Team Ninja has earned a reputation for crafting some of the most satisfying action games around, nimbly transitioning from the high-octane action Ninja Gaiden series to the Soulslike thrills of Nioh. Its latest effort, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, is an unforgiving but deeply rewarding showcase of freneticism that lives up to this lineage. The smooth swordplay, brilliant boss fights, and novel systems further prove Team Ninja’s ability to craft unrelenting experiences. Although its back half is hampered by a lack of enemy variety, its lightning-fast duels make it one of the more gratifying titles in recent memory.
Set in a version of 2nd-century China inspired by the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, we follow an unnamed militia soldier as they’re drawn into a war over an immortality-granting elixir. While fans of the book will likely enjoy fighting alongside their favorite figures, this narrative does little to communicate their nuances or depth, with storytelling that serves as little more than set dressing.
However, while the writing is unremarkable, battles are entrancing. Those familiar with Soulslikes will feel at home with Wo Long’s similar progression systems, online features, and shared brutal difficulty. More specifically, the core combat is directly influenced by Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, emphasizing parrying attacks so you can eventually break your foe’s poise and land a Fatal Strike.
While plenty of titles have attempted to mimic these elements to varying results, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty evokes the same joy and despair found in the games that inspired it, its duels capturing a white-knuckled intensity elevated by precise controls and well-telegraphed enemy attacks. Here, deflecting blows lets you build up Spirit, which can be used to shore up your defenses, perform powerful moves, or cast satisfying element-themed spells.
Deflecting is essential for gaining momentum, and once you get used to it, it feels responsive and thoroughly rewarding to pull off. Everything can be parried; sword swings, swipes from hulking monsters, and even lightning bolts, each accompanied by a musical twang of steel that sends tingles. Exchanges can be deliberate as you probe for weaknesses and tactically use your Spirit, or over in the blink of an eye as you parry an unblockable Critical Blow, shatter an enemy’s poise, and demolishing them in a single exhilarating instant. When combined with imposing boss fights, a flexible progression that lets you freely respec your character, and deviously designed levels that invite exploration, at its best, this is one of the finest action entries in some time.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of noticeable drawbacks. Most glaringly, it strains against its long runtime in its last half, resulting in some tedium and stretches that aren’t challenging enough. There are too few unique enemies for an experience based around memorizing patterns, making it feel like a rhythm game that repeats the same songs too often. Other annoyances include a distracting loot system and noticeable technical issues, like pop-ins and framerate drops in larger areas.
But even as its second half failed to match what came earlier, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a finely honed delight. Its action is precise and responsive, and learning the intricacies of each adversary is exceedingly fulfilling. While I wish its back stretch was either pared down or had a wider variety of foes, this is a rare title that induces trance-like focus and euphoric moments of victory. It may not quite reach the heights of the works that inspired it, but it’s not far off.