I've been playing the demo of Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty for the past two days, and it's one of those games I'm more impressed with than I am enjoying it. Games have reached such a point of photorealism that describing them as 'beautiful' or 'gorgeous' feels played out and trite, but my first taste of Wo Long mostly leaves me thinking that it's beautiful and gorgeous. It feels especially curated, with the horizons blank and untouched, not constantly flickering with points of interests or demands to travel to far off regions. Up close however, the terrain is dense with shattered bridges, craggy mountains, and clear flowing streams. It looks great, and for some of you it will play great – but only some of you. Consider this both an invitation and a warning.
It's important to stress that what I played was only a demo, and so this first complaint may be a victim of circumstance, but let’s get to it anyway. I've just praised the world building, and there is an artful feel to the level construction. Rivers bend, split off, and combine, leaving you with various routes to take and no firm destination demanding your time, while vertically there were three plains that could be dropped down, scrambled up, or surveyed from above with a ranged weapon. It all felt very fluid, until it didn't. Some walls wouldn't let you scramble up, even if the ledge could be accessed by another route. Random felled trees might as well have been 50 foot high, ten inch thick lead. If we think of the levels as being built by an artist from clay, these were places where he'd pushed his thumb in too hard and all we were left with was an ugly gaping thumbprint.
While the visuals first caught my eye, Wo Long is built around the combat. Fighting is fast, fierce, and frenetic, with a good amount of combos, counters, and special abilities right off the bat. Some of the kills are brutal, piercing through your foes with powerful strikes, viscera dripping down your blade. Wo Long manages to stand out from Nioh, which Team Ninja also developed and that there are clear cues from, by having mid-air combat and stylish deflects that let you dodge into attacks and redirect them. There's a punishing level of difficulty, but also a lot of checkpoints and ways to counter your opponent having the upper hand through fireballs, defensive play, and quick leaps. Ranged fighting is another way to turn the tide, but unfortunately I hated it. Wo Long may end up pushing me away with its Sekiro-like demands of my ability, but I can at least respect it. Ranged weapons though? Nah. Stinky. Archery aiming feels loose and unresponsive, and ammo is too limited, whether that be bow or crossbow. Several games have fantastic and intuitive archery techniques, but Wo Long's feels limp and a little pointless, despite the tactical advantages.
Most interesting about the combat is the use of what feels like a Nemesis system, appropriately changed given that Warner Bros. decided to patent the tech and lock it away, in case they might want to use it again some day, maybe. When an enemy defeats you and sends you packing to the last checkpoint, if you manage to kill them on the second attempt, a message flashes up telling you you've gotten your revenge. Precisely what this means though I'm unsure. I'm not sure how it builds narratively either. When I was preparing to fight a larger enemy, there were three or four smaller ones in my path. The first of these was right next to a healing station, so I killed him, healed up, and continued on. However, healing myself also respawned him, which seems to go against the realistic world we're presented with and will present a roadblock for a lot of players wanting to heal regularly in order to take the whole world in. It seems, frankly, like a bad idea, although one that veterans of the Soulsborne genre are sure to be familiar with.
I don't have a neat place to pop this in but the character creator is very cool too, going beyond what I expected. It reminds me a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition's creator. Every element of your face can be fine-tuned to your liking, while there's also a lot of presets that will let you build your character your own way without being so methodical. However, it's also surprisingly lacking in a few areas. Naturally certain areas weren't available for the demo, but even with features that were present, it needs some work. The only blue eyes were White Walker levels of deathly piercing blue, while only a handful of hairstyles exist, despite options to dip dye, have highlights, frosted tips, and several sliders to maximise your hair's curliness. And still no blue eyes.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty more than lives up to expectations with this demo, even with a few foibles here and there. The most surprising part of that is I didn't expect to like it that much, and I'm not sure it has won me around. For fans of lightning fast, violent combat that puts your mettle to the test though, Wo Long is worth keeping your eye on when it launches next year.
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