The first boss fight in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is right up there with the toughest first bosses in video game history. This opening battle pits you against Zhang Liang of the Yellow Turbans, as you clash in a kinetic two-phase fight to the death. It's an intense skill check that challenges your prowess of Wo Long's mechanics almost immediately. In many ways, it feels like a rite of passage for the rest of the game and a bold statement of intent from developer Team Ninja. I initially loved how it forced me to adapt to the demands of the game's particular brand of Souls-like combat, yet the further I progressed, the more this feeling dissipated as I realized that this introductory struggle was little more than an unbalanced outlier, providing a much sterner test than the bosses following it.
For many, this sudden difficulty spike will be a barrier to entry, halting progress a mere 10 minutes into the game. It's a shame Wo Long begins with such a sturdy roadblock, not least because this initial undertaking isn't indicative of the rest of the game moving forward. In fact, outside of this first boss, Team Ninja has crafted one of the more approachable Souls-likes in what is a traditionally challenging genre.
I didn't encounter another boss fight on par with Zhang Liang's difficulty until roughly 15 hours into Wo Long's campaign. Most of the bosses in between were a relative cakewalk, to the point where I was able to cut down each one on my first attempt--usually in under a minute. I still had fun dispatching every single one, but the ease with which I was able to do so makes them lose some of their luster and reinforces the notion that the first boss is at odds with the rest of the game. The battle with Zhang Liang sets up expectations that never come to fruition, particularly when other fights allow you to summon help from either AI or human teammates.
Team Ninja has experience developing difficult games, of course, with the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Nioh under its belt. Elements of both those games are present in Wo Long, yet its combat feels like a streamlined offshoot of From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, putting an emphasis on deflecting attacks and breaking your opponent's stance. I say it's streamlined because while enemies frequently unleash powerful unblockable attacks, you only need to deflect them by nailing the timing of a single button press. There aren't any sweep or grab attacks requiring different techniques to counter and avoid, so it doesn't have the same kind of depth. The timing window to deflect is relatively generous, and these attacks--known as Critical Blows--are clearly telegraphed, so it doesn't take long before you're misdirecting strikes left, right, and center. The challenge comes from being able to recognize which attack is coming and knowing when to time the deflection so you're not too early or too late. You can block regular physical attacks and dodge out of danger as well, but mastering the deflect mechanic is the optimal way to succeed. Plus, nothing beats the satisfaction of parrying an incoming blow and seeing the sparks fly as steel collides with steel.
Wo Long doesn't utilize a traditional stamina system to rein you in. Instead, you have a Spirit gauge that either decreases or increases depending on your actions. You can build it by striking enemies and deflecting their attacks, then consume this positive Spirit to increase the power of your offense. Actions like dodging, mistiming deflections, performing weapon-specific special moves, and casting Wizardry Spells all decrease your Spirit, as does sustaining damage from an enemy attack. If your Spirit is in the negative and you take a hit that pushes the gauge to the lower limit, you become defenseless for a short period of time. This creates a balancing act where you want to build up enough positive Spirit to make full use of your repertoire without succumbing to this staggered state.
Crucially, each enemy you fight also has a Spirit gauge of its own, so skirmishes often focus on whittling down your foe's defenses as opposed to concentrating squarely on damaging their health bar. You can lower the enemy's Spirit by simply attacking them, but utilizing special moves and deflections--parrying Critical Blows, in particular--will significantly deplete it. Once their Spirit gauge hits the lower limit, they'll enter a stunned state, giving you ample opportunity to unleash a devastating Fatal Strike that wipes out a chunk of their health. The variety of different enemy types you'll face doesn't make this easy, especially when you're dealing with multiple opponents at the same time, but Wo Long's learning curve isn't particularly steep. Once it all clicks, combat falls into this thrilling back-and-forth groove built around stylish deflections and quick bursts of over-the-top violence, and Team Ninja has also implemented a number of other considerations to ease players in.
You have a double jump at your disposal, which lends the game a sense of mobility reminiscent of Ryu Hayabusa's exploits in Ninja Gaiden. There's a high degree of verticality present in the level design to account for this, encouraging you to leap onto rooftops and guard towers to survey the battlefield from up high. From here, you can perform a lunging strike to significantly damage an unaware enemy, while stealth attacks serve a similar purpose when your feet are planted on the ground. Both techniques allow you to dispatch a number of enemies before they even have a chance to strike back, so you don't always have to confront each foe mano a mano. This incentivizes you to pay attention to your surroundings as there's usually a way to get the drop on any unsuspecting assailants if you look hard enough.
Outside of this first boss, Team Ninja has crafted one of the more approachable Souls-likes in what is a traditionally challenging genre
There are more subtle ways Wo Long softens the experience compared to other Souls-likes as well. Battle Flags, which are this game's equivalent of bonfires, replenish all of your health and healing items the first time you find them, without requiring you to sit down and rest. This means you can get topped back up and carry on without respawning all of the enemies you just killed, thus making exploration a tad more inviting. When you do die, you only lose half of the experience points you accumulated up to that point. You can still earn it all back by killing the enemy that bested you, but only losing half instead of the full amount prevents it from feeling like you're starting back at square one every time you die. These two examples might not sound like much, but they have a palpable impact on Wo Long's difficulty by deftly scaling back on some of the genre's more vexing idiosyncrasies.
However, it's the inclusion of near-constant AI companions that does the most to ease up on the usual challenge. Wo Long puts a dark fantasy spin on the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. Similar to how Nioh drew on its historical Japanese setting and relevant mythology, Wo Long weaves Chinese mythology and fantasy elements into its interpretation of this popular period in China's history. As a result, you'll fight alongside the likes of Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and others, with one or two NPC fighters joining you depending on where they fit in the story. You can still dismiss these legendary warriors if you want to go it alone, and you're also able to summon up to two allies if you start a level without any. The AI doesn't tend to dish out too much damage, however, and it has a habit of getting stuck on scenery. It has its uses, though, usually by keeping enemies busy and ensuring that you're not overwhelmed when fighting groups of foes. You can also replace these NPCs with friends if you'd prefer to play the whole game in co-op, with the game's difficulty scaling up to compensate. Or you can summon random players to help you take down a tricky boss or section, so there are plenty of options for those seeking assistance.
The levels themselves aren't quite as sprawling as those found in the Nioh series. The game is still split up into distinct levels, with optional sub-battles unlocking throughout the campaign. These bite-sized stages send you back to previously visited locations where you'll clear a few rooms, face off against waves of enemies, or take on a boss. Sub-battles don't usually take very long to complete, and you're rewarded with loot and XP so they're worth doing. In terms of level design, rather than featuring long-winded detours that circle back on themselves, most of Wo Long's branching paths lead to dead ends with higher-level enemies and more loot. It's a tad disappointing that it doesn't regularly tap into the sense of both relief and wonderment you get from looping paths, but Team Ninja has opted for a different approach to exploration that feels fresh.
Both you and every opponent you face has a Morale Rank that indicates their strength in battle. Simply defeating enemies will raise this rank, but it shoots up quicker if you kill an enemy with a higher Morale Rank than yourself. Wo Long still has a traditional progression system where you spend XP to level up stats like health and damage; the Morale Rank is there to indicate how your strength compares to the enemies you're fighting in a single level. It resets to zero at the beginning of each stage, so you tend to find lower-level enemies when you first arrive at a location. This isn't always the case, though. One path might contain an imposing figure with a significantly higher Morale Rank than yourself. You can still defeat these enemies, but it's a dicey proposition, as one wrong move is usually more than enough to kill you. It depends on whether you want to take the risk for the chance of being rewarded with a significant boost of your own Morale Rank.
When you die, your Morale Rank decreases, but it will never drop below your Fortitude Rank. This separate but intertwined ranking can be increased by raising Battle Flags and Marking Flags. The latter don't function as checkpoints like Battle Flags do, but there are usually half a dozen or so dotted around each level, all with the express purpose of raising your Fortitude. Some are hidden off the beaten path, while others are guarded by powerful foes you need to defeat first. Not only does this encourage you to explore every nook and cranny of each level, but it also urges you to take risks and challenge tougher enemies you might not have otherwise bothered with. There's no glory in playing it safe, and taking risks earlier will pay off further down the line when your strength either matches or overpowers your enemies.
Increasing your Morale Rank also gives you access to more Wizardry Spells. These mystic techniques can be unleashed by consuming Spirit, with each one falling into one of five elemental categories: Earth, water, wood, fire, and metal. Some of these spells are self-explanatory, letting you conjure the likes of fireballs, pointed icicles, and exploding rock pillars. Others are less obvious, such as wood spells being based entirely around lightning, while metal sorcery focuses on poisonous toxins. You can only equip four at a time, which feels somewhat limiting, but these spells do add an extra layer of depth to combat. They're not all offense-based either, with some spells allowing you to strengthen your defenses by coating yourself in rocks or restore lost health by dealing damage to enemies. There's also a rock, paper, scissors mechanic at play where wood overcomes earth, earth overcomes water, and so on, but it's not something I ever really noticed. You can deflect elemental attacks with your weapon so I was never compelled to go out of my way to counter a magic-using enemy with spells of my own.
The loot in Wo Long has been significantly toned down in comparison to Nioh and especially Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. Enemies don't constantly drop gear when defeated, so loot drops feel more spaced out and earned. Every item you pick up, whether it's a weapon or a piece of armor, has a star rating attached to it that's essentially a rough gauge of its quality. Baseline stats like damage and defense aren't overly affected by these ratings. Instead, the rarer the loot, the more special effects it has, which add passive bonuses to modify certain stats. You can visit a blacksmith to upgrade the main properties of your gear using various materials, so once I attained a full set of four-star gear I saw little reason to change unless I wanted to try out a new weapon type. The rest of the loot was quickly scavenged for more materials or sold for money, so there's still a moment in between each level where you'll typically rummage through all of the loot you want to get rid of.
Wo Long has a fairly large assortment of different weapon types, ranging from straight sabers and dual blades to polearms and great wooden hammers. While the basic move set is the same for each armament within a single weapon type, each individual weapon feels distinct because of its unique Martial Arts. These special moves are flashy melee attacks that are stronger than regular attacks; the caveat is that they consume a portion of the Spirit gauge with each use. Some of these Martial Arts are focused on damaging a single enemy multiple times, while others excel when against a group or to close the distance on an opponent. They add another exciting wrinkle to Wo Long's combat, to the point where you're incentivized to experiment with weapons you might not otherwise try.
Unfortunately, the game also suffers from a few technical issues. Stuttering and slowdown are both frequent annoyances on PC, where poor optimization ensures that altering the settings does little to alleviate these problems. I never encountered a situation where this hampered my ability to defeat enemies, so timing deflections wasn't affected by it, but it's still disappointing that another PC release is launching in such a haphazard state. It should be noted that someone else playing the game on PS5 didn't encounter the same issues, so it's likely these problems are confined to PC.
The fact that Wo Long's demo features the first two levels and carries your save over to the full game is a boon for those who might otherwise be put off. It gives you the opportunity to challenge the first boss for yourself and find out whether it's the barrier to entry I imagine it will be for many players. If you can defeat Zhang Liang, the game that follows is a thrilling yet approachable addition to the Souls-like genre. Its parry-based combat is frequently stellar, and Team Ninja has made a number of smart changes to keep Wo Long feeling fresh, even if there's always a tinge of familiarity. It has its issues, but if you're craving a fast-paced action RPG built on satisfying combat, Wo Long ticks most of the right boxes.