The term “Soulslike” generates a specific kind of game in the mind. It conjures something that’s hard as hell, with fearsome bosses to beat, intricate levels to explore, tight combat to experience, and a world rife with enough lore to fill several tomes. You may call games in the genre alluring, unforgettable, and sometimes super cheap, but if there’s one word you likely wouldn’t use to describe Soulslikes, it’s “approachable.” Until now. Team Ninja’s Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a terrific game, one that excels in so many of the ways we’ve come to expect from great Soulslikes. It has brutal, pulse-pounding combat, a haunting world, and some memorable bosses. And the fact that it manages to deliver on all of this without compromise, while also being the most accessible Soulslike to date, is nothing short of a marvel. In other words, next to Nioh 2, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty might be my fave Soulslike.
Wo Long is the latest Soulslike from action game aficionados Team Ninja, whose previous efforts in the genre comprise the Nioh franchise. Set in 184 AD during the Later Han Dynasty, the game tasks you with stamping out the Yellow Turban Rebellion, a peasant revolt that sought to disrupt ancient China. However, weaved into this mythically fictionalized retelling of the historical events of the Three Kingdoms period is an even greater threat than the poor, emboldened to rise up by some bad dude. Nah, it’s a mystical drug called Elixir that’s corrupting the lands, poisoning the people, and raising the dead.
This is what you, a nameless militia soldier you customize through Wo Long’s impressively robust character creator, are actually fighting against: Not just the brainwashed poor, but also the grotesquely transformed, as the power-hungry jerks who take Elixir either die and come back as zombies or have their bodies forever changed with new limbs and animalistic features. In narrative and environmental terms, Wo Long is a lot like Nioh 2, but in ancient China with a dash of Bloodborne horror, and that’s dope.
In Team Ninja’s Nioh 2 follow-up, a captivating, dying world
It’s telling that development producer Masaki Yamagiwa cited Bloodborne as “a new form of motivation” that inspired Wo Long, because the world is lathered in similar Lovecraftian imagery. It takes its time in reaching the depths of depravity, however, with the game steadily building on the horror as the story’s stakes ramp up. You start at the tail end of a fiery onslaught on the Yellow Turban Rebellion, the environment a desecrated mess of ransacked homes and burnt trees. After battling a few Yellow Turban lackeys here and a possessed rendition of Tony the Tiger there, you’ll encounter the first of many two-stage bosses, Zhang Liang, who ingests an Elixir ball and grows a snake-like arm covered in blood-filled crystals. It’s a haunting, 1v1 battle on a moonlit, flower-covered field as Liang swings his now-deformed left arm in the hopes of crushing you to death so that darkness reigns. Things only get grosser as you slash your way through each distinctly detailed locale.
This isn’t an open-world game, though. There isn’t as much freedom here as in something like Elden Ring. Instead, Wo Long’s level structure is more reminiscent of Team Ninja’s Nioh 2 and Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. As the narrative unfolds, you’re taken (via lore-filled loading screen) to the subsequent location. Sometimes this is the lavish Mt. Tianzhushan, with its vibrant pink-colored leaves, lush bushes, and glistening waterways. Other times, it’s the devastated Guandu, crumbling to pieces as veins protrude from the array of suspended buildings. All the while you’re set on a fairly linear path, with a few available shortcuts to make backtracking less frustrating: ladders to reach an upper level, a bundle of wood that acts as a stepping stone, and so on. In its world design, Wo Long is focused and intimate, hooking you in with little details like rotting produce in abandoned villages and decaying bodies pierced on the battlefield, visual elements that breathe life into an otherwise desperate, dying world.
There’s an oddly captivating quality to that desperation, one that helps drive home the game’s broad view of humanity: We are power hungry. If it serves us, we will do what is necessary to get power. Wo Long explores that and the sacrifices people will make to achieve power in an on-the-nose but nonetheless enthralling way. Through Elixir, the drug that essentially unlocks the host’s unstoppable inner demon in exchange for their life, an ultimate big-bad can pull the strings while everyone lusts after the thing he’s in full control of. There’s political intrigue as warlords like Cao Cao and Sun Jian debate the best strategy to put an end to the war, while Elixir stealths its way through the ranks because of fools too weak-willed to maintain vigilance in the face of power. There’s even romance and heartbreak, as characters profress their unyielding love for each other just before taking their last breath in the icy ground. It’s dire, but it speaks to just how destructive power is when chased by the corrupt.
Wo Long is the most accessible Soulslike I’ve played
I’ve made the comparison that Wo Long is Nioh 2 but in ancient China a few times in my impressions of the game, but now having played through the whole thing, it feels even more applicable. If you’re at all familiar with the Nioh series, Wo Long will feel like coming home. That’s not to say that all the same pictures are hung in the same spaces or that all the same furniture is placed in the same rooms. There are some notable differences that set these two Team Ninja games apart, particularly when it comes to combat and difficulty. Wo Long is significantly faster in its animations, meaning the pace of engagements is much quicker here than what you see in the Nioh games.
This might make for a more challenging experience, but because Wo Long demands and rewards aggression, the increase in speed is a boon for anyone who wants to treat these games as a sort of hack-and-slash adventure. By relentlessly attacking an enemy, you raise your spirit gauge while diminishing your opponent’s. Think of this dual-colored bar at the bottom of the health gauge as being similar to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s posture meter. Completely drain an enemy’s spirit and you’ll open them up for a devastating fatal strike which, in most cases, kills in one hit and, in all instances, lowers their morale ranking.
This morale ranking system is a vital component—the backbone if you will—of Wo Long’s understanding of difficulty within the Soulslike genre. When you play these masocore-like games, you’re sometimes relegated to farming for experience points to increase your level high enough to deal with whatever foe that’s putting you in a quick grave. You could switch up your build. Maybe try out a new armor or weapon. But the only way to really grow stronger in most Soulslikes is to accrue enough XP to buff yourself. That’s all true in Wo Long, too. However, exploring ancient China and raising battle flags, this game’s version of Dark Souls’ bonfires, is another way to become more powerful because planting flags increases your morale.
Similar to God of War’s power level system, upping your morale ranking in Wo Long increases your damage resistance. So, if you encounter an enemy with a morale rank that’s higher than yours, you can bet your ass is in for a beating. But if you pull up on a sucker with a lower morale rank than yours, well, it’s likely curtains of them. And it’s not just battle flags that affect your morale, as raising the smaller marking flags dotted across the map establishes the floor (the invisible fortitude rank) that your ceiling (the morale rank) can never drop below. In this way, scouring the map is not only encouraged as a means to find new goons to fight and loot to collect. It’s almost required to make it through the game. It’s through this morale ranking system that Wo Long’s accessibility begins to shine.
The morale ranking system makes up just one prong of Wo Long’s approach to accessibility. The other comes in the form of reinforcements, which you can call upon at the various battle flags you’ve planted. This is a blessing because so often, Soulslikes are largely these individual affairs with obtuse multiplayer offerings. There’s multiplayer here, too, but in an expansion to Nioh 2's benevolent grave summoning mechanic, Wo Long lets you call up an NPC homie whenever you want, so long as you have the required tiger seal item to do so. (The consumable is pretty easy to come by, found on dead enemies and in random chests around the maps.)
You could always use a partner or two on the battlefield
Through summoning, you can fight alongside a plethora of historical figures, such as general Sun Ce and warlord Liu Bei, while tackling the game’s many difficult and unpredictable enemies. The best part, though, is you don’t always have to summon; Wo Long will, more often than not, start you with an ally already in tow as part of the game’s mesmerizing narrative. So, you’ll roll up to, say, Guigugou Valley in Ji Province, ready to battle with warrior brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei at your side. You can heal your reinforcements when they go down in combat and they never leave your company unless you decide to whisk them away with a different consumable item. Team Ninja understands that Soulslikes are, at times, far too punishing for the laygamer, and this inspiring reinforcement mechanic seeks to remedy that difficulty.
It’s these two elements, the morale ranking system and the summoning of reinforcements, that make Wo Long the most accessible Soulslike I’ve played in…maybe ever. Sure, there are no real accessibility options for adjusting things like damage taken and enemy visibility. Features like those seen in The Last of Us Part I and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart would go a long way to opening up the genre to an even wider audience. However, just by implementing some design choices that both encourage exploration and galvanize the idea of seeking help, Wo Long makes it evident that developers can create their punishing games without wholly gatekeeping the experience. Hell, when I was getting bodied throughout my time with Wo Long, I just summoned a comrade or two and all of a sudden, I felt empowered to take ancient China head-on. If this is the power of friendship, then Soulslikes need way more of it.
Don’t get it twisted, this is still a very hard Soulslike
With all of that said, Wo Long is still a hard-ass Soulslike. There are a plethora of grunts that have no problem showing you the casket to rest your head in, and they’ll do it with the quickness if you’re not careful. On top of difficult jerks, the world itself is out to get you as you can take massive damage after a fall and can be reduced to a single health point when taking an unfortunate dip in the water. But nowhere is the challenge more pronounced than in the intimidating boss encounters, fights with screen-filling demons like a malformed, tentacled cow or terrifying soldiers such as helmsman Lu Bu.
It’s these moments that feel like familiar territory for Soulslike players, those who associate grueling difficulty with the genre. And they are very challenging skirmishes that demand attention, skill, and patience, lest you get clapped in one hit. But again, thanks to the morale ranking system and summoning reinforcements, these engagements aren’t as insurmountable as they may first appear. The enemy might be obsessed with power, but strong friendships can’t be easily broken. That’s the penultimate lesson I took away from Wo Long.
That’s what I hope developers in the genre and players of these games take away, as well. Sometimes, you need help to take down an army, especially one with demons and evildoers high on performance-enhancing drugs. Doing it yourself is possible, as shown in something like Bloodborne. But as 1986's The Legend of Zelda put it, “It’s dangerous to go alone.” So, why not take some reinforcements with you? You’ll be grateful you did.