If I were to say to you that I’ve been playing a difficult dark fantasy game where death is inevitable, what game would you think I was playing? If I told you tales of a war-torn world inhabited by demonic creatures who fall by my sword and spells, what would you think I was playing? If I recounted the hours spent carefully calculating the movements of gigantic boss creatures to finally achieve victory, what would you think I was playing? Of course, you’d assume Dark Souls (probably). However I’m not talking about that at all. Instead I’ve been playing Lords of the Fallen and frankly, the similarities are uncanny.
In Lords of the Fallen you take on the role of Harkyn. Harkyn – the chap on the cover who looks a little too much like Ragnar from Vikings – is your cookie cutter anti-hero. He has been been sprung from prison to join the fight against the amassing armies of the Rhogar. After 30 hours with the game that’s all I can tell you. There is plenty of plot development and it progresses at a fair speed but, with no way to refer back to past conversations and the sphincter-cringing, woeful writing, everything that happens is far from memorable. Coming into Lords of the Fallenfor the story is like going out for a night on the town drinking spring water; all the fun is going on elsewhere.
Lords of the Fallen‘s most compelling aspect makes itself known right from the get go. Wading into the theater of combat as Harkyn means bringing to bear four tools all to familiar to the world of action-RPGs: attacking, blocking, dodging, and magic…ing. Dodging is barely worth a mention but the others serve something special on the table.
The use of magic is tied into both a gauntlet which can be modified to suit your needs and a wide array of spells. When I say wide array, I mean four different spells spread across three schools which all follow the same pattern. One attracts you enemy’s attention, one grants a shield or buff of some description, one is a ranged spell and one is an ultimate ability.
Using your shield and chosen weapon in tandem is the only real way to make any headway through the game. This is not a bad thing by any stretch because when swinging a greataxe with a shield in tow, Lords of the Fallen makes a good impression. The weight behind strikes is palpable and blocking any opponents strike with your shield fills the body with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. It’s a game of timing when it comes to efficient blocking, and that focus on timing feeds into causing damage too.
Every activity, be it blocking attacks or running, uses up energy. Proper management of this energy is central to Lords of the Fallen‘s fighting mechanics and central to your survival. Attacks use a wide range of different amounts to enact so choosing the right method to damage your foes, much like From Software’s acclaimed series. Where it differs is with the use of combos. Timing your swings perfectly yields slightly quicker-than-usual chains of attacks and a small, but satisfying, ‘ping’ sound to let you know you’re a good warrior.
While we’re on the subject of sounds, the soundtrack of Lords of the Fallen is an orchestral smorgasbord of delights. There are a few choice themes that will be familiar to many – including one obvious play on the Jaws theme – which play their own part in pulling you back into this world. Besides one or two instances of pounding hums which anyone who’s seenPacific Rim or Inception will instantly recognize, the music stands out as a beautiful aspect of this dark work.
What turns the musical accompaniment into a true wonder is how well it conveys the darkness of the world around you. It’s rare to walk down stone-built tunnels with sounds so fitting to the experience. The source material is at times a painfully accurate adaptation of Dark Souls but its music side-steps the same trap, accompanying Lords of the Fallen with a more European flavour of orchestral music than the chaotic, yet beautiful, symphonies of From Software’s hit series.
Where Lords of the Fallen should really excel is in its boss fights. However, giving credit where credit is due, battling against powerful foes is a challenge in its own right. Aside from one fairly mundane encounter, dancing the dance of death with the other Rhogar Lords is a fulfilling experience. Each one has some unique mechanics which must be overcome to find victory. There are at times small clues to these, like in the case of the Worshiper[sic]but for the majority of fights it’s up to you and your wits to lead the way to victory.
Sadly, this is where the shining joy found within Lords of the Fallen peters out, only to be replaced with some rather less-than-stellar design choices.
If the aforementioned boss fights are the jewel in Lords of the Fallen‘s crown then navigating your way to these encounters is the brittle mold, one that must be smashed into submission to reveal the treasures which lie beneath. Smashing through this shell isn’t exactly a fast process either, at least not unless luck is on your side.
During the first twenty to thirty minutes in Lords of the Fallen you might consider me to be a madman for suggesting this is the case and I would be the first here to hold my hands up to that. The opening segment is beautifully designed, and it gives you the sense that you’re progressing without the game’s heavy hand shoving you through. Moments after this initial sequence though you’re left to your own devices and here the problems begin.
You’re sent on the simple mission of finding an injured companion. When last seen, Kaslo -the companion in question – was mortally wounded and mere inches away from you. Actually finding him, however, takes a couple of hours that feel like days as you’re wandering aimlessly through areas with no sense of direction or any sense of a clue. This dislike for giving the player any information is then followed up when you are told to go through to another citadel (which the game kindly forgets to mention is through several other areas).
It also forgets to mention the names of locations. Being sent into the Catacombs was perhaps one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. Not for the difficulty nor for the threat within. Rather it was because I had no idea where these mystical Catacombs were. You see, every location of importance is a labyrinth of visually striking yet characteristically similar corridors where the end result is often obscured from view. Giving players free reign is all well and good, but not backing up with the design to make this in any way a pleasant experience turns Lords of the Fallen into a cavalcade of frustrations.
Things are somewhat improved when you find a cleverly hidden treasure chest or delightful sight to feast your eyes upon. Opening up a chest to find a piece of armor or a weapon which improves your capabilities gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. It would be nice if it happened more often, especially since some weapons available are at the start of your first play-through are still better than those found at the end, but when something good does happen there’s always a sense of achievement.
Hiding the boss battles that constitute Lords of the Fallen‘s greatest quality behind mindless hours (and I’m not joking, you can be wandering around for several hours before you finally stumble upon your goal) and walking through the same tunnels you’ve explored many times before is frankly cheap and smacks of poor design. Games of the Metroid-Vania genus are enjoyable because they always find a way to make your next goal obvious and bring about something new. Lords of the Fallen takes this idea but removes anything joyous within it, leaving a bland hulk of what could have been something great.
This lack of innovation and ingenuity feeds into almost every aspect of the game, except the extremely special combat systems and boss designs. Overused genre trope after overused genre trope is paraded in front of you, shuffling along with the tired legs it has suffered through many years of game design. Right from the betrayal of major characters to the bled-dry idea of unlocking the key to an ancient language find their way into Lords of the Fallen. These could have been something special if they’d been done slightly differently. Instead they only come across as tired clichés.
Two elements of Lords of the Fallen do creep out from behind the banality though and shine in their own light. The leveling system takes its cue from the combo system used in combat to create a driving purpose to keep racking up kills without stopping. Every kill you achieve without exiting the game or spending your gathered experience slowly increases a modifier to help push you further through the levels. It is something of a shame that any stats you increase have very little in the way of visible impact on your adventure. Still, it is a nice touch.
Next up is the crafting system which can only be loosely described as such. Killing enemies and exploring the depths sometimes offers up a selection of stones. Now these can be used to open special doors and chests right off the bat. A little further into proceedings, though, they can be used with a blacksmith to create runes. Runes are slotted into your armor and weapons to convey small benefits upon them like increased resistance to magical damage but their best use is with weapons. Poison runes in particular, cause enemies to take damage over time in addition to your attacks.
It isn’t a system which lifts Lords of the Fallen very far, rather it’s simply a nice addition which is quite well designed. An important use for these too is in increasing your carry weight, something which will allow you to wear heavier armor and move with greater speed. Unlike other games of this ilk, Lords of the Fallen imbues you with the feeling that Harkyn is a very heavy character (unless he is wearing incredibly light equipment). This does change as you pump more stats and runes into raising that carry limit but considering how long it takes to do this, it rarely feels worthwhile.
Lords of the Fallen on the whole just seems to lack a certain something on many levels. It has the impressive visual display but doesn’t have the variety to stop this becoming monotonous. It brings something new and interesting to action rpg combat without revitalizing the mundane world around it. It has an idea for a great story and then lets it fall into nothing more than pointless drivel to accompany your journey.
Drawing comparisons between Lords of the Fallen and the Souls series is going to happen a lot. It happened while playing the game. It feels like someone took Fable 2 and drizzled it with elements of Dark Souls but not the aspects that give those games their spark. I never thought I would see a day where a game could dare to provide the same level of direction as a Souls game and be such an infuriating experience because of it.
We all want to go off and explore game worlds without boundaries, but Lords of the Fallenputs barrier after barrier in your way with absolutely no resounding advice to give. Having said that, when you do finally reach your goal a smile does cross your face. Whether it’s one of accomplishment or relief scientists are still deciding (but its probably relief).
Think of it as a very adventurous cat. When it’s around and playing with you there is nothing more lovely and wonderful in this world. For 90% of the time though, Mittens wanders off outside and you never see him again. You start to wonder if he cares about you. That questioning of whether your wandering cat actually cares about you is perfectly replicated in this game. It doesn’t seem to care about you having fun with it, expecting you to make it fun yourself.
Lords of the Fallen is a strange beast of a game. There are moments of unequaled bliss and joy throughout the game. It’s a shame that these moments are so readily hidden behind towering walls of monotony and infuriating area design. In all of my time with the game I felt there was something missing which Lords of the Fallen was just waiting to give and make the whole experience worth it. Having finished my first play through and being a fair way through my second, I’m still waiting.
I worry that I’ll be waiting forever.
[Glorious and engaging combat system]
[Fun and frantic boss battles]
[Beautiful sound track]
[Terrible lack of direction and care in level design]
[Just isn’t that fun of an experience]
This game was reviewed for Xbox One