So it was something of a surprise when the Japanese studio unveiled not one, but two original action games this year in fantasy slasher Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, and another Sony exclusive in Rise of the Ronin.
The former is intriguing for a few reasons. Firstly, it combines the talents of Nioh director Fumihiko Yasuda and Bloodborne producer Masaaki Yamagiwa, in a Soulsborne-esque setup which it defines as “Masocore”, a little-mentioned sub-genre typically associated with 2D platformers.
And unlike many of Team Ninja’s recent releases, Wo Long is releasing on Xbox – as a day one Game Pass release, no less (although the chances of Nioh coming to the platform still sound slim).
VGC recently spoke with Yasuda and Yamagiwa at Gamescom 2022, where the pair discussed their thoughts on the Soulsbor – sorry, ‘Masocore’ genre, and how they intend to balance new franchises with classic series.
Team Ninja is known for its action games, but for this project, Mr. Yamagiwa brings experience from Soulsborne games such as Bloodborne. How was Wo Long’s mix benefited from that experience?
Yamagiwa: There are a few things that I feel I brought over from my experience working on Bloodborne. But we also want to note, these are all points that Team Ninja keeps very close to their heart, and views as very important in all their games.
Firstly, making sure that the difficulty is just right and tuning that in the game, such that the difficulty is something that is going to be a fear for the player. You know, with ‘Masocore’ games like Wolong and Bloodborne, there is this sense of success of achievement at overcoming really difficult obstacles or really difficult challenges or enemies. So that is something that’s also very, very important.
But also, we want to make sure that the game feel is just right, and tuning that is very important. Going back to the difficulty, we want to make sure that the player understands when they made a mistake, and it doesn’t feel like the game was being unfair, right? We want to make sure that the player knows where they messed up or where they hit a snag, and they can learn from that, and the game itself feels fair, but you’re still kind of learning from your mistakes as you go along.
In the Soulsborne genre, Elden Ring has obviously dominated the conversation this year. Was it too late for you to take any influence from that release?
Yasuda: We have played the game, and we thought Elden Ring did a great job of creating a seamless world experience. But for Wo Long, we’re not looking to make this particularly an open-world experience. We’re instead trying to focus on what we feel we do very well here at Team Ninja, which is making mission-based action games with a lot of intensity that’s concentrated in those stages that you’re going to be battling through.
So that’s kind of the focus we have here as opposed to large, spread out areas. There’s really going to be a lot going on in each mission that you take on; a lot of action, a lot of enemies, a lot of things just to really sink your teeth into. So that’s what we want to focus on moving forward with the development of Wo Long, to focus on what we feel we do really well here and make sure that all comes across in the gameplay as well.
So you feel there’s still plenty of life left iterating in a linear-style Soulsborne-type game, even in a post-Elden Ring world?
Yamagiwa: Yeah, we do think that there’s still a lot of possibility for doing new things in the more mission-based format and structure. And you know, one thing that we’re looking at doing with Wo Long here is the morale system. The morale system works by, for example, taking on a strong enemy, and then you have a moral rank that’ll go up as you defeat more enemies.
So you can kind of look at the map and think, what routes do I want to take based on my current morale level? And, for example, you can take down a big enemy, your morale wil go up, and you’ll be stronger. And if you die, there’s this balance of going down and up, right? So you could think, I want to take down this one path with no enemies to keep my morale rank where it is in order to stay strong. Or maybe I want to take on some strong enemies on another path and try to increase it even more.
So there’s that sense of gambling and that sense of your own strategy in trying to find which way you want to do it. There are so many different paths and different options for your strategy based on that morale system. Like I mentioned, you can get it from defeating enemies, you can take over parts of the map by defeating the enemies in the area, things like that.
And as your rank keeps going up, you also get access to magic, which we’re calling the wizardry spells. So, for example, if you get your morale to a certain level, now you can use X or Y type of magic. And that’s also going to factor into when you want to try to raise that level, do you want to maintain it? Is that magic going to be something that’s going to be vital for you? It’s all part of this ongoing strategy that you come up with on the fly right as you go through the stage.
So there’s really a lot that’s going on here. And it’s not going to be like any other kind of game before it in that regard. That’s kind of the original thing that we’re putting forward here.
“We’re trying to focus on what we feel we do very well here at Team Ninja, which is making mission-based action games with a lot of intensity that’s concentrated in those stages that you’re going to be battling through.”
The team has clearly put thought into how to make this game unique within its genre then. Do you think these types of games are now at risk of becoming stale, without those kinds of innovations?
Yasuda: The team here at Team Ninja feel that there still is a lot of potential and possibilities for the Masocore genre in general. So there’s still life left in it, there are still things that can be done. I’d also argue that it’s Team Ninja’s job as well to keep working really hard to make these new games in that genre, that show that there is still life left in the genre, and show there are so many things that you can do from a gameplay perspective.
But I’d also note that there are many new Masocore games, many of which were even announced here at Gamescom, and because of that, from the user side, they potentially could get tired of the genre with so many new titles coming out. But going back to what I said earlier, that’s kind of the job of the developers, right?
I feel that it’s our job to keep providing games like Wo Long that are going to show that potential, and there’s still so much you can do in the genre, because I feel there are things that you can only feel, or which are easier to feel, in this genre. There are things that are very much tuned to that genre, and they bring out feelings or emotions from the play. It’s a very important genre. But there’s always that possibility that not everyone works hard to create more varied experiences in that genre, so it’s give and take.
You’ve teased multiplayer elements for Wo Long. What can you tell us about your plans?
Yamagiwa: You can look forward to online multiplayer content. That’s about as much as we can say.
Team Ninja has many classic game IPs under its umbrella. With that history, is it difficult for you to create original titles like Wo Long, while also trying to satisfy the many fans who want to see old series like Ninja Gaiden come back?
Yasuda: In general, we’re very happy that there are so many fans of these existing IPs, and because there is this big fan base out there, we have a desire to please those fans. We’re so happy that people are big fans of our existing series, and so there is that feeling of wanting to create a new entry in those series.
But a lot of it is about balancing that desire to create these new games for these big fanbases that some of these existing IP have, along with seeing what kind of resources there are within the dev team: seeing what kind of skills the current members of Team Ninja have, and then deciding from there if that would work for a particular series. Would that work for an existing IP? Or would that be better suited to a new IP?
We’re really happy there are so many fans, and we want to make a new title for those existing series. But it’s all down to seeing if that’s a possibility and if there are skillsets there in the team to make use of that.
Yasuda-san mentioned earlier this year that he’d like to bring Ninja Gaiden fans good news in the future, with maybe a new title. With what you mentioned about balancing resources, would you consider outsourcing a new game? Or maybe to a younger team internally? Or would you rather be hands-on with any new instalment?
Yasuda: We’re not announcing anything, but both of those ideas sound like great plans and are both possibilities in a sense. Those are both very, very reasonable ideas for potentially a sequel in any series, not just Ninja Gaiden. But what I want to say is, if we were to theoretically work with another company on a new Ninja Gaiden title, we would need to make sure that it would be a title that the fans would really enjoy and exceed their expectations.
It’s not just a matter of, ‘hey, let’s just go do this’: all the pieces would need to fit, and it would need to be the right team… either a younger team internally or another company that would really need to fit the Ninja Gaiden pedigree.
“We do feel there’s a bigger presence for the Xbox platform in Japan: we’re definitely seeing that here. We think that Game Pass is helping a lot more people get acquainted with the Xbox platform”
Wo Long will be a day-one Xbox Game Pass release. Does that change your thinking at all as a creator, knowing that a huge audience of new players is likely to try the game at release?
Yasuda: We’re very happy that so many players are going to have the chance to try out a Team Ninja title potentially for the first time with Wo Long. But just because it’s on Game Pass, we haven’t gone and changed ‘XYZ’… That’s not really something that we’ve done on the dev team side. We just want to make Wo Long the best game it can be, and we hope that fans can play it or new users can play that and enjoy it. We don’t want to change it for a specific audience or something along those lines.
But what we do think is a really big positive for having the game on Game Pass is that with so many new players trying it out, that will help the online community grow potentially, and then there’ll be a lot more players for people to play with online or play together in the multiplayer aspects of the game. So we’re really hoping that that’ll keep the community in a really good spot, and thriving.
Spinning off of that, Xbox seems to be doing a bit better than expected in your home country of Japan compared to its predecessor – a market where it has traditionally struggled. Has that surprised you?
Yasuda: We do feel there’s a bigger presence for the Xbox platform in Japan: we’re definitely seeing that here. We think that Game Pass is helping a lot more people get acquainted with the Xbox platform – a lot more people are coming in and playing games and being part of that.
However, from our perspective, just from a numbers standpoint, Japan seems to be pretty dominated by Nintendo consoles and the Switch. But yeah, we definitely are feeling in Japan that Xbox is definitely trying to take a bigger foothold with the current platform.
We’ve asked this before, but now that you’re seemingly getting closer to Xbox, we’ll ask again: Is there any chance of the Nioh series coming to the platform in the future? Or does Sony’s publishing involvement rule that out?
Yasuda: There’s nothing really to note about that. Currently, there’s not really too much of a possibility of having Nioh on Xbox platforms, but we do hope Xbox fans enjoy Wo Long and look forward to that game coming out. That’s probably all we can say on that at the moment.