As much as we absolutely adore Team Ninja's PC and PlayStation-exclusive Nioh series, it often felt as though it bogged itself down a little bit too much with the depth of its combat mechanics and a certain heavy-handedness when it came to the importance of stamina with regards to every single action you took in battle. With Ki pulses and Ki bars, burst attacks, counters, guardian beasts and shifting stances to take into account, they're games that take time to gel with, adventures that can perhaps seem overwhelming to the intrepid newcomer and battle-hardened warrior alike.

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With its latest title, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, the Japanese dev serves up an adventure that sticks with the dark fantasy style of the Nioh games whilst also employing the same type of segmented overworld and gameplay which continues to follow the now de rigueur soulslike loop. However, this is a game that plays much faster and looser than that series, with streamlined combat mechanics, a complete abandonment of any sort of stamina gauge and, yes Nioh fans, you even get to jump in this one, heck, you get to double jump. It's party time!

Where Nioh's core battle mechanics challenged the player to carefully consider how stamina affected their movement options and ability to both attack and defend at all times, Wo Long affords you much more freedom to run rampant across its battlefields without running out of steam. In this respect it hews much closer to the developer's fast-paced Ninja Gaiden series, with a slick arcade feel to how your player-created nameless warrior leaps and bounds through stages. This is all great for exploration, with plenty of hidden areas to zoom around and much more in the way of verticality introduced to level design, however, when it comes to actual combat, there's still plenty to consider if you're going to come out on top during the game's ultra-violent encounters.

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty introduces a Sekiro-eque system of parries, blocks and deflections that sees you manage a Spirit Gauge which governs how much damage you dish out, as well as how many hits you can soak up before you're left stun-blocked and open to punishment. It's a much cleaner system than the Ki pulses and constant stamina management of Nioh, giving you a straightforward gauge that drops down into a negative orange zone as you soak up punishment, use magic or perform martial arts, and shifts up into a positive blue zone as you dish out damage to your foes.

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This is a game that wants you to go on the offensive, to constantly push forward and fight aggressively in order to keep your spirit gauge in the blue, giving you the juice to perform spirit attacks or use your vast array of spells and fancy moves to break your enemies down quickly. To be successful here you'll need to spend a little time getting to grips with a slick deflection system that allows you to parry all incoming attacks, shifting enemies off balance and opening them up for brutal ripostes. You can choose to block by holding "LB" where required, and this will often save you in a pinch, but it very quickly lowers your spirit gauge into the danger zone, leaving you at risk of stun-blocks and completely unable to pull off dodges or timed deflections of your enemy's glowing red special attacks.

Deflections really are the order of the day here and, once you get used to using them, once you get used to not standing still and soaking up attacks through simply blocking, you'll find the combat really coming together as your protagonist gets busy pulling all manner of flashy manoeuvres out of the bag to best your foes in an ultra-stylish manner.

Keeping the pressure on your opponent - and this is especially important when it comes to the game's menagerie of twisted bosses - allows you to drain and damage their spirit gauge too, leaving them more vulnerable, exposed to powerful fatal attacks and unable to weather your assaults for as long without breaking. Take on a large enemy by blocking and waiting for your turn to strike and a fight can last for a fair old while, even against lower ranked foes. Make proper use of deflections, and you can very easily end a confrontation in two slick moves.

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Stealth also has its place here, and a careful player can sneak up on most foes to deliver sneaky strikes that, at the very least, severely damage health bars whilst also absolutely tanking your opponent's spirit level. It's always worth taking a stealth approach into account when faced with a mini-boss or larger enemy, softening them up first before engaging them in furious face-to-face combat.

Battles in Wo Long really are pretty relentless when things kick off and, when mixed with your ability to somersault over enemies, create distance and space very quickly and deploy magic spells and martial arts to damage or debuff your prey, it all makes for absolutely thrilling combat that we've yet to tire of. There's an impressive array of magic attacks to get involved with here, five separate skill trees packed full of fire, ice, electrical and other elemental tricks, traps and spells to utilise, all of which adhere to the Chinese philosophy of five phases; earth, water, fire, metal and wood, that make up the different aspects into which you'll drop your accumulated "Genuine Qi" in order to level up.

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Much like the Souls series of games, the general gameplay loop sees you push forward and gather Qi as you defeat your foes, with death seeing you lose a bunch of your accumulated wealth whilst also giving you a chance to return to where you died in order to regain your hard-earned spoils. However, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty mixes things up by having you rechallenge the enemy who killed you, an enemy who is now slightly stronger than before, having stolen a bunch of your morale through defeating you first time around.

It's this morale system that turns out to be Wo Long's cleverest addition to the usual soulslike loop. Every new mission that you take on from the world map sets your morale rank to zero and as you kill your enemies this rises, making your attacks stronger whilst also enabling you to soak up more punishment. Each mission area consists of a bunch of run-of-the-mill foes, a few higher level mini-bosses and an end of stage boss, all of whom have their own morale ranks. In order to be successful, you'll need to raise you morale rank to a point where you can go toe to toe with them. The higher your morale in respect to theirs, the easier the fight will be. Simple!

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Well, sort of simple. There is a bit more to the morale system, as each mission zone is dotted with both Battle and Marking flags. Battle flags act as bonfire-style rest spots where you'll refill your medicinal pots and have the opportunity to level up, swap your currently equipped Divine Beast (more on these in a bit) and change up your magic spells whilst also raising your fortitude, which is a base number under which your current morale rank cannot fall. Marking flags simply refresh your medicinal supplies and health whilst also raising fortitude further, so it's in your best interests to explore levels thoroughly in order to find and unlock all of these flags so that your morale rank can't be completely tanked when you find yourself in a tough spot. If it sounds rather fussy on paper, in practice it's nothing of the sort and bounding around most levels will see you uncover the majority of flags and raise your fortitude to the max without too much hassle.

One of the cleverest aspects of this morale system is that it acts as a sort of on-the-fly way of deciding how hard you want to make the game for yourself. Choose to take on a boss with a morale ranking of 20 when yours is 17 and you're in for a tough battle, go toe to toe with matching ranks and things are slightly more manageable, or spend time grinding around areas, resetting enemies by resting at battle flags and raising your rank up to five levels above your foe and you'll find you blaze through the confrontation much more comfortably.

In this respect you've also got access to recruits, NPC characters you'll meet during the main campaign, two of whom can then be called into action at any battle flag to aid you in combat. You'll need to spend Tiger Seals in order to summon recruits and in a pickle they really do help to make boss battles much more do-able, should you find yourself struggling. It won't smooth over every big hurdle, there are still a few big challenges along the way here - including a pre-credits boss that'll put you to an early test - but, for the most part, recruits and the morale system combined make for a surprisingly welcoming addition to this genre, one that offers you much more in the way of options to temper difficulty than many of its peers.

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Of course, there are also all manner of online shenanigans to dive into with regards to recruits as well. You can summon friends and strangers to help you out in boss battles or across entire missions for big rewards, or even invade other player's games as a malevolent spirit, but unfortunately we haven't had access to any of this online goodness during the review process, so it remains to be seen how it all pans out. One aspect of the online that was working as we played was the ability to avenge fallen players by defeating a marked NPC opponent who killed that player during their game. It's a neat little touch that offers up some nice loot drops for taking a risk on tangling with an enemy whose morale level is boosted due to their victory in battle.

The final big piece of the combat puzzle are the game's Divine Beasts, which act in a similar manner to the Guardian Spirits in Nioh. A Divine Beast gauge on the right side of your screen fills as you do battle and, once full, allows you to unleash your currently equipped beast to either attack your foes or provide you with some sort of buff to temporarily help you out. Each story mission that you take on in the main campaign sees you gain a new beast to utilise going forward, with a nice mix of elemental based attacks, weapon buffs and healing aids to call upon as you make progress. Managing your Divine Beast gauge during boss battles is absolutely essential as you progress through the campaign as they really can turn the tide of particularly ferocious encounters, especially the likes of Qinglong, our go-to beast, who creates a temporary health-filling area on battlefields when activated, giving you precious time to whale on your foes whilst keeping your health topped up to the max.

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Add in a few flashy martial arts moves that change according to the types of weapon you currently have equipped and you've got a combat system that has a lot going on whilst still managing to feel ultra slick and satisfying. Wo Long's action really does feel so much less fussy than what we were treated to in Nioh, and it makes for a game that's hard to put down, even when you find yourself really up against it. The historical Chinese setting adds much to proceedings here too, with some amazing locations inspired by a mix of real-life Chinese history and mythology sat alongside a roster of hideous creatures, beasts and mortal foes pulled from the literature of the Three Kingdoms era of history. You best believe you get to throw down with Lu Bu here.

There's also an absolute ton of loot to get busy collecting in this game - we'd almost say there's perhaps a little too much of it, in fact - with almost every enemy dropping a weapon or piece of armour that you can then take to sell, upgrade or enchant at the game's blacksmith back in the picturesque Hidden Village hub area. From here you can also eventually re-spec your character and even take on a series of side quests that see you gather golden insects or hunt for a local woman's lost keys in return for rewards.

Weapons and armour come in various rarities, as indicated by a star ranking that runs from white/common through to gold/legendary, with higher level gear providing more passive benefits and slots which you can use to equip your own choice of buffs to whichever sword, axe or spear you're currently rocking. It's a solid system, for sure, but it really does throw a lot of gear at you, so make sure to keep selling what you don't need lest you end up with an inventory that takes an age to scroll through.

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In terms of the story overall, well, it's certainly atmospheric stuff, telling the tale of an alternate timeline Late Han Dynasty and mixing the real-life events of the Yellow Turban Rebellion with a dark fantasy tale centred on a demonic threat emanating from the misuse of a mysterious elixir. However, and this is mostly due to the separate mission structure style employed, it never really feels as though it hangs together very well. Each mission sees you meet a bunch of new characters and set off to defeat a new threat in a new region and, before very long, it's pretty difficult to remember who's who and what's exactly is happening beyond "big bad guys are getting juiced on nasty evil elixir."

We can live with these slight narrative failings though, we're chiefly here for the action, and in terms of action Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty delivers in spades. More egregious shortcomings take the form of some smaller mission levels, areas that make the grinding through morale ranks feel a little too repetitive. We're all used to grinding in soulslike games, it's all part of the fun, but when areas are particularly small, such as the third area you'll visit in Wo Long, well, it makes that grind feel just a little too monotonous. Thankfully, for the most part the game avoids this and the vast majority of its missions take place in large environments that are a pleasure to repeatedly blast around, but the issue does rear its head from time to time.

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We also experienced a few rough edges with regards to performance during our review period. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty has two graphical modes to choose from, performance and resolution, and in our time with the game we noticed some stuttering in the quality mode. Switching to performance all but fixed this, however there were some issues with a few cutscenes stuttering in places, and we did find a few areas that slightly affected the framerate, although in performance it was never really enough to particularly affect the action. (Update: A 20GB patch has been released this week that we've only had time to test a little bit so far, but it seems to have made noticeable improvements with regards to both quality mode and the cutscene stuttering issue).

Overall though, and besides this handful of issues, Team Ninja really has served up a bit of a belter here. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a hugely satisfying action game that borrows from the likes of Dark Souls, Sekiro and Nioh whilst adding plenty of its own slick mechanics to the mix, making for a fast-paced and deeply engaging combat experience that's much more flexible and welcoming to newcomers than most efforts in this genre.

There's a fantastically atmospheric world full of hideous demons to dive into here and, once you've got a handle on your deflections and parries, once you settle into the aggressive rhythm of the battles at hand, you'll find yourself thoroughly engrossed across the roughly 45 hours it should take you to mop up the main campaign. We're big fans of the Nioh series, but for us this one just about pips it into first place as Team Ninja's finest soulslike thus far.


Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a solid soulslike experience that serves up top-notch combat in a hugely atmospheric setting which incorporates real-life historical events, Chinese mythology and dark fantasy elements. There's a clever battle system at the heart of proceedings here with deflections, ripostes and screen-shaking fatal attacks the order of the day, whilst an innovative morale rank and recruitment system makes for action that's flexible enough to cater for newcomers to the genre. The narrative isn't particularly cohesive, and a handful of the missions on offer are a little too short for their own good, but overall this is Team Ninja's finest soulslike experience to date and a must-play for action fans.