It would be unkind, but not inaccurate, to call Nioh creators Team Ninja sausage makers. Hand them an established gaming franchise—Metroid, The Legend Of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and especially From Software’s Dark Souls—and the Koei Tecmo-owned studio will grind it up, render out anything too unique or interesting, and then schlorp the rest out into a casing of competent action gameplay for easy player consumption. It’s a formula at this point, stretching across Hyrule Warriors, Final Fantasy: Strangers Of Paradise, Metroid: Other M, etc.: Interesting title goes in, palatable gaming goo comes out.
Nowhere is this extrusion-based approach to game design clearer than in the Nioh franchise, which applied the above process, pretty brutally, to From’s Souls games. As someone who has spent 100 or so hours with Nioh 2—who could comfortably be called a Nioh fan—I can confirm that the end result is a uniquely soulless product, if you’ll pardon the unintended pun. The Nioh games stand out at least in part due to contrast; they take the mystery, the sorrow, the scope of the Souls games—those things that make From’s output feel strange and magical and unique—and chuck them straight in the garbage, leaving behind delicious little meat sacs of readily edible action-RPG gaming in their place.
The most interesting thing about Team Ninja’s latest game, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty—which is Nioh 3 in all but name—then, is that it shows that Team Ninja is at least trying to update which source material it’s lifting ideas from. In this case, that means moving forward in From’s gameography, and incorporating elements from the studio’s poor, neglected 2019 stealth title Sekiro into their reference bank. Like Sekiro, Wo Long mixes leaping and sneak attacks more readily into the basic “move slow, block, hit the guy” Souls combat; like Sekiro, it puts emphasis on breaking an enemy’s balance before inflicting more lethal damage on them. And, like Nioh, it does so while sucking all the cool, weird bits out of the equation, leaving, well … sausage.
(The other most interesting thing about Wo Long is that it shows that Team Ninja isn’t above applying its shoplifting prowess to its own output; the game’s plot and systems design hew very close to the structure of Nioh 2, down to having magical beasts you can summon to help you fight on an extended cooldown, and about 8,000 more menus than are really necessary. The only real “innovation” here is that the game is set in Romance Of The Three Kingdoms-era China instead of post-Nobunaga Japan, meaning that the whole thing is, possibly inadvertently, also treading on the shoes of Tecmo Koei’s own Dynasty Warriors games. It’s like a fractal of well-meaning rip-0ffs!)
None of which is to say I’m not having fun with Wo Long: I totally am—even if some of these bosses remain, per series tradition, brick wall motherfuckers. (Looking at you, Lu Bu.) Sausage is tasty; it’s why we have sausage makers in the first place. The Nioh games have always thrived by assuming that the rock-solid combat of the Souls game was actually enough to support a whole game, sans any loftier artistic goals—and then executing aggressively well on that idea. Wo Long continues happily along that path. I’m just curious to see if Team Ninja will someday update its reference pool again, and give us our first genuine Elden Ring imitator; it sounds kind of like a nightmare, but possibly a fun one to take for a spin. In the meantime, Wo Long is a worthy time killer.