Lords of the Fallen | Principal Platforms: PC (Version Tested), Xbox One, PlayStation 4 | Developer: Deck13 Interactive, CI Games | Publisher: CI Games | Genre: Action, RPG | Year: 2014
Dark Souls clone, knock-off, call it what you will; the debt that Lords of the Fallen owes to FromSoftware’s dark fantasy phenomenon is immediately obvious. Swords thrust, shields collide, and the undercurrent of harsh difficulty and environmental storytelling here is all clearly evocative of the famed Souls series.
That more developers don’t instantly pick up the mantle that those games established is quite understandable considering the impact that they’ve have had on gaming culture. After all, could a competing action RPG even hope to emulate that? Is it foolish to even try?
By the end of the first chapter in Lords of the Fallen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Deck13 & co. had in fact nailed it. The introductory area acts a guided tour of the basics and honestly, it’s all rather brilliant for a while there. Lords of the Fallen aims for systematic combat and steep difficulty with the smart tutorial doing a superb job of easing players in.
The abundant side quests and NPCs of the opening area take players through a handful of boss fights against the titular lords and the difficulty level during this early portion of the game feels remarkably well balanced.
Players can train the main character Harkin in a variety of ways, choosing between different magic specializations as well as a basic play style taken from your standard issue archetypes of warrior, cleric, and rogue. Each class offers different attribute combinations too meaning that separate playthroughs – Lords has a robust new game+ feature – can be undertaken using brand new weapons and spells that you might not have experimented with before.
Combat is everything in Lords of the Fallen and governing the expected stamina bars and fixed attack animations are weighty physics that make each engagement feel equally deliberate. Unlike Dark Souls III a lot of the time, heavy weapons such as greatswords and giant hammers come with a severe trade-off in terms of attack speed and even lighter weapons must be wielded carefully during combos. This slowness is a quality that will surely divide some players, but the more methodical and realistic combat system is certainly intriguing and it does somewhat help distance the game from its chief competitor.
With that said, however, Lords of the Fallen can be hopelessly generic when it comes to matters of tone and narrative. It’s fair to say that the grumbling male lead is familiar genre fare at this point and the wider story of a hellish army trying to resurrect their evil god does little to sway that impression.
It’s a shame because the stylised art design is very pretty in spite of its blandness. The Gothic environments are a pinch closer to those of Diablo 3 than Diablo 2 in terms of reference and overall the game looks sharp and easy on the eye. Once again though, the environments you visit and the enemies you face tend to look very similar to each other and thus the game ends up feeling repetitive.
Making matters worse is the suspect animation on certain weapon sets. Take the polearms for example: these two-handed weapons have basic attacks that swipe at enemies with their shaft instead of their blade. The disastrous range of these strikes works against the idea of wielding such a big stick in the first place and it also highlights the common problem you’ll face when wanting to hit multiple enemies at once as very few weapons can do this well.
Conversely my own character discovered a greatsword whose running swipe seemed faster and more powerful than anything else in my arsenal. Late game I found myself performing this same attack over and over again as it was always a more convenient way of dispatching enemies when compared to anything that the default standing stance had to offer!
Spells are similarly problematic. Once a player chooses their school of magic at the beginning of the game they can start contributing experience points to upgrading their mystical arts instead of their vital statistics. Even though some of the spells look pretty, their flavourless ascending ranks are drab and wholly uninspiring. Sure, you could put another rank into Quake (a spell that strikes nearby enemies with a magical hammer), but why bother? The spell screen fails to explain what increasing a rank actually does and ultimately they feel like just another uninteresting statistic of which the game already has plenty of. I’m staring at you, Luck!
Pointless stats are not the only unnecessary callback to the Demon’s Souls lineage either because Harkin also drops any accumulated experience points upon death with the things vanishing completely should he die on the way to retrieving them. This is a common roguelite mechanic for adding a bit of tension on the advance towards the next checkpoint, but here it feels unnecessary because players have the ability to safely bank any XP they accumulate. You can also find special items that will automatically retrieve any pending lost points, so why even have them drop upon death in the first place?
The multiplier mechanic (that rewards boosted XP for consecutive kills without saving at a checkpoint) is another of the game’s intriguing ideas and is meant to offset this conundrum, but the bonus points tot up slowly and would only make you a pinch more powerful in exchange for the risk anyway. You can easily complete the game whilst ignoring the XP multiplier which leads to the question of whether Lords of the Fallen is all that difficult to begin with. To its credit, Lords is a fairly straightforward “hard game”, but several imbalanced weapon upgrades will make things too easy should you investigate the simplistic crafting system to any reasonable extent.
After defeating the third boss and accessing the second large world, an achievement pops up exclaiming “The real Lords starts here”. It’s unfortunate to note how the game’s fun factor immediately takes a plunge following this statement as Harkin travels to the demon realm in order to face tougher challenges on his enemy’s home turf. Baddies start ganging up on you at this point and it quickly becomes frustrating because of the shallow pool of weapons that don’t offer up much of a counter to swarm tactics. Later Harkin faces enemies who explode when killed which leads to many aggravating moments for melee specialists because the slow combat barely affords you enough time to dodge out of the way.
As you struggle to upgrade your weapons and deal with the bulkier enemies, the difficulty finds this uneven rhythm in the mid game and entering the demon realm also proves how little there is to see in terms of interesting scenery. The Rhogar realm as it’s known, looks entirely too similar to the snowswept mortal world you just came from and the follow up milieus ranging from dingy sewer to claustrophobic prison complex are not much more attractive nor easy to navigate.
The quest tracker is also completely hopeless at guiding you to your next objective which is a big problem considering how difficult it can be to tell similar looking areas apart. One plucky NPC promised me a reward were I to secure his laboratory back at the citadel, but between his vague directions and complete lack of wayfinding tools, I had absolutely no idea where he was talking about despite me already having been there once before.
Side quests and exploring are rendered somewhat pointless anyway due to the story being so short. Without any multiplayer modes or cooperative play the game won’t last long and unless you commit to earning achievements or trying out every highly similar blend of magic, there’s not much incentive for repeat playthroughs.
If nothing else, you have to respect the tenacity shown in trying to emulate FromSoftware’s unique breed of genius. Lords’ horrendous DLC and dubious “Game of the Year Edition” moniker are the only distractions from what is otherwise a very passionate project and the overall experience is still pretty decent for your garden variety soulslike (if there is such a thing).
Lords of the Fallen occupies an effective niche considering its budget and the game will find some success with those desperately needing another short fix of brutal adventuring. There just isn’t much done here that isn’t done better by the franchise that inspired it.