but rewarding combat, big boss battles, checkpoints that reset enemies etc, it's all here. The areas where this game looks to stand out from the crowd are where it starts to get interesting. Fallen Dynasty makes a big deal out of its parry system almost straight away, and for good reason, the vast majority of its combat is focused around using this effectively. The game has a block button and this is effective enough for soaking up a few hits from an enemy.
However, time a tap of the parry button just right and you will deflect your enemies attack, leaving them vulnerable and filling your spirit meter. Your spirit meter can be spent on a few different combat options. It can be used to deliver some heavier blows with your weapon, or some very fancy and deadly martial arts moves, or spent on one of the game's various spells to give you the upperhand. The spirit meter basically replaces a stamina meter meaning you are free to block and roll and parry to your heart's content, but you will need to stay on the offensive and get that spirit meter up if you want to make the most of the combat.
Another soulslike troupe that the game has is enemies with unblockable attacks. These can also be parried and often lead to big devastating counterattacks which in some cases are the only way to successfully take down bosses. This focus around the parry system and its benefits, plus the large pool of weapons spells and build options make for an engaging combat system and there's a decent variety in enemy types to help keep it feeling interesting.
Moral Of The Story
Another interesting new idea here is the moral rank. As you hack and slash your way through the levels you will see your moral rank start to creep up. Your moral level helps boost your stats, lets you do more damage to enemies, and opens up various spell options. Enemies in the world also have a moral level visible with their health bar and will give you a bit of an indicator of how tough an opponent they will be. If an enemy defects you, not only will your moral rank take a hit, but theirs will get a boost making them tougher for the rematch. You can lock your moral rank in place by planting flags at strategic checkpoints around the world which can be handy, particularly tough areas. Scarred around the world you will see markers indicating that another real life play died here to a particular enemy. Offer up one of your healing flasks and you can get a temporary moral rank boost to help you avenge them. As someone who loves to watch the numbers go up in these kinds of games, its nice to have another one to keep trying to push up, and interesting that it's one that's reactive to how you are doing in the game.
In a post Elden Ring world it's impossible to speak about a game like this without mentioning Elden Ring so lets get that out of the way, Elden Ring this is not. You’re not going to find a sprawling open world here, it is a collection of smaller semi open zones with a big boss battle nestled at the end of it. The level design is certainly not going to win any awards but it serves its purpose.
While there's a fair amount of variety in weapons, you’re not going to get a whole heap of different attributes to pump points into, Fallen Dynasty has 5 different areas to put points into which each boost a few different things. Probably one of the most frustrating aspects of the game is its loot system. From the first minutes of the game you are hoovering up all manner bits and bobs from fallen enemies, chests, random spots on the ground and it very quickly becomes overwhelming as to what all of this stuff actually is. It can be immensely annoying in a game where the action feels so good to have to break that by going into the menus and clearing out junk because I'm over encumbered. Also the menus in this game are too busy and can be very confusing at first. In Elden Ring some of the summons felt like absolute game changes, here the companion NPCs feel like they have very little impact.
Several times in boss battles i had my companion bark at me that I should heal while they keep the boss’s attention, only for them to do the complete opposite and run away and leave the boss focused on me. The game does have multiplayer so this can help alleviate this issue, or maybe your friend will run away from the boss too. All games of this type have enemies that hit hard, but Wo Longs enemies can be exceptionally brutal if you are not careful. Even the lowliest grunt level enemy can floor you if you aren't paying attention. On the flip side of that, you can hit pretty hard too. A few times in the game I found myself chipping away pretty much half of a bosses health bar with a well timed parry and follow up attack which felt like a satisfying reward for mastering the combat.
I was able to look past a lot of these flaws as the moment to moment action in this game just feels so good to play. The combat system is the real stand out here, it feels great to time your parrys and open the enemies up to devastating attacks however big or small they are. Sure the trappings around the edges leave a bit to be desired, but I like that Team Ninja has gone out and made something with some new and unique ideas. If its going to be a toss up between a good story or good game play, game play wins for me everytime. I can tune out a lacklustre storyline, its not as easy to do when its the other way around. They might not have nailed everything they set out to do in Fallen Dynasty, but they have made a game that is able to stand out in what has become a very crowded space. It will be interesting to see what they do next.