Lords of the Fallen is what happens when Diablo and Gears of War have a baby with Dark Souls.
It isn’t trying to go for the hard core Souls style game so much as it is going for a macho action RPG game with a Diablo flair. Lords also has quite a few hands in the pot as it is co-developed by Deck13 Interactive and CI Games published by Square Enix and distributed by Bandai Namco for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
The pious world in which the game is set (its actual name is never made clear) has spent countless generations trying to root evil from itself and those that reside within. Priests and monks pray for the unforgivable sins of their fellow man from within their massive monasteries. The largest of these monastaries harbors dark secrets – the reckless study of the monks within have uncovered a tear between worlds, allowing for the Rhogar – essentially generic demon beasties – to invade from within. You play as brooding non-descript buff white guy Harkyn – who may or may not sound like Jason Statham. Harkyn was imprisoned and branded for past crimes, but is freed by a rogue monk after the monastery is over run by the generic darkspawn horde. That’s really about as far as it goes; Harkyn has little personality of his own, instead filling the already over-crowded niche of macho grunt. It’s disappointing, as there was potential here for Lords of the Fallen to differentiate itself from the Souls games by providing a protagonist with genuine personality instead of being merely an empty vessel – but it’s potential squandered.
The plot, such as it is, is conveyed through audio scrolls and NPC interaction, but for the most part the only thing I can remember is that Harkyn is a criminal and the Rhogar have invaded because of reasons. Little of consequence happens throughout the game, characters are largely forgettable and while there is some backstory to be uncovered, little of it manages to transcend the realm of generic fantasy cliche. I was hoping for a cracking dark fantasy yarn – but like Harkyn himself, the story lacks personality.
Of course, the meat of any action-RPG lies not in an epic story, but in the action, and Lords of the Fallen is no exception. Combat should be familiar to anyone who has played one of From Software’s Souls games, only it has been slowed down considerably. Nearly every action feels lumberingly slow, like wading through molasses. Everything from swinging your weapon, running, walking, rolling, casting spells – even opening chests – feels more labored than it should. This does have the side effect of making the game easier, however. Enemies move slower and telegraph their attacks in long-winded animations, but this is contrasted by the long wind-up time for your own attacks. Thankfully, you can easily roll out of the way or block out of any of your actions, should you find yourself in a vulnerable position.
As in Dark Souls, you gain experience from kills that is lost if you die, with the option to get back to your corpse and recover it once before being lost forever. But Lords adds a few twists to this familiar formula: first you can “bank” acquired exp at save stones that will remain persistent even through death. Second, and more interestingly, you gain a multiplier modifier depending on how much XP you have accumulated and whether you’ve saved or not. The longer you go between banking XP or dying, the higher your multiplier will climb. There is a cap on how high the multiplier will go, but it scales with Harkyn’s level. A skilled player can easily double or triple their XP intake, while careless players will be punished for their lack of caution. It’s one of the few ways in which Lords of the Fallen manages to successfully iterate on the mechanics it borrows from elsewhere.
As a strictly single-player game, Lords doesn’t have the player-left messages famously found in the Souls franchise. As such, the developers couldn’t make exploration as opaque as it commonly is in a Souls game. There are a few secrets and winding paths here and there, but no hidden walls, traps, or hidden zones that only the most diligent of players would find. Instead, Lords is filled with tightly-woven levels containing multiple paths, but they are often self contained with one exit and one entrance. If you play games the way I do, you’ll explore every nook and cranny within to find any hidden treasures and lore bits you can.
There is one thing I noticed throughout my time exploring the monastery of Lords, and that is everywhere looks exactly the same with the game’s dark and grey overtones. What is there does look great, but it is repetitive and often boring as the dark grey nondescript ruins blend into each other to never really create a sense of exploring different areas. Which is a shame as the engine appears to be incredibly powerful when it comes to rendering particle effects, large vistas, and the environments. Sadly all that power was used poorly with it’s uninspired art direction leaving a world that never feels lived in and contains a noticeable lack of environmental storytelling.
There are also challenge rooms littered throughout the landscape that only activate after certain requirements are met. These challenges are frequently harder than the regular game, and offer a wide array of rewards for those willing to seek them out. The only problem is that you’ll be forced to sit through long load screens to get there and back, and the rooms are frequently guarded by a large number of monsters which respawn upon your return. That may not sound like much, but it’s frustrating to leave a challenge room only to find yourself surrounded by multiple enemies that happily kill you while the game struggles to load.
One of the things I do appreciate about the exploration is the fact that bosses are rarely telegraphed. Often you will find that you need to use your intuition when deciding whether or not to save. Bosses are both simultaneously difficult and easy: most, if not all of them have multiple phases and a wide array of abilities that change frequently throughout each encounter. Coupled with the slower pace of combat, the result is that bosses take quite a bit of time to bring down thanks to their large health pools. They also have a habit of spawning in multiple weaker enemies that can prove to be challenging should you ignore them, but nothing a bit of magic cannot help overcome.
Fortunately, magic is easily provided for you when you create one of nine classes, each of which has their own style of magic and combat. Depending on your class you will have decoys, shields, stuns, healing, or offensive capabilities like fireballs. Personally, I started with a medium armor-wearing Paladin who used mostly stuns and buffing magic – but every class starts with the decoy spell as it is a prerequisite for defeating certain enemies and puzzles. Your mana regenerates rather quickly and effective use of your spells can trivialize most encounters. All in all, while magic is certainly welcome, it’s perhaps a bit too effective at neutering the challenge ahead.
Playing on a more-than-competent PC, I experienced constant frame rate drops as the powerful engine struggled to load itself. After checking online I found I wasn’t the only one experiencing this problem. Sometimes graphical issues are merely a part of playing on a PC and I’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of issues, but Lords sometimes borders on unplayable and it’s disappointing that the platform with the most theoretical power should suffer to this degree. Regardless of what settings you tune the graphics as loading screens are laborious and the frame rate slows down the already slow combat as the engine skips and stumbles over itself that only gets worse the longer you play. It’s a shame, because when Lords of the Fallen works it looks great – if a little uninspired.
I was genuinely excited for Lords of the Fallen, and even after I had a hands on demonstration at New York Comic Con I felt that this game could fill in a gap between Dark Souls II and BloodBorne. Unfortunately, Lords did not live up to my expectations and feels much like a AAA try at recreating the magic that is found in a From Soft game without fully understanding what make’s those games great. The decision to make the player character a boring one dimensional non-customable buff guy is puzzling when the RPG genre is all about creating your own character that is personal to you. I’m long over the brooding anti-hero that is locked into his pensive anger for the world, I would rather have that be my decision thank you.
There is a pretty good game here, but it’s hidden under a layer of dull dress up and frame rate issues. Hardened Dark Souls fans may turn their heads up and sneer at the mere attempt made by Deck13 and CI Games to make an alternative to their game of choice, but Lords of the Fallen isn’t so much a clone as it is Dark Souls-lite, seeking to lower the barrier to entry for new players so that they can experience the genre. The Souls series is, after all, notoriously challenging – and many have been put off by that. For those players, Lords of the Fallen could serve as an excellent jumping-on point into a genre that they may have spent the last few years looking into, but felt to intimidated to try. Lords is difficult enough to never feel easy, but it is far from frustratingly difficult – and that’s perfectly fine. Not every game has to have a Sif or Bellfry Gargoyle fight serving as a wall for players to smash their heads against.
Lords of the Fallen isn’t trying to copy Dark Souls so much as it is trying to take in inspirations from a multitude of games from the last generation. There is as much DarkSiders, Diablo, and Gears of War as there is Dark Souls here, and a good start to what will most assuredly be the first of many clones. It’s a decent game, just with enough rough edges to hold it back. A solid foundation on which to build then – and hopefully if the game gets a sequel, CI Games will be able to give the series more of its own personality, instead of ruthlessly cribbing from others.