Lords of the Fallen Review
Standing on the Shoulders of Fallen Giants
When I first finished Dark Souls a couple of years ago, I thought to myself: “man, if only a game was made with this awesome combat system that didn’t have such painfully slow progression and obtuse mechanics.” While I ultimately grew to appreciate the Souls games, some of the mechanics are so good that they should given the opportunity to shine in a title that isn’t so difficult to permeate. Apparently the folks at City Interactive agreed because they set out to make such a game, and in my eyes, did a more or less great job. After being slightly let down by the mechanically solid but unimaginative Dark Souls 2 earlier this year, I was ready for another helping of tactical combat and challenging boss battles. To my pleasant surprise, Lords proved to be a more consistently enjoyable experience than the second game in the series it owes so much to, despite a poor narrative and other minor foibles.
I could spend hours picking at the pros and cons of Lords vs. Dark Souls, but ultimately it came down to the pacing for me. Lords of the Fallen simply throws fewer punches and it is possible to progress through the game at a much faster rate. That isn’t to say it’s easy, you will still need to approach most combat encounters carefully and learn the attack patterns of each enemy. However, there are fewer instances where you will take a wrong turn and die without a chance of escaping or fighting your way back to safety. Lords is also more forgiving in that its checkpoints can be activated and your health/potions restored without causing all of the enemies to reappear. This only happens when you die, or rather annoyingly when you quit the game or move between areas.
The result of these differences mean that Lords remains challenging without feeling like the grind that Souls games can become. The actual moment to moment gameplay of exploring areas and dealing with each enemy encounter in turn is still highly compelling. You simply experience new content at a faster rate, and exploring new areas, unsure of what lies around each corner, is always where I thought this style of design really shone.
When it comes to combat, the meat of the experience in Lords, the team at City Interactive have done a stellar job. Weapons have a terrific sense of weight and combat encounters are well designed to keep you on your toes against interesting enemy types and combinations. I would go as far as to say that the weight and impact of the combat is greater than in any Souls game; heavy weapons like hammers and great-axes are especially satisfying as they take a long time to swing but hit oh-so-hard when you finally connect, making for tense and rewarding encounters. The camera shakes as you swing your weapon and very occasionally your killing blow will play out in slow motion. There is no escaping melee combat, all three of the available classes must rely on melee weapons to varying extents, especially early on when limited spells are available.
The way Lords handles magic is one of the main ways it differentiates itself from its source of inspiration. When you choose one of the three basic classes at the start of the game, you also choose one of three types of magic categories you must stick with. Each category has 4 spells which can be unlocked and upgraded. The default spell every class starts with lets you create a mimic which enemies will attack, giving you a chance to drink a potion or do some damage from behind. Other spells are more specific to their category; I found the defensive ‘shelter’ spell particularly useful as it allows you to slowly regenerate health while partially reflecting all incoming damage. The separate spell categories in conjunction with the three class types make for a good variety of play styles incorporating speed and armor, weapon types and magic.
How much you focus on unlocking and upgrading spells will depend on how you choose to designate experience. You earn experience by killing enemies, and like in the Souls games, if you die the experience remains on your body. Unlike the Souls games however the amount of experience at your place of death degrades over time, so you need to return to this location as fast as possible, making for some exciting stretches of gameplay. You also gain an ‘experience multiplier;’ the longer you go without banking your experience at one of the checkpoints, the more experience you get for killing each enemy. When you finally decide it is time to use the experience, you must choose between unlocking attribute points or spell points. Attribute points let you upgrade base stats like strength, endurance and faith, while spell points let you unlock and upgrade spells that exist within your chosen spell set.
The weapon and armor upgrade system is also handled cleverly by Lords of the Fallen. As you explore and kill enemies you will pick up runes. These can be ‘broken’ to give you items that can be socketed into weapons and armor to improve their damage or defense, much like in traditional action RPG’s like Diablo or Torchlight. I actually preferred this system to the reinforcing method in the Souls games because it lets you use a greater variety of weapons instead of making it advantageous to stick with just one or two that you heavily upgrade. My primary Warrior character spent time using axes, swords, and hammers, making for a nicely varied combat experience within just a single playthrough.
While boss fights don’t have the same panic-inducing effect as those from Dark Souls 1, each boss fight feels distinct and offers up a good challenge. Boss fights are often separated into stages where the health bar of the beast you are fighting is divided into chunks. When you deplete a chunk, the boss will change its behavior. For example the very first boss gradually loses armor as you hack away at him, eventually throwing down his tower shield to perform deadly dual-handed attacks with his sword. These multi-stage boss fights can be very long and require a lot of patience. On the flip side, they take place in very large arenas, allowing you to get some distance between yourself and the boss. I was able to get past most of the bosses in two or three tries but I still found the battles very exciting as you need have careful timing and make good use of your spells to survive. Since Lords is a singleplayer-only title, you can’t rely on summoning other players to help with boss fights, meaning you really need to figure out for yourself how to defeat each boss in turn.
One area where Lords falls completely on its heavily armored rear end is its attempt at storytelling and character development. You play as Harkin, an ex-convict who has the build and personality of a fridge. You have been released from prison in order to help deal with an invasion of Rhogar, a sort of demon race who decided it was high time they swarmed into a monastery and started killing everyone. You can talk to NPC’s for exposition and side quests, and will also find audio logs, but the writing and voice acting is uniformly substandard. The game’s narrative structure does at least make it clear what your objective is and where you need to go, although there were still moments where I felt lost, especially later on in the game.
The game’s world is divided into roughly two parts. The ‘real world’ section of the game takes place in a sort of monastery which seems like a fairly generic fantasy location, while your trips to the Rhogar world are more visually abstract with more outlandish enemy types. After killing certain enemies, ‘void’ challenges will unlock which are dark, mysterious areas filled with dangerous enemies and loot chests. The game is significantly smaller overall than either of the Dark Souls, although both regions in the world are interconnected cleverly in the style of Dark Souls 1. A single playthrough might take you 15-20 hours depending on how skilled you are with this style of gameplay and how much you explore, although the different classes/spell sets and new game+ option means there is a good amount of incentive to play through it more than once.
While Lords of the Fallen might not blow you away with unique art direction, its proprietary engine is very impressive. Lighting, textures and animations are all top notch here, with vibrant colours giving what might have been dull areas a moody, atmospheric aura. It is worth mentioning that many users reported problems with the game crashing, although it ran fairly well on my PC with only some minor slowdowns here and there. The sound is also very strong across the board, especially when it comes to the meaty impact of your weapon making contact with a soft spot on whatever you are trying to kill. The score is also quite good, adding further atmosphere to your exploration and extra drama to the boss fights.
Ultimately, I found Lords of the Fallen to be a consistently enjoyable action game that brought enough of its own ideas to the table to feel distinct from the Souls series. If you enjoy Souls style combat and are looking for something a bit less punishing, you will find Lords of the Fallen very worthwhile. Similarly, if you want to get into the Souls games but are scared of the steep learning curve, Lords is a great entry point into that style of gameplay. It is just a shame that the story and characters are so awful and that the art design doesn’t quite live up to the outstanding engine that supports it.