Thirty minutes after I started playing, my impressions could be summed up with one word: "hard." I've finished most of Team Ninja's recent games like the Nioh series and Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, but I couldn't help but be astounded by this title's difficulty when I first picked it up. Let me state right here, though, that while this isn't a simple game, you'll instantly be drawn in by the dizzying high-speed action on display once you get used to how it works. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty adds new systems to its masocore base to create impressive Chinese martial arts-themed combat. While the game had me wailing and groaning at first, by the time I was three hours in, my brain was pumping out so much dopamine that I couldn't put my controller down. Let's talk about what exactly this game is like. I should also note that this demo was played in single-player on the PS5 with a DualSense controller.
The game begins with character creation, with both male and female options available. Character modeling in the game is extremely high-quality, and you'll be able to fine-tune various settings such as facial outline, eyebrows, eyes, pupils, nose, mouth, hairstyle, skin, facial hair, and makeup. Even after picking a facial outline, it's possible to customize the smallest details like forehead placement, cheekbone placement, and even cheekbone definition.
At the end of character creation, you'll choose your phase, or what would be your character's class in a standard RPG. The wizardry spells available to you will depend on which of the five phases you use. I began my time playing the game by picking the offense-focused fire phase.
In the demo I played, I was placed on a mountainous area after completing a tutorial. As there were no cutscenes, I wasn't able to learn a thing about the story. It seems that this demo was made solely for the purpose of enjoying the game's exploration and battles.
I proceeded from these hills into a cave area, placing most of what I saw in China's sprawling nature. While I wasn't getting a particularly strong sense of the Three Kingdoms setting at this point, my interest was piqued by the supernatural demon enemies that felt traditionally Chinese and the game's overall unsettling dark fantasy elements.
Quick, agile, and stamina-less Chinese martial arts-themed battles
Now let's get into what makes this game really shine: its battles. While you play as a nameless volunteer soldier, they feel so nimble when you actually play that it was like controlling a ninja. Your character's agile movements are like an exaggerated form of the quickness of Chinese martial arts. I began with a double jump from the start and could even kick off walls mid-jump to reach even higher locations. You're also able to make good use of aerial attacks thanks to the many objects like rocks in areas that are usable as platforms. The overall speed of the action is part of what makes this game special.
Close-range attacks come in two different basic forms: basic attacks and spirit attacks. Basic attacks use the weapon your character is holding, and performing these will build your spirit gauge. Once this bar begins to fill, you can use it to deliver higher-damage spirit attacks. You're also able to equip up to two close-range weapons and swap between them.
Use and management of the spirit gauge is an important part of battle, and it can be used for both martial arts attacks as well as for wizardry spells. Martial arts attacks are special moves that differ depending on the weapon you're using, while wizardry consists of elemental attacks that use the power of the phases to control fire, water, and so on.
Even the lower-level enemies you find in your way can rarely be defeated with basic attacks alone, forcing you to make your way through them with the spirit gauge's powerful attacks. As far as close-range weapons go, I had the chance to try out the Sword, Straight Sabre, Glaive, Dual Swords. My impression that the Glaive, with its mix of offensive output and reach, was the easiest to handle. I also used a ranged weapon in the form of a bow. To control it, you line up a shot with L2, then fire with R2. I primarily used it as a ranged weapon while exploring, and it dealt decent enough damage. You only have a limited number of arrows, though, and it was a little unfortunate to run out of them in no time if I got carried away.
Players are also accompanied in their journey by Divine Beasts. You can choose between five types of beast: the Qilin, Baihu, Qinglong, Zhuque and Xuanwu. You summon these with a separate Divine Beast gauge, but they can be summoned to fight alongside you for a time or used for "Divine Beast Resonance," where they provide special effects such as buffs. While I played with the Vermillion Bird, I didn't run across many good opportunities to use a built-up meter and regret not finding an effective use for it.
To give a rundown of the default button settings, Square is used for basic attacks, Triangle is used for spirit attacks, X is used to jump, Circle is used for the Deflection move I'll discuss further later, and L1 is used to block. I got the feeling that this is an ideal layout for easy input of the combo attacks I'll get into below.
The battles in this game don't use a stamina gauge as the Nioh series does. Instead, it sets itself apart with its chains of stunning Chinese martial arts attacks. Your enemies have tough defenses, though, so you won't be able to get through fights just by mashing buttons.
About thirty minutes into the game, I found myself thinking about how difficult its fights are. Looking back on it, though, I could also just say that I still didn't understand how its combat works. Once I had more time with the game, I started to see how to fight effectively thanks to a good bit of trial-and-error.
Counters, the Spirit Gauge, and combos are the three keys to unlocking exciting fights
Wo Long's fights are fast-paced, and even its basic enemies have tough defenses. They'll block just about everything if you come at them with nothing but regular attacks, only to counterattack when you're defenseless until they beat you down.
How do we take them out, then? Let's look at a boss fight for an example of the basics of battle in this game.
I was able to beat the boss nearly undamaged once I got the following down. Understanding this way to fight was all it took to make the game's battles many times more exciting.
You can open the door to dopamine-rush inducing high-speed battles by understanding these three points:
1. Deflection / counters
2. The Spirit Gauge
3. Combo damage
Blocking is weak in Wo Long, especially against powerful enemies like bosses who will break through your guard if you simply defend for too long. Enemies are relentless in their attacks as well, showing few openings. You can't whittle away at an enemy's health with hit-and-run tactics in this game.
Instead, you'll be deflecting to create opportunities to attack. While you primarily learn parries in the tutorial as a way to deflect enemy attacks, they also work as counters.
Parries turn into counters in two different situations. You can either deflect at just the right moment by avoiding an enemy's attack while they're in the Critical Blow state, or you can execute a Deflecting Counterattack with R1 and Circle.
Deflecting Counterattacks used against an enemy's normal attacks are especially strong, allowing you to recover your spirit gauge while also getting in a counter-hit.
If you keep a close eye on an enemy's patterns during their relentless attacks, you can use a parry-counter to create your own turn on offense. If a parry-counter lands, you can hit an opponent with a few basic attacks, keeping them stunned while building your spirit gauge until you use it to unleash a martial arts attack. If they continue to be stunned, you can follow that up with wizardry. If you're able to do all of this, you'll have knocked off as much as a quarter of your opponent's health (*I should note that damage and enemy flinch is influenced by your weapon, your phase, and your build. The experience described here is the result of a fire phase build).
A parry-counter → 2x basic attacks → spirit attack → wizardry combo.
Opening with a parry and delivering a combo that uses the spirit gauge like this is the basis of this game's offense. If you don't understand this, though, the game will seem punishingly difficult. If you're planning on trying out the demo or got stuck while making your way through it, I suggest that you play while keeping this flow in mind. While it feels great at first to simply land a parry-counter, you won't be able to put the game down once you start figuring out your own combos.
Exploration is made easy by the many Battle Flags in areas and Morale rank
As you explore, you'll unlock Battle Flags located in the game's areas, allowing you to use them as save points. You'll start over at these flags when you die, but the sheer number of them just in the demo's areas was notable. While it's not easy to open up more of the world because of its strong enemies, it was easy to get back up and try again thanks to all of the Battle Flags.
Wo Long also contains level-based progression elements. When at a Battle Flag, you can use Genuine Qi (experience points) gained through battle to enhance your character. Your character's initial stats will also change depending on the phase you choose at the start of the game, and you can also switch between Divine Beasts, allowing players to try out lots of different strategies based on combinations of Divine Beast and phase.
At an interview with the game's developers that took place alongside this demo, producer Fumihiko Yasuda recommended the combination of the wood phase and Qinglong because of the healing it provides, so players may want to try that out if they feel the need for more recovery while they explore.
I'd also like to discuss the game's Morale rank, one of your character's stats. Morale acts as a rank indicating the relative strength between the player and an enemy. By defeating enemies and increasing your Morale rank, your character will get stronger. This applies to enemies as well, so enemies with higher Morale rank than you will by nature be tough opponents. In addition to acting as a barometer, you may also be able to expect better drops if you do defeat an enemy with a higher Morale rank than you.
Defeating enemies increases your Morale rank based on how tough they are, but dying causes you to lose rank. However, there is also a floor on your rank that your Morale can't go below, and this minimum rank can be increased. In other words, if you get your rank floor up to 10, your Morale won't drop below 10 even when you die.
Enemy Morale rank is always displayed, helping you decide whether or not you'll be able to defeat a given enemy in your current state. This was especially useful when multiple enemies were visible during exploration, as I could know to just run through an enemy instead of trying to fight all the powerful opponents in my way.
I was able to play the game for about five hours but spent most of it figuring out how to defeat bosses. As such, I didn't get the opportunity to test out different phase and Divine Beast combinations, builds, and so on aside from my fire phase and Vermillion Bird build. Because your phase also determines what wizardry spells are available to you, I want to try out a bunch of different combinations once the demo is released
While Wo Long is for sure a difficult masocore title, you'll find yourself enjoying plenty of exciting, high-speed, Chinese martial arts combat as you try again and again.
The release version of the game will also contain PvP, which I can't wait for given just how good Wo Long's action is. If you're interested, why not give the demo version a try?