Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty Tests the Limits of Gatekeeping In Soulslike Games
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is one of the most approachable Soulslike games yet, but some of its core mechanics raise questions about the genre's reliance on gatekeeping bosses.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty quickly shot up my (admittedly still very short) list of the best games of 2023. It’s a fantastic action experience that lives up to the Soulslike standards Team Ninja previously set for Nioh despite being quite different from Nioh in a lot of ways. Not all of the game’s differences work (Nioh may be a more complete game experience for veteran fans of the genre), but Wo Long’s differences at least showcase how much creative room Soulslikes still have left to explore.
However, Wo Long’s most notable contributions to the Soulslike genre may be the ways that it addresses one of that genre’s most prevalent talking points: the burden and necessity of gatekeeping.
In many ways, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty aspires to be at least a slightly more accessible Soulslike game. The heart of the game’s accessibility is its unique “Morale” system. Every character in the game (you, the enemies, and the bosses) has a Morale rank that is roughly representative of their current power level. By defeating more enemies, you raise your Morale. The higher your Morale rank is, the less damage you receive from enemies, the more spells you have access to, and the rarer items you’ll receive.
Morale is not a replacement for your character’s overall level or individual stat levels (those still exist) but it provides a little more on-the-field information about what you’re getting into and how ready you are to face it. An enemy with a higher Morale rank than your own will likely be more powerful than you. An enemy with a lower Morale rank than your own will likely be weaker than you. So many other Soulslike games make you see just how powerful an enemy is by trying to fight them. Wo Long boldly lets you know what you’re about to get into without you necessarily having to die to figure it out.
More importantly, you have a lot of control over how far your Morale rank falls when you die. By raising special flags spread throughout levels, you can raise your minimum Morale level in order to ensure that it only drops so far (if at all) when you die. You still lose some Qi (the game’s equivalent of souls) when you die, but this aspect of the Morale system is another way the game addresses the fear of failing. It allows you to take reasonable steps to build a safety net. At the same time, you can ignore (or minimize) the impact of the flag system to make things more difficult for yourself if that’s what you prefer.
That Morale system is only one of the ways that Wo Long aims for accessibility. The game’s parry and counter mechanics encourage a more active and aggressive style of play that ensures you’re not constantly waiting for attack windows. Instead, you can block pretty much everything and remain aggressive if you wish to do so. You can also summon companions to help you at pretty much anytime (many of them are automatically assigned to you and can also be dismissed). The game even lets you respec your character whenever you want so that you don’t have to worry about getting locked into a bad build or one you just don’t like.
In so many ways, Wo Long tries to reach across the aisle to appeal to those who don’t usually consider themselves Soulslike fans. Much like Elden Ring, it finds ways to keep the experience challenging without always relying on some of the genre’s more intentionally cumbersome elements. It’s fascinating to see this new wave of notable Soulslike titles that are obviously intentionally trying to be more accessible without simply falling back on implementing an easy mode option.
Yet, for the many ways that Wo Long addresses the gatekeeping “git gud” fans of the Soulslike genre, it also relies on gatekeeping as a part of its experience in ways that make you reexamine the heart of that genre.
Consider Wo Long’s now infamous first boss: Zhang Liang. At first, you’ll probably think that Zhang Liang is one of those Soulslike bosses that is supposed to kill you. He is not. Not only are you supposed to kill him, but Zhang Liang effectively serves as a kind of trial-by-fire conclusion to the game’s introductory/tutorial experience. The idea is that Zhang Liang is supposed to be the culmination of the mechanics you’ve learned up until that point. In reality, though, he’s the thing that teaches you many of those mechanics the hard way. Only by failing to defeat him time and time again can you hope to execute those mechanics in the ways the game expects you to.
Zhang Liang is not the only difficulty spike roadblock in Wo Long or in Soulslike games in general. However, that’s kind of the point. Elden Ring’s first major boss (Margit) was also a massive roadblock who was so difficult that he almost made the rest of the game feel easier by comparison. In a game that emphasized its open world and the freedom that world offered, Margit was still the thing that determined whether or not you could pass. At least that game let you farm some extra levels and equipment before you fought Margit. There’s really only so much you can reasonably level yourself up before the fight against Zhang Liang.
We talk a lot about gatekeeping when we talk about certain Soulslike fans, but the fact of the matter is that gatekeeping has long been a part of the basic Soulslike formula in almost literal ways. Many of the absolute best Soulslike games (which are often some of the best games in recent memory), feature early roadblocks that are designed to test not just how ready you are but how willing you are to deal with what you are about to experience.
Mind you, I’m not saying that’s inherently a bad thing. As someone who loves the feeling of overcoming a boss or challenge that once seemed impossible, I do think that some version of that feeling is a core component of the entire Soulslike genre. You are supposed to learn by failing in those games. You are supposed to be confused and figure things out via whatever resources are available to you outside of the games telling you what to do (looking at you God of War: Ragnarök). That’s part of the joy of these titles, and it’s a big part of the reason why they’ve become successful as the antithesis of so many other modern gaming experiences.
Yet, it remains fascinating that so many Soulslike games (even those that are trying to be more accessible) still seem to rely on early gatekeeper bosses that throw massive difficulty spikes at you while you’re still figuring things out. Of course, some could argue that the gatekeeping boss in a Soulslike game is not actually preventing you from accessing the rest of the experience but is rather a major part of that experience. That’s the contradiction at the heart of the genre, though. How far can you push the Soulslike genre away from that learning by failing concept before you compromise the fundamentals of the genre? How many layers of the Soulslike experience can you peel away before you find the gatekeeping and roadblock ideas at its core?
I don’t have easy answers to those questions, and that’s why I’m glad that games like Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty exist. The game absolutely could have done a better job of preparing you for the Zhang Liang fight or tuning that fight in a way that made it feel less oppressive. Yet, the many other ways that the game pushes the Soulslike genre towards accessibility and approachability just make it that much easier to identify some of the traditional aspects of the Soulslike experience it still relies on that should perhaps also be reconsidered.
In lieu of easy answers regarding how to combat the Soulslike genre’s core gatekeeping elements, I’m thrilled to see games like Wo Long move us towards a better future for the genre in the same way that we often progress through Soulslike games: an inch at a time. We’re living through a kind of golden age for Soulslike games, and Wo Long shows how those games are only going to get better as developers continue to test the integrity of the genre’s core while reaching more and more people who would have previously never dreamed that failing could be fun. Where the limits lie remains to be seen, but heading towards those limits is the best direction the genre can go in.