While you may have been expecting Team Ninja to continue with its Dark Souls-inspired Nioh series, its new game, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, is different, offering a mechanic that’s a genuine evolution on the soulsborne format. A new motivation to avoid death: the morale system.
Set in Three Kingdoms-era China, in Wo Long, you take up your sword against the monsters ravaging the kingdom, such as demonic knights, giant dragons, and, my current enemy, a 10-foot ogre. He’s repeatedly wiped the floor with me, crushing me under his oversized foot, smushing me with his massive palms, and generally turning me into a flatter, more puddle-like soldier.
I can get the upper hand by leaning into the speed of my character, using lightning-fast blows to overwhelm the ogre and dodge away from his attacks. Dark Souls always feels like an action game for those who love the slow deliberateness of Monster Hunter Rise, Wo Long speaks to those who prefer the punishing pace of Bayonetta 3 or Ninja Gaiden. You can sprint directly (and hilariously) straight up walls, leap off crumbling rooftops without fear of fall damage, and generally just zip around, running amok with your custom-made character.
As I build momentum, I charge up my spirit gauge and spend that power on magic summons. When you create your character in Wo Long, you align yourself with one of five elemental Divine Beasts – Fire, Earth, Wood, Water, and Metal. Each beast imbues you with a different summon and four equipable spells corresponding to the beast's chosen element. I hit the ogre with a flame-spitting phoenix and watch it crumple. My reward is instant, a big infusion of morale.
Morale works like a temporary leveling-up mechanic. You raise your morale with each enemy you defeat, gaining strength and unlocking more spells. The longer you survive, the more powerful you become, and the rewards are immediate.
In traditional soulslike games, like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, you amass experience points from your enemies, and your punishment at death is you drop all those points with your corpse. It was revolutionary at the time, introducing a palpable fear of death because not only would you be sent back to the last checkpoint you passed, but you would lose something tangible – any unspent experience points. Wo Long’s system is similar, in that it creates a fear of death through loss, but by tying it to an instant power gain, it made me feel like I was becoming an action hero with every successful combat.
The morale system works against you, too. Not only does death see your hard-earned morale level – and unlocked skills – completely reset, but upon dying at the hands of an enemy, their morale level rises, making them more formidable with each rematch.
(Wo) Long and short of it
All moraled-up after my ogre fight, I managed to topple a screen-filling end-of-level boss with ease. A behemoth of a boar, defeating this Princess Mononoke-esque demon demanded a steely resolve, timing my parries just as his blood-soaked tusks went in for the kill. Yet thanks to my previous feud, I had leveled up enough to be a worthy adversary. Along with its summons, Chinese martial arts, and magic, Wo Long has another dollop of secret sauce slathered over its soulslike sandwich – Bloodborne producer Masaaki Yamagiwa.
Yamgiwa’s involvement has paid off. While Nioh is an enjoyably kooky Dark Souls clone, Wo Long immediately oozes a clear sense of confidence. Where Dark Souls’ developer FromSoftwarei’s creations see players attacking and blocking with a realistically slow heft, in Wo Long you exchange barrages of blows with the acrobatic fury of a wire fu martial arts movie.
The biggest disappointment from Wo Long comes from the much-touted Three Kingdoms setting. Thrown into a Sekiro-esque, vaguely Eastern-looking environment, your surroundings tick the soulslike checklist of torn banners flapping in the wind, crumbling stone keeps, and zombie-esque enemies. The second area I traverse fares a bit better, thrusting me into a more open-feeling mountainous region – the battered brickwork swapped for dingy caves and alluring waterfalls – still, it's a far cry from the mystique of Elden Ring’s The Lands Between.
Despite its linearity, I came away from my hour with Wo Long surprised by how quickly the core combat clicked for me – and just how compelling I found it. The morale system adds an RPG-esque grind to proceedings. Get lucky and manage to slay a much harder foe? Watch that morale level shoot up. Spend your time patiently grinding the lower-level grunts? Get a sweet morale boost. All these separate iterations add up to a refreshingly frantic take on the FromSoftware formula, hinting at what Sekiro might feel like unshackled from its last-gen framerate. While it won’t be causing Dark Souls’ creator Miyazaki to lose any sleep, Wo Long is shaping up to be the most promising Soulslike yet.
Get daily insight, inspiration and deals in your inbox
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.