two warriors clashing, face to face with swords locked

Crouching Dragon: Fallen Dynasty Review

Crouching Dragon: Fallen Dynasty Review

need to know

what is it? A soul-adjacent action RPG.
release date March 3, 2023
expect to pay $60/£50
developer ninja team
publisher Koei Tecmo
Reviewed on GeForce GTX 970, Intel i7-4790K, 16GB RAM
steam deck to be determined
associate Official Website(opens in a new tab)

Crouching Dragon, which means “hidden dragon,” is an apt name for a game that feels like it’s basically everywhere, tearing up the action role-playing game landscape. That’s not to say it doesn’t follow certain frameworks—the legacy of Nioh and Dark Souls lives on—but by removing the traditional constraints of the subgenre, Crouching Dragon was able to take off.

It’s a project between Team Ninja and KOEI, a publisher known for its games based on the Three Kingdoms era in Chinese history — most notably Dynasty Warriors. Crouching Dragon is set in the same era, blending historical fiction with the well-polished combat that Team Ninja is famous for, along with a dash of fantasy and demons. You are an unknown warrior; an unknown pawn caught up in a major event. As if to bring back your nobodies, the first boss is probably the toughest in the entire game. Before you have any major skills, spells, or special weapons, you encounter this giant. He’s only the first boss, but he still has two tough stages. Defeating him is the price of entry, a test to prove your readiness to stand beside the legendary Chinese hero. “You have to be so powerful to come in.” Wolong seemed to be saying.

dead nasty warrior

(Image source: KOEI Tecmo)

Being a nobody doesn’t mean feeling like one. Combat from the very beginning is a dizzying dance of spins, jumps, and kicks that echoes the martial arts movie traditions the game draws on. Crouching Dragon’s combat pacing is a big change from other similar Souls games and even Team Ninja’s own Nioh 2. Their emphasis on finding opportunities to land a critical strike and making sure your own defenses don’t falter, Crouching Dragon has a process of less back and forth and more movement.

This is due to the lack of a soul-like staple: Stamina, which has been replaced by the Spirit Gauge. When the meter is positive, you can attack, block, and dodge as much as you want, but you must time your moves correctly. Playing too defensively, wielding your strongest attack, or being blocked by an opponent will lower your spirits and leave you dumbfounded when it’s downright negative. Meanwhile, landing a hit and pulling off a successful deflection or parry refreshes you. The beauty of this is that when you know what you are doing, nothing can stop you. By gently parrying to create gaps, dodging attacks, and then charging at enemies, you can finish fights without losing momentum, killing one kill after another.

Even the toughest bosses can die as easily as you, as long as you can keep up with them. You can spend an hour studying and dying on bosses that only last 60 seconds if you successfully try. Because everything goes by, all the time, when a fight clicks with you, it feels like perfecting a well-crafted scene. Even though the combat is very fast, because the game telegraphs attacks so clearly, I was able to follow the action and parry in a way that genre counterparts like Sekiro really made me struggle to do.

(Image source: KOEI Tecmo)

As if that wasn’t enough, you also have spells and the ability to summon spirits to help you. Spells are all tied to the game’s five stats (each representing one of the five phases of the Five Elements philosophy), and embody related elements (fire, water, etc.), but you’re not a wizard. Spells aren’t something you build around, you use them to compliment your moves by adding lightning to your blades or planting a circle that slows down enemies. Soulcalling is a special ability you can invoke after filling a meter that lets you bring in a powerful entity to back up your serious buffs. These summonses are a trump card you have up your sleeve to snatch victory from defeat. Things like this mean I never feel hopeless in Wolong. Honestly, this might be the pinnacle of action RPGs. The time between encountering a seemingly invincible enemy and outright defeating them is the shortest loop I’ve ever played in a game of this type. Exhilarating isn’t an adequate description.

+5 Throwing Knife

The time between encountering a seemingly invincible enemy and outright defeating them is the shortest loop I’ve ever played in a game of this type. Exhilarating isn’t an adequate description.

If there’s a problem with its design, it’s that Team Ninja promises to hand out tons of randomly generated loot. I found it impossible not to yearn for more custom item placement from Elden Ring when sorting through my inventory to clear out two dozen Hanjun trousers. You’ll still find special weapons with their own action sets and martial arts special attacks, giving you lots of unique options, but there are a lot of details to poke around, which can change when you compare +10 health to 4.8% defense get boring.

Combat mastery is only part of the battle – you also need to be an avid explorer. Just don’t expect the immensity of the Elden Ring. Crouching Dragon doesn’t have an open world, instead separating itself with a central hub (where you’ll apply upgrades and get some side quests) and different quests; though there’s certainly still plenty of game to do here. Selecting a level from a selection screen isn’t as cool as roaming from place to place, but it does mean you can experience more unique areas in a row. In one mission, you’ll cross a rickety rope bridge across a deep ravine, then find yourself on a snowy battlefield battling a beleaguered castle in the next. There are mazes made of shipwrecks and haunted bamboo forests. It’s never quite as wildly fantastical as Dark Souls or Elden Ring, but its brutal battlefields are intricate, full of shortcuts and secrets, and are a joy to watch.

(Image source: KOEI Tecmo)

There’s more to exploring than visiting the sights, though, as each area is littered with not only battle flags that act as checkpoints, but also banners. Raising these increases your morale, boosts your stats and lowers difficulty. Your enemies also all have morale levels, represented by a number that’s visible the moment you bump into them. You can take them on the spot, or explore and help yourself. You can even lower enemy morale by eliminating leaders or wizards.

Crouching Dragon stands out in this theme, emphasizing that everyone is part of a larger battle. In addition to fully fledged co-op for up to three players (handled via menus for those who might not like FromSoftware’s more esoteric approach) and competitive invasions, you’ll also amass a roster of NPC allies to call upon when needed. You can even level them up and gain additional benefits by bonding with them.

dudes rock

In a way that FromSoftware’s NPC summons, these comrades feel like companions they never quite manage because they support you every step of the way and share their stories. Several quests make them mandatory and I can’t help but get attached. Zhao Yun, one of the first heroes to help, is my main partner, my best friend. If you know the history of the Three Kingdoms, especially the Legend of the Three Kingdoms, whether through Dynasty Warriors or countless other adaptations, their inclusion will feel more meaningful. It’s fun to see historical characters pop up like cameos in the Avengers movies – even though they’re playing bigger roles.

(Image source: KOEI Tecmo)

Despite its nod to history, Crouching Dragon clings to dark fantasy, using demons to alter the natural course of history. Its monsters are closer to physically terrifying abominations than mythical creatures (suitable for the game’s producer, Masaaki Yamagiwa, who worked on Bloodborne) and the sound of buzzing locusts feeding on corpses on the battlefield is truly disturbing . Crouching Dragon feels like a mashup of genres at times, with romantic heroes caught up in a horror story. The two sides are well balanced, though, and while Crouching Dragon never came up with a mythology or world as captivating as FromSoft’s best, it’s a convincing blend of history, horror, and fantasy.

Unfortunately Crouching Dragon was broken by some technical issues on PC. Framerate generally remains at 60 fps–without the unlocked fps option–but there are some horrible dips in places that threaten to bring the game to a halt. Also, there are some visual bugs like weird glows that take over the screen until I reload. I also had a couple of crashes – not really what you want since every inch of progress is hard earned. Tweaking settings can improve performance, but without patches there is no way to fix these issues.

Aside from these technical flaws, Crouching Dragon is a very successful evolution. It’s not as versatile as Elden Ring, but its focus on wuxia-style martial arts makes it stand out in its class. It’s a game where the challenge is exciting rather than punishing, and because the learning curve is so delicate, mastery feels great. Team Ninja has really managed to push the envelope, and lovers of martial arts movies and action RPGs should not miss this game.

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Bart Thompson
Bart is's List Writer . He is from Houston, Texas, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in creative writing, majoring in non-fiction writing. He likes to play The Elder Scrolls Online and learn everything about The Elder Scrolls series.