RRRomance Of The Three Kingdoms

HIGH High-energy, fast pace and refined systems.

LOW Making the first boss a balls-hard Sekiro homage was a huge mistake.

WTF Where is that village key? And why are arrows so expensive?!?

I’m going to go ahead and call it right now — the worst design decision of 2023 is the first boss of Wo Long: Fallen Empire. Not only is this encounter brutally hard, it crops up in the earliest section of play, immediately after finishing the tutorials.

At this point, the player is still coming to grips with basic moves and they’ve yet to unlock most of the supplementary systems — multiple weapon choices, weapon and armor upgrades, magic spells, AI reinforcements, helpful status items, increased healing ability and even magical animals that can lend a hand. But at this point they’ve got none of it.

This is such a difficult first boss that I personally know of several people who quit the game and deleted it from their console after repeated defeats. The ironic thing is that (relatively speaking) this first battle is actually one of the toughest encounters in the entire campaign.

Even more ironic? Wo Long contains many obvious nods to FromSoft’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the Souls studio’s most unforgiving and prescriptive work, and this encounter is a clear homage to Sekiro‘s final boss, which is itself an infamously tough fight.

It makes no sense whatsoever to have the first boss be as tough as he is because once the player gets past it — if they get past it — there’s a lot to enjoy about Wo Long, and almost none of it approaches the difficulty of this aggressively arbitrary dick-measuring gitgud contest.

Mechanically and in most aspects of production, Wo Long is similar to Tecmo-Koei’s previous attempts at the soulslike genre, Nioh and Nioh 2.

The player starts by creating a character and then takes them on a tour of various war-torn settings, this time in Three Kingdoms-era China. From here Wo Long is a standard soulslike experience — travel through villages, forts, battlefields and other locations, each offering a variety of soldiers and supernatural monsters to eradicate via third-person melee. Level up, gain new weapons and armor, and grow tough enough to withstand anything the forces of evil can dredge up along the way. However, there are several design decisions which make the experience more than the sum of its parts.

For example, while they seem almost identical initially, Wo Long‘s systems are more streamlined and easier to understand than Nioh‘s. It’s not as heavy or frequent with loot drops, for instance, and there’s a smaller number of options that the player will find.

It feels a bit limiting at first, but once I settled on weapons that I liked and understood the now-simplified armor upgrading, I invested in just a few pieces and they carried me through the entire game comfortably. Overall, spending less time and effort on fewer pieces of gear meant that I spent more time on actually playing, rather than min-maxing numbers in menu screens. I also appreciated that there was no FAQ necessary to understand the upgrading, which hasn’t always been the case.

Looking at the combat itself, I think it’s a great combination of the solidly satisfying swordplay from Nioh and some ninja-oriented parrying concepts from Sekiro.

Basic combat is fast-paced and essentially identical to older Tecmo-Koei work, only now more streamlined and with a clearer emphasis on aggressive play. There are light and heavy attacks (stance changes are gone) and when enemies are about to unleash an unblockable attack signaled by an orange circle appearing in front of them, if the player can parry right before the attack hits, they negate all damage and will often put the enemy into a stun state, ripe for a massive hit.

Although having the ability to widen the parry window would be great, it works well and most of the animations that need to be parried are easy to read, with the exception of a few which were constant problems. (For some reason I could never get the timing down on the swamp mermaids or the boss who looks like a big ball of hair.) That said, I’m generally terrible at parrying in any game, but I was more successful here than not, and I loved how flashy and exciting it is when a parry happens — the camera does a dynamic quick-cut and loud sounds of metal clashing ring out made me feel like a superhero, if only for a second.

I’m sure some players will be glad to hear that parrying isn’t required for the majority of play, but there are two or three bosses who are inordinately difficult if the player can’t land them reliably. I got through them, but they were harder than I would have liked, and again, being able to modify the parry window would have been welcome.

Potential difficulties aside, this parry system is also part and parcel of another systems rework.

Each character, player or enemy, has a meter divided in half. The left side shows how close they are to being stunned, and the right side is energy that can be used to unleash special attacks and magic spells. Taking hits and being defensive fills up the left half, while parrying and pressing the attack fills up the right. It’s a push/pull tug-of-war system that clearly encourages the player to be as aggressive as possible, since by doing so they will be preventing themselves from being stunned and will have a constantly-regenerating supply of energy for bigger attacks and various magical abilities.

I liked this system not only because it makes a lot of sense and is easy to read in the heat of battle, it avoids the usual issue of limited magic points or managing mana. As long as the player can press the attack and keep gaining energy, they can increase the ferocity of their offensive. On the other hand, if they lose momentum or start blocking too much, they’ll be left trying to catch their breath while an enemy swoops in to deliver the hurt. Overall, it’s a balanced, clever concept that I enjoyed, and it works well.

Wo Long also has two other systems worthy of mention — co-op and the stealth.

The co-op allows others to be called in to help with a tough boss, or a mean level. While I was never able to summon anyone myself (perhaps I was too far into the campaign, having a pre-release review copy) I was often able to help others out. For those who don’t want to engage with anyone online, Wo Long lets players roll with up to two AI companions in almost every area. I found that I was able to count on the AI buddies to draw a good amount of aggro during boss battles, and they were appreciably helpful when trying to make progress. As a way of letting players self-regulate their own difficulty level, this was ace.

The stealth was also greatly appreciated. Rather than engaging in the ‘traditional’ sort where one crouches behind cover or looks for shadows to skulk in, the player merely needs to be behind-ish enemies in order to surprise them and deliver a huge chunk of backstab damage. It’s entirely gamified and wholly unbelievable, but it works because it’s a decision made in service to the game as a whole. Wo Long is all about being as aggressive as quickly and as often as possible, and asking players to put the brakes on to creep around for a few minutes would fly in the face of that. As such, adopting this stealth hybrid was a marvelous choice.

I was already a fan of Tecmo-Koei’s style when it comes to soulslikes, so the what worked before still worked for me here, and the changes were good ones. However, there were a few issues aside from that first boss…

For starters, the story is a huge weak point. There’s just not much to tell — basically, an evil wizard is doing evil stuff, a whole lot of warriors want to stop him, and the player fights alongside all of them to get the job done.

While the script features many characters who will surely be familiar to fans of the Three Kingdoms setting, there’s little development or personality on display. Almost every chapter introduces new faces that come and go for no obvious reason, and many who pop up are indistinguishable from each other — most of the dialogue sequences are just repeated iterations on the themes of ‘honor’ and ‘friendship’. By the time I rolled credits, I barely had any sense of who anyone was with the exception of a small handful, and I often found myself wanting to skip through the cutscenes since none of it held any interest.

Mechanically, I had issues with some of the weapons. Although there are a wide variety of weapon types in Wo Long, they fall into a few basic categories and I found the ‘slow, but hits hard’ weapons to be basically unusable since combat is lightning-fast. There wasn’t a sufficient upside to hitting harder if the slow speed meant that the hits never connected, or that long windups left the player open.

While the story is a bore and a couple of difficulty spikes pushed my parrying skills to the max, Wo Long: Fallen Empire still manages to deliver a solid and lengthy action-adventure on par with their previous successes, but with a slightly different and more refined flavor. Tecmo-Koei is better at the soulslike genre than most, and I am a fan of what they do — I just wish the developers would have reconsidered that abysmal first boss. Being an homage to something famously hard was an incomprehensibly poor choice, and it’s a shame that the rest of the campaign will go unseen by the people who walk away in frustration.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Team Ninja and published by Tecmo-Koei. It is currently available on PC, PS4/5, XBO/S/X. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX in Performance mode. Approximately 38 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed2 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes assisting others.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore and Violence. The official description reads as follows: This is an action game in which players join a large-scale battle against an evil sorcerer in Late Han Dynasty China. From a third-person perspective, players use swords, spears, hammers, magic, and clubs in melee combat against enemies (e.g., soldiers, demons, ghouls). Combat is fast-paced, highlighted by large blood-splatter effects, screams of pain, and explosions. Finishing moves sometimes depict characters dramatically impaled on swords or lances. Several scenes depict multiple corpses and/or large pools/smears of blood.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dialogue in the game is subtitled. Subtitles can be resized. When enemies become aware of the player (or the player’s stealth fails) there is an audio sound that plays. If the player is looking directly at the enemy that becomes aware, there is a visual cue that shows their awareness changing. However, if the player is not looking at the enemy who becomes aware, that audio cue has no visual component. Therefore, this game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Brad Gallaway
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