Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty isn't shaping up to be a Nioh 3, and it's all the better for it

When Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty was announced earlier this year, you didn't have to look far to find folks making jokes by calling it "Nioh: Three Kingdoms" - and it made sense, of course. The same developers behind Nioh & Nioh 2, but with a focus on Chinese history this time around, with a focus on martial arts? Even with the changes the team described before the recent demo launch, it wasn't surprising that many players expected more of the same. In practice, however, Wo Long is very much its own beast - and I'm eager for my next chance to see more.

First things first; where is Wo Long the same as its predecessors? It's a tight, fast-flowing action RPG, with level-based area design, and a heavy focus on system mastery in order to take down the game's more difficult enemies, as well as bosses. What Wo Long changes about the formula from Nioh is a shift in priorities - instead of retaining the stance-based combat and stamina management from Nioh, players instead juggle an entirely new mechanic in Spirit. Players don't have a traditional stamina system in the sense that normal attacks won't expend any Spirit, but rather will increase the bar heading to the right; using magic or skills, dodging, or blocking - not parrying - will deplete the bar, and eventually fill the bar heading to the left.

If your bar is filled to the right, with a blue-ish hue, you can imbue your strong attacks with some of your Spirit to dole out additional damage; but having a surplus of Spirit is helpful. If you find yourself with the bar completely filled to the left, a single hit from an enemy will lock you into a rather lengthy stun animation. In practice, alongside Wo Long's much larger emphasis on parrying attacks, the game's combat is much more focused on reactive combat. Rather than mastering the depths of a weapon's moveset, and how and when to switch stances or ki pulse, players are instead tasked with knowing when to go all-out on the offensive and how to time parries to deflect enemy blows.

Supplementing combat, much like in Nioh, is the gear game. However, it has seen a noticeable decrease in importance this time around. While gear is still plentiful, there's much less of it to be found compared to Nioh; furthermore, gear stats have seen some simplification. Gear being rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars is a semantic change at best, but the actual number of stats applied to each gear piece is less than in previous games. Weapons of the same type will have much more in common than in Nioh, meaning that there's maybe less incentive for players to swap weapons out as they progress through the game.

Wo Long's level design, similarly, has seen a bit of a change. For one, the demo level featured much more verticality than the majority of Nioh maps; the player character in Wo Long can jump, and even scatter up ledges their leaps can't quite meet. One of the new mechanics that Wo Long employs is "Morale", which is a number denoting your general strength relative to other enemies in a level. Defeating enemies will raise your Morale, while dying will lead to it falling. Besides the standard checkpoints scattered across the level, players can even find additional positions to place flags that will raise the minimum Morale level for a stage; encouraging exploration and giving less skilled players an outlet to perhaps improve their performance.

Combined with some light stealth elements - sneaking up behind, or dropping onto, an enemy gives you an opportunity to deal significant damage - and some truly fascinating non-human enemy designs, it's hard to not be excited for exactly what else Team Ninja has in store for us. Wo Long feels much fresher than I was expecting - and the best comparison I have is that it feels similarly to the refocusing that From Software faced when they released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Perhaps not everyone that liked Team Ninja's previous outings will be down for what this one has in store for players, but when Nioh 2 already felt like such a refinement of their formula, I can't argue with the team experimenting with themselves, and perhaps getting a bit out of their comfort zone. I can't wait to see what else Wo Long has up its sleeves when it releases early next year.