It’s hard to avoid comparisons with Dark Souls when talking about Lords of the Fallen in the same way it’s hard to look at the back of your head in a mirror or navigate a supermarket without wanting to knee slow-walking shoppers in the centres of their oblivious groins. And by ‘hard’ I mean impossible.
This is not a clone, copy or ripoff. That would do Lords of the Fallen a disservice. This is an interpretation - Dark Souls spoken with an accent. A collaboration between German developer Deck13 and Polish studio CI Games, Lords of the Fallen is a punishing RPG set across dank catacombs, wondrous cathedrals, frozen wastes and ancient temples, equal parts fantasy and horror. Sound familiar?
You play the strangely Australian Harkyn, a convicted criminal whose past offences are tattooed on his face and the only man capable of repelling inter-dimensional demons known as the Rhogar. None of this is explained unless you hunt for it, most story content is relegated to menus and dialogue options. It seems an inelegant solution to the traditional RPG problem of suffocating players with lore. Why go out of your way to read about the Tales of Old, or the Night Watch, or the Infected, if nothing compels you in the first place? There’s no enigma, no intrigue.
The trouble with Lords is it doesn’t introduce any fresh ideas of its own - just twists on existing ones. You know the bit from Souls where you can get back your experience by heading to where you died and reclaiming your dropped souls? Here, if you return to--and fight near--your fallen ghost, it'll buff your magic and stamina regeneration, the risk obviously being that if you die before picking it up you’ll lose all that experience. It’s a neat difficulty modifier, if a little blatant.
You know Souls’ bonfires? Here they’re shards, the twist being that when you deposit experience in them it resets the drop-rate modifier that unlocks better loot. Not a bad idea, but certainly not a new one. In these shards, you can choose to convert experience into either spell points or attribute points. The former governs magic attacks such as ram (send a charging hologram), prayer (conjure a distraction) and rage (power up your attacks). The latter governs abilities such as strength, health and stamina. In practice is feels an over-complication, although the game does an excellent job of explaining complex concepts through skippable hints.
Of all Dark Souls concepts from which to draw inspiration, however, Lords misses the most transformative: online play. Without the ability to leave helpful or humourous signs around the environment, there’s a lack of community. This intentional design choice is not a problem in itself - it’s the developers’ prerogative which direction to take the game in - but it does have an effect on level design. The lack of waypoints means you’ll often miss a recessed door or hidden passage, or pull a lever and have no idea what it does, resulting in an experience that doesn’t feel like an equally weighted battle between canny level creators and its collaborative tacklers but an uphill struggle against deviously obtuse designers.
What if the glitch happens again? What if it happens 15 hours in? You lose confidence in a game that could wipe your progress at any moment. On PC I also experienced several freezes and a crash to desktop. Now, I don’t know how common all this is, but it’s there, and it’s really bloody annoying.
The single player-only philosophy amps difficulty, too, and this makes boss fights a grind. One early encounter against a foe who resembles Power Rangers’ skinless Lord Zedd lasts 25 minutes - almost half an hour of dodging health-sapping halberd swings, lighting bolts, and enemy minions summoned to do his dirty work. There’s a tiny window for you to get off a hit or two, then a long wait until that window appears again. It takes a special breed of player to face a Souls boss alone - here you’ve got no choice.
These wars of attrition are made harder to stomach by their frequency. A framework forms: explore area hoovering up loot, enter boss chamber with a sigh knowing you’ll be stuck there for the next hour, repeat. There are few showstoppers, besides maybe the crab man who looks like Henry J. Waternoose from Monster’s Inc., and a Grim Reaper type in a graveyard. To their credit, the developers do know how to craft fair, winnable battles based on learning patterns - they just succumb to the temptation of prolonging them.
The bits in between - the exploration, the fighting, the levelling - are the best parts of Lords. In combat, weight is the biggest variable: playing as a nimble rogue is a completely different experience to playing a hulking warrior. The deliberate heft of greatswords contrasts against frantic dagger flurries: one takes an age to set but kills foes quickly, the other is more immediate but requires many weaker strikes. The game does seem to force you down the speed route later, your only viable tool against against darting devil dogs, pouncing arachnids, and one flighty bastard who circle-strafes you constantly.
Stances help, though. Switching between the three - while a touch finicky - enables different movesets. A sword and shield is handy for conservative play, dual wielding is for players who like things fast and dirty, and the gauntlet is for multifunctional projectile attacks. What can best be described as an organic version of Samus’ arm cannon has a variety of functions, whether grenade launcher, flame thrower, or sniper, and while weak on its own, the gauntlet functions as part of a larger combo, something to use as your stamina regenerates. Fighting is Lords’ strength.
Fighting, though, just isn’t enough. In a game that aims for the epic, every facet needs to sing - the level design, the bosses, the story, the weapons. Add to that a wealth of technical issues (see ‘Glitch in the System’) and you have an RPG that, although perfectly playable, doesn’t successfully establish itself against supreme opposition.
Taken on its own this is a sophisticated fantasy RPG executed with consideration and thought, but Lords of the Fallen never really escapes the spectre of Souls, and it can only blame itself .