Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty was always going to be one of 2023’s most interesting games, even in a year as stacked as this one. It’s the next game from Nioh and Ninja Gaiden maker Team Ninja, so game mechanic fiends like me were always primed to be hooked.
But to the general gaming public who are typically scared away by that same type of mechanically-dense action games, Wo Long may not even register on their radars. Except, of course, it’s launching on Game Pass on day one.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Game Pass is Wo Long’s ‘Trojan Horse’ into the homes of many new players. Some may be curious about Souls-likes but never dipped their toes into their waters, where others are likely to be lured by the flashy combat and Three Kingdoms setting.
This is a major part of what makes Wo Long one of the most interesting releases in the genre, because it’s an opportunity to see what concessions – if any – were made to invite all those potential players to stick with it.
After playing around five hours of Wo Long, I came away impressed with how deftly Team Ninja managed to walk the line between designing challenging combat, rewarding gameplay, and offering new players an array of new options to aid them in understanding why this particular genre is so beloved.
In much the same way Elden Ring added the option of summoning AI companions to help players navigate their most challenging moments (even if many newcomers initially missed it), Wo Long too is taking a similar approach. In all of the missions I played, I was accompanied by an ally almost the entire time.
There are narrative reasons for who gets to join you and why, but the gameplay implications are the more relevant here. The obvious benefit of having someone else to engage enemies alongside you is that you won’t get outnumbered as easily. It also lets you move more freely around the environment, as ambushes and traps are less likely to end your run.
Pulling aggro away from you and buying you time to heal or take a breather all come with the package, too. But even beyond the standard boon of not being alone, the combat style of your ally can make for some unique pairings.
A faster companion with a saber will behave differently from a slow, hammer-wielding brute. In a way, the game is almost teasing you about the other weapons and combat opportunities you could be using, but even just playing off those differences in approach can make for more varied encounters. If you have a heavy-hitter with you, you’re free to be the agile glass cannon, for example.
You can also substitute the long list of allies available to recruit in Wo Long with actual human players. Similar to Nioh, you can open your game up for random players to join, or set a password and share it with a friend to lock it up.
And just like Nioh (and Elden Ring), Wo Long is fun in co-op, but don’t expect the same level of quality of life features that something like Destiny 2 is going to offer. But there are more options, too, outside of human and AI companions.
The addition of a jump button frees Team Ninja’s level designers to imbue stages with a lot more verticality, and be more liberal with the layers and complexity of each level, too. This creates many more opportunities for you to observe and mull over your approach. It helps confrontational players looking for a fight, but it works even better for stealthy players.
Stealth is a much bigger deal in Wo Long than any other Team Ninja project. It’s a cliche at this point, but yes, this approach is similar to Elden Ring’s – or even Sekiro’s.
You can’t crouch, but you can walk slowly and surprise enemies. Depending on your power, you may not outright kill them, but a sneak attack will deal significant damage nonetheless. If you’re serious about being stealthy, you can further spec into a stat that will make it harder for enemies to notice you.
You can feel the effects in real time, too, seeing how long the alert bar above neutral enemies fills up as you approach them. Although this is a pre-release build, I’ve seen a few instances where I should clearly be seen by an enemy, but my high stealth stat was preventing them from noticing.
It’s funny, but it’s certainly a path you could go down if you wanted. Later on, you’ll gain access to spells that can make you completely invisible to enemies. Just like Nioh, those are incredibly useful if you need to return to where you died without having to go through every grunt on the way, or by allowing you to quickly simply skip to a certain part of the level (such as a boss fight) quickly with little resistance.
With AI companions, a wide range of stealth options, and the design of the levels themselves, I can see many more players finding it easier to navigate Wo Long than any other Souls-like.
This is still a challenging game, and some may not stick with it because of that, but those willing to meet it half-way and invest a bit of time to learn the intricacies of its gameplay will be rewarded with satisfying combat and the all- too-important feeling of cool.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is out March 3 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.