Imagine a game by Team NINJA (famous for stellar action games like Nioh and NINJA GAIDEN) set in a dark fantasy version of China’s Three Kingdoms period. When Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty was announced at the Xbox & Bethesda Showcase 2022, the idea of slashing warlords and demons alike with a new combat system based on Chinese martial arts made us pretty excited. But the teaser trailer left us wondering how it will actually play. Luckily, IGN was able to sit down with Team NINJA’s key members to find out more.
“As a studio, we’ve always been known for games that challenge the player, but that can’t be done without responsive controls and high playability. In that regard, Wo Long is no different from our previous titles, but this time we’ve turned to Chinese martial arts as a new style of combat,” producer Fumihiko Yasuda explained.
According to Yasuda, Wo Long is a Soulslike game similar to Nioh, the studio’s recent biggest success.
With titles like NINJA GAIDEN and Nioh, Team NINJA have become known for games set in feudal Japan, so a game set in China’s Three Kingdoms period might come as a surprise for some. That being said, with series like Dynasty Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Koei Tecmo (Team NINJA’s parent company) has been specializing in this setting for over three decades.
“While the Three Kingdoms period is iconic for Koei Tecmo, Team NINJA itself has never tackled it before. By merging Team NINJA’s action with Koei Tecmo’s most popular setting, you could say that Wo Long shares DNA from both sides. But Koei Tecmo has actually never made a dark fantasy version of the Three Kingdoms setting,” development producer Masaaki Yamagiwa said.
Yamagiwa published two FromSoftware titles – Bloodborne and Déraciné – when he was a producer at Sony’s Japan Studio, before he left in 2021. His move to Team NINJA was announced last October, and Wo Long will be his first production at the studio.
“It’s been over a year since I started working here. Team NINJA is a studio that’s extremely dedicated towards action. It’s a team that is focused on making games that feel good to play,” Yamagiwa said about the studio he is now a part of.
The start of Wo Long’s development dates back to 2019, about two years before Yamagiwa joined the team.
“At the time, we were looking for a setting that could work for a Nioh sequel. We had already made plenty of games based on Japan’s Sengoku period, so we wanted a new setting. That’s when we came up with the idea to make a game set in China’s Three Kingdoms period. The years following the fall of the Han dynasty is a setting that Koei Tecmo specializes in, and also one I have personally always been intrigued by. I am a fan of manga and anime based on that era. A game with this setting sounded like an interesting new challenge to take on,” Yasuda said, recalling the project’s initial start.
When Yamagiwa joined Team NINJA, Wo Long’s concept had already been conceived, but luckily there was still room for discussion.
“While I was still new at Team NINJA at the time, I didn’t hesitate to make myself heard at all,” Yamagiwa recalled with a laugh.
“It was even possible to give my opinion on the game’s concept, so in that regard it was good timing.”
Wo Long is not the first project on which Yasuda and Yamagiwa have collaborated. Yasuda received advice from Yamagiwa when working together with Sony on the first Nioh, which was originally a PS4 exclusive.
“To have Yamagiwa’s support from the inside of the project is really encouraging. We are developing Wo Long based on our experience of making Nioh, so while (Yamagiwa’s involvement) hasn’t drastically changed the flow of development, Yamagiwa is very adept at communicating a concept to players, so that’s definitely something we’ve raised our awareness on,” Yasuda said.
For Nioh 2, Yasuda was both the director as well as the game’s producer. Yasuda says that having Yamagiwa take care of the producing side will allow him to focus more on actual development, while Yamagiwa can utilize his experience of working on Bloodborne as the development producer.
“Producing Bloodborne was a very important experience for me. Difficult games shouldn’t be difficult just for the sake of it. I think it’s really important that this difficulty exists for the purpose of delivering a sense of accomplishment to the players once they have overcome it. That’s why I think players should always be able to blame themselves when they die. The game has to be fair and its difficulty should never be unreasonable. In that regard, it works in my favor that I’m not very good at games myself. I’ll always naturally be judging the fairness of games,” Yamagiwa said.
Being developed as Team NINJA’s next step after Nioh, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Wo Long’s DNA can be traced back to Team NINJA’s first attempt at the Soulslike genre. However, judging from the teaser trailer, Wo Long appears to be even more dark and grim than Nioh. Could that mean that Wo Long will be even more merciless to the player?
“Making it a challenging game was something we had decided from the beginning. With all the legendary heroes of the Three Kingdoms period, it can come across as somewhat campy, but in reality it was a time of war and devastation. It was a dark period in which people were constantly fighting, which is a great match for a Soulslike game. Being set in China, Wo Long is more massive in scale compared to our previous games set in Japan, which allowed us to show a more severe and dark world. The same can be said for the difficulty. There’s no doubt this will be an extremely challenging and demanding game, but we’ve come up with new ways to approach that difficulty. In that regard, players can look forward to a type of satisfaction that wasn’t present in earlier Team NINJA titles,” said Yasuda.
While being built on the foundations shaped by Nioh, it seems that Wo Long has some tricks of its own up its sleeve. If anything, the Chinese setting will have a direct impact on both the combat’s systems and aesthetics.
“We wanted to take the unique elegance of Chinese martial arts and make it work as a stylish form of action. Utilizing this action to overcome challenging battles should create an experience like no other. Since the game is set during the wartime of the Three Kingdoms period, we came up with a system that revolves around the warrior’s morale. Both the player and enemies have a morale status, which will lead to new strategies within the Soulslike genre,” said Yamagiwa.
Some recent Soulslike games have implemented unique systems revolving around the player’s death. FromSoftware’s Sekiro introduced a resurrection power that allowed the player to revive on the spot, while in Sifu the main character ages each time the player dies. For Wo Long, this new morale system will have an effect on the player’s death as well.
“We wanted to create a type of strategism with adversity as its theme. You gain something by defeating a strong enemy, but the same can be said for when an enemy kills the player. The balance between strength changes whenever someone dies,” Yamagiwa explained.
While Wo Long does still have RPG elements that allow you to build and grow your character, killing or being killed also has an impact on how strong the main character and enemies are. It’s a system that sounds like a Souslike adaptation of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system.
In 2022, FromSoftware’s Elden Ring conquered the world of video games, making the Soulslike genre more mainstream than ever before. Other games like Sifu and Tunic have shown new ideas within the genre as well. Yasuda says that in such a climate, just being difficult is no longer enough for a Souslike game to catch people’s attention. The action needs to feel good, and there needs to be that perfect balance between difficulty and fairness. But even that is not enough. A new Soulslike game needs to have something that sets it apart from the rest. Yasuda believes that Team NINJA’s long history of creating top-notch action games will always be their secret ingredient. This is why the developer decided to go for a level-based design with the original Nioh, as a more open-ended structure would make it difficult to have that same level of focus. The same can be said for Wo Long. So no, this is not Team NINJA’s answer to Elden Ring.
“We do have more freedom in our stage design though. Since the player character can now jump, there’s a lot more room for verticality and exploration in general. That being said, at its core Wo Long is a linear structured game just as Nioh was. With Soulslike games becoming more and more popular, this kind of design gives Team NINJA an opportunity to display what we do best,” said Yasuda.
During our interview, Yasuda and Yamagiwa showed us some gameplay under development on PS5, and while indeed the level-based structure hasn’t changed from Nioh, the areas within that structure seem to be much larger. With the protagonist’s ability to jump, Wo Long’s levels have an almost wide-linear approach. With classic elements like ladders to kick down to create a shortcut, the main route to the next boss battle does seem to still have a linear structure, but there appears to be a lot of room for exploration on the way there.
Visually, this is a clear step up from the already impressive Nioh 2, which helps the new Chinese setting come to life. But – as should be the case for any Team NINJA game – the thing that captivated me the most was its combat. While I’m not allowed to go into detail, the faster-paced Chinese martial arts really bring a unique flair.
“We wanted flowing combat in which you seamlessly switch between offense and defense. The action is speedier than Nioh, and you can do things such as jump into an enemy and then launch over them. That being said, we did want to maintain that feeling of being in control of an actual human being, so there won’t be too many flashy jumps or wire action. In that sense I guess you could say it is more down to earth,” Yasuda said.
From watching the gameplay, I could tell that the speed of combat has definitely been increased when compared to Nioh. Make no mistake though, this isn’t the over-the-top action Team NINJA made itself famous for with NINJA GAIDEN either. It’s kind of somewhere in between.
“NINJA GAIDEN is a title that really supports the player. You’re slashing enemies by simply pressing a button and there’s a lot of cool moves that make the player feel good. As Wo Long is a Soulslike, it’s more important for the controls to feel fair, so it’s not like you’ll be jumping around like a badass without having really deserved it. The player is in control of all the action, which might make it a bit less speedy than NINJA GAIDEN, but I do think we’ve been able to make it feel better to play when compared to Nioh,” Yasuda explained.
“You can block, dodge or ward off an enemy’s attack while you’re attacking. This seamless flow of offense and defense is something we feel is iconic to Chinese martial arts. There are moments of full force, but then there’s also a softer and gentler side to it. We wanted to show this characteristic by creating a more natural flow between offense and defense,” Yamagiwa said.
In Nioh, the stamina gauge makes it essential to wait for the right moment to attack. Yasuda says that this naturally creates the sort of tension you would expect from a samurai-style sword duel. In Wo Long, however, you will be attacking much more frequently, which should create for faster-paced combat altogether.
Another aspect of Wo Long that is similar to Nioh yet different is the hack and slash component. While still present, the emphasis on it is significantly less strong.
“Fans of the Three Kingdoms period are going to want certain weapons for different warlords, and that’s definitely something we want to deliver on. But when compared to Nioh, you won’t have to constantly upgrade your weapon or armor, and it’s not like each enemy will drop an item. It’s not the main focus of Wo Long’s game design, as we wanted the player to be able to focus on the action more easily. That being said, we do still have a large variety of weapons to choose from,” Yasuda said.
Wo Long’s main character is a military volunteer. Just like in Nioh 2, you can create and customize this main character according to your own preferences. Nioh 2’s character creator was very well received, and Team NINJA told us that Wo Long uses the same base with improved visuals and new parts to match the Chinese setting. Team NINJA felt that having an anonymous main character is a good match for Soulslike titles.
“In Soulslike games, you’re always tackling a difficult challenge, so you’ll naturally want a character you can project yourself into. There’s no better way to do that than by creating your own character,” Yamagiwa explained.
The anonymous main character does seem to play an important role in the story. Yasuda even tells us that the game’s title directly refers to the main character.
“Wo Long is Chinese for ‘crouching dragon’. The dragon is probably the most iconic divine beast in Chinese mythology, so we decided to go for a title based on dragons from the beginning of the project. Fans of the Three Kingdoms period will probably relate this to military strategist Zhuge Liang, who was known as Wo Long. However, the reason we chose this title is because the idea of a dragon crouching to pounce symbolizes a hero before they are known. The Three Kingdoms period is very long, but we’re only depicting the beginning of it. During this timeframe, the iconic figures of the Three Kingdoms period were not known to the public yet. More than anyone else, though, the main character is one of those heroes yet to become famous,” Yasuda said.
“The game is set during the Yellow Turban Rebellion. As our subtitle Fallen Dynasty implies, the Han dynasty is about to come to an end. This is a time of war, confusion and poverty. But everywhere throughout the country, new heroes start to arise. It’s one of the most exciting timeframes within the Three Kingdoms period, and perfectly matches the dark and severe world we wanted to create.”
Judging from Yasuda’s words, it seems that the team has put a lot of thought into the game’s story and setting as well. However, Yamagiwa reassured us that Wo Long is first and foremost an action-focused game.
“As for the story, the main events are shown through cutscenes to give the player context as to why they are fighting the game’s warlords and fiends. Of course, there will be a lot to learn about the setting through the levels and their environmental design as well. I hope that the devastated world we are creating will give the player a sense of place in this dark fantasy style Three Kingdoms period,” Yasuda said.
Wo Long will also have a multiplayer component. While not more is known except for the mere fact that it exists, Yasuda said that it will at least have co-op gameplay that is similar to Nioh’s.
Yasuda says that he wants fans to play Wo Long as soon as possible. Team NINJA used early player feedback to make improvements to the Nioh series, and Yasuda told us he wants the same for Wo Long, so let’s hope for a demo announcement soon!
Source: IGN Video Games All