Reinventing the Wheel (Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty)
Contributed by DJMMT
Last week, Koei Tecmo released Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty by Team Ninja. I’m a huge fan of the Nioh franchise. I’ll go as far as saying that Nioh is my favorite franchise in the genre. I’ve written multiple articles about the franchise, played the betas for both Nioh and Nioh 2, and streamed the entirety of both games. So I was very excited about Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty from the first announcement, because it’s made by the same team that made Nioh, and very clearly was packaged in the marketing to come off like the equivalent of Nioh 3. Having played the demo in its entirety, what surprised me most about the game was not its similarities to the Nioh franchise but its differences.
I’ve discussed the soulslike genre a lot over the years. I’ve also played a lot of games in the genre, including all the FromSoftware titles, save Elden Ring. While I play a lot of these games and clearly like the genre, I also hate a lot of the mentality, both from the development and consumer sides, when it comes to deconstructing these games. I think the single greatest flaw with the soulslike genre, and game development in general these days because of this genre, is that something being more difficult automatically makes it better. The idea that a game can put difficulty before fun and accessibility in gameplay design and be championed for it is a bad thing. This is a textbook example of people learning the wrong lessons from past successes. What I liked most about the Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty demo is that, at least in part, they didn’t take this route to game design.
The thing that I hate most about the Dark Souls community is that so many of the players have convinced themselves that annoying mechanics and dated design are examples of good game development, because they make games more challenging and “authentic to the genre.” That type of thinking is absolute kool-aid drinking garbage. Games should prioritize enjoyment over difficulty. That is not to say that difficult games aren’t fun. Nor is it to imply that FromSoftware needs to add an easy mode to their games. I have written about that topic in the past already and have always clearly stated that I am against FromSoftware, or any developer, adding a difficulty setting to their games if it’s something they don’t want to do. That being said, I’m tired of people pretending that many of the mechanics in FromSoftware games that are just annoying and troublesome make the games better.
There are multiple mechanics in Dark Souls that are simply not fun for a majority of players. More importantly, many of them would in no way make the games worse or less enjoyable if they weren’t there to begin with. They would however make the games less challenging. For example, stamina. There are no combat-based single-player games where the inclusion of a stamina bar made the game more enjoyable for a majority of players. None. I’m saying it. I’m not exaggerating or being hyperbolic. If a game focused on combat against AI enemies has a stamina bar, the removal of that stamina bar would in no way make the game less enjoyable. It would make it less challenging. But no end user in the history of gaming has ever said, “You know what would make this game more fun? A stamina bar.” Because stamina bars aren’t fun. Limiting the player’s movement/maneuverability in real-time combat just isn’t enjoyable. That’s the same reason that most modern games where you can drive a tank no longer have the tank controls work like a real tank anymore. Because tanks actually suck to drive and those mechanics just aren’t fun in a video game. They’re more challenging. But challenging doesn’t automatically mean more fun.
The reality of the situation is that if tomorrow FromSoftware released Dark Souls 4 and there was no stamina bar, the hardcore players would complain that the game is too easy and built for noobs, but still play the game for hundreds of hours anyway, everyone else would enjoy the game more, and by the time they made Dark Souls 5 people wouldn’t even be talking about stamina bars anymore. At this point, stamina bars are just a long-held tradition rather than a needed mechanic that enhances the gameplay experience for the better. Remember that before FromSoftware normalized stamina bars in ARPGs, the genre basically didn’t have them. And none of us ever complained about that.
The way I have always described Nioh is that Team Ninja played Dark Souls and said, “How can we make this more fun and accessible to a wider audience of players?” Not better. Not harder. Not more impressive. But specifically more fun and accessible to a wider audience of players. I want to clarify that when I use the word accessible in this context I am not talking about the current trend of designing elements in games that make them easier to play for people with specific medical circumstances that make general game mechanics more/too challenging for them to play. I’m not talking about colorblind modes or single button combos for people with hand motor skill problems. When I say accessible here, I just mean easier for more gamers to pick up a game and start playing intuitively without having to devote a large amount of time practicing and/or researching just to become adequate at the gameplay. That’s why I prefer Nioh to Dark Souls. It’s just samurai Dark Souls with slightly better accessibility in the design and way better plot writing. Yeah, I said it. FromSoftware sucks at writing narratives. Get over it. What I find most intriguing about Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is that they took this same approach a step further.
If Nioh is a more fun, more accessible Dark Souls, then Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is a more fun, more accessible Nioh. For starters, there is no stamina bar. It’s gone! And you know what? The combat doesn’t suffer because of it. It’s just as good if not better while still being challenging overall. We never needed it! They replaced it with what’s called a “spirit bar,” and while it’s not perfect it’s way better and a monumental step in the right direction. But that’s not the only change from the Nioh model. When you level up in Dark Souls, you have to spend development points into 1 of 9 categories. In Nioh, it’s 1 of 8 categories. In Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, it’s 1 of 5. One of the most difficult parts of this genre has always been character development. The systems are complicated, inaccessible, and annoying to manage. That’s why I praise The Surge so much. It still has the most streamlined character development system in the entire genre. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty may not have made it as simple as possible, but they did make it way simpler and more straight forward than its predecessor franchise, Nioh. They focused on making the game more fun rather than more challenging to play.
There are multiple other gameplay mechanics in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty that when compared to Nioh, and by extension Dark Souls, are more streamlined, easier to manage, and as a result more fun to play. Countering, magic, special weapons techniques, stealth attacks, and checkpoint management are just some of the examples worth mentioning. The fact that the game is still quite challenging while being more fun to play at a mechanical level shows that Team Ninja understood what actually makes soulslikes fun. It was never about the difficulty for the sake of being difficult. It was about core mechanics that differentiated the game from other genres. Specifically, the respawning enemies, souls as currency being lost at death but recoverable, and the rest of it was just standard ARPG design being bogged down by annoying nonsense to try to differentiate the games more than they needed to be. For instance, boss checkpoints. There was no reason for soulslikes to make the path from the last checkpoint before a boss fight so long and troublesome when the boss fight was already going to be hard. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, at least in the two levels featured in the demo, does away with this garbage trend. The door to the ending boss fight for each level is right next to the last checkpoint. No more losing health on the way to a tough fight. Thank God!
What’s funny about all this is that none of it is new in game design. In fact, it’s old. The most ironic thing about Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is that at a mechanical level it feels like a step closer to traditional action RPGs that came before Demon’s Souls. Games like Kingdom Hearts with light open world traversal, a limited number of gear options, some basic crafting, and real time combat aren’t new. And honestly, it was better back then. That’s why so many popular franchises that didn’t even start out that way became action RPGs. Looking at you God of War. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is basically developers taking a step towards rediscovering traditional action RPGs by ripping the annoying parts out of soulslikes. But really we didn’t need to go through this whole process. If FromSoftware had literally just made a traditional action RPG but added respawing enemies, bonfires, and souls it would have probably been a perfect game and we wouldn’t have spent the last 14 years pretending we like all that convoluted nonsense. I’m excited for 15 years from now when Team Ninja finally makes that game.
In any case, you should definitely try the Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty demo before it gets removed. Sadly, it’s a limited time demo that will be removed March 26th, 2023.
optimark ,08 Mar, 2023
Damien ,22 Mar, 2023
Yes. Initially when I played the demo and I faced the first boss I was like ugh, this is tough. However I went ahead, got the game, learned the mechanics and it's pretty enjoyable. Barring some performance issues (waiting for a patch) I can safely say that despite steam's current user ratings of the game, it was money well spent on my end. And I agree, save points close to the bosses are much better than having to slog through the same set of enemies to get there.