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Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty preview – not Nioh 3, perhaps even better

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is Team Ninja's spiritual successor to Nioh and its masocore games, but will it be as good?
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Team Ninja is on a roll. Since the release of 2017’s Nioh, the studio has been stealthily producing some of the best and most challenging action RPGs in the industry. The steep challenge of the classic Ninja Gaiden series lives on in Team Ninja’s new wave of action games, the latest being Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty.

It’s not the Nioh 3 that many fans were hoping for, but Wo Long is every bit as sharp and challenging as what you’d expect from that game. And just to hit that point home, Fallen Dynasty caps off its introductory chapter with a two-phase bossfight tougher than any mandatory battle you’ll find early on in any of FromSoftware’s “masocore” masterpieces.

What’s interesting about Wo Long is that it really doesn’t want you to dodge. Your B button is a deflect, and you can only perform a lengthy dodge if you double-tap the button – this is by design. Dodge is an extra button press away because you should be staying up close to foes as often as possible.

Like Sekiro, all enemies have a stun (in this game “Spirit”) gauge, and deflecting their moves will actually reduce the overall length of that gauge. So you’ll be building up the stun and shortening the gauge with skillful play, all for a deadly unarmed strike on a stunned foe. This resets the size of the gauge, but inflicts a huge amount of damage, suddenly making bosses with big health bars more obviously surmountable.

You'll have a variety of weapons available to you in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

You'll have a variety of weapons available to you in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty

While fighting the first bosses’ initial phase, his big hammer swings are telegraphed clearly, so you can deflect each move. Critical Strikes – some of which come with a short delay before impact – are a bit more challenging, however. Critical Strikes are unblockable and devastating, but a well-timed deflect will open enemies up for a swift flurry of attacks. As soon as you get comfortable with deflects, you’ll be forcing yourself into the path of an oncoming attack, just so you can counter and punish it.

It feels remarkably similar to the Soul Shield ability in Team Ninja’s recent Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. In that game, use of the Soul Shield as a counter negated all damage while impacting the foe’s break gauge, while your own could stay on 1HP as long as you used Soul Shield effectively. It’s similar here — you can be on a single point of health and turn things around. Just keep fighting up-close once you’ve gotten a good feel for your enemy’s attack patterns.

Deflecting and punishing attacks is brilliantly satisfying.

Deflecting and punishing attacks is brilliantly satisfying.

It’s interesting, because fighting against lowly mobs is actually a fairly stiff challenge when up against a group. Basic enemies won’t telegraph their attacks as clearly, and you’ll need to deflect attacks coming from all angles. Since your health is low, it’s easy to make the wrong move and get stun-locked by a barrage of enemy spears, arrows, and swords.

Luckily, you’ll quickly learn to assign and cast a variety of spells, which can help thin out the enemy ranks. Upgrading and unlocking new spells feels like a bit of an afterthought in these early stages, as casting a spell takes a little too long when fighting bigger, tougher bosses. Still, we’re yet to see the full scale of spiritual smashing you’re able to unleash in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty.

It’s still too early to make any kind of judgement call on Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, but the reality is that Team Ninja has managed to craft an incredibly satisfying combat system, and as long as it manages to keep up the tension while ramping up the challenge over the course of the game, this will be an early essential for 2023.