In the latest souls-like to grace shelves this year, we have the dark fantasy that is Lords of the Fallen. You might be wondering, “Didn’t they already create a game called that?” and, indeed, that is true. This new instance is a reboot from HEXWORKS and CI Games, which boasts exponential differences from their original title that debuted in 2014.
In this new complete refresh, you are met with the marketed terminology that Lords of the Fallen is the closest thing to next-gen Dark Souls. With a setting that embosses the grotesque and macabre in its formula and gives the player a fresh new tale to embark on in its dark fantasy, it certainly fits the vibe.
When you boot up Lords of the Fallen, you are met with a beautiful cut-scene that violently introduces you to its world, with a “dark crusader” flinging his lamp in hopes that it finds a better suited owner: you. This lamp is the backbone to what makes Lords of the Fallen truly unique, allowing for environments that are exhilarating with discovery and horror.
HEXWORKS and CI Games took this opportunity to take their two worlds concept in the first game and make it the center point in this refresh. The lamp is how you cross between the Axiom and Umbral realms.
While exploring Mornstead there are two versions of each level to take into account, each with its own threats, secrets, and consequences. In Axiom, everything is very bright and hopeful. Just like with any souls-like, threats lurk in every nook and cranny of the world that you are stitched into, and, with your all-powerful lamp, you can cross over into the gloomy, grotesque realm of the dead, Umbral.
Umbral has many elements that make it so terrifying, but its world is luscious with high-risk rewards and unique enemies only present in its realm while also bearing elements that will have you sweating on the edge of your seat if you are low on resources.
Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’
As you craft your character, you get the briefest glimpse of a tutorial. This will introduce all of the familiar functions you are probably used to by now if you love the genre like I do. Of course, it has a unique texture in these basic functions that makes Lords of the Fallen feel like its own flavor in the genre.
For example, you can do a simple hop if you do one press of the evade button and a distant roll dodge with a consecutive press. When it comes to movement in this latest venture, I felt momentum was a center point for everything your character does.
While getting used to the very different and slightly clunky movement, you will realize that the momentum of your character’s movements doesn’t just extend to sprinting, dodging, or rolling; the move-sets of weapons also carry this momentum. When you begin figuring out combos for a specific weapon, you will realize that some movements will give you an awesome amount of distance and tracking. Some will take you further than others, but this is important. It makes your character feel like a real, weighted, meat sack that is capable of beating your obstacles or becoming Mornstead’s next most popular pincushion. Trust me when I say that it is likely you will be a pin cushion more often than you are victorious.
Another reason this momentum is important lies in the game’s setting. Mornstead is a city built on the cliff side. Think about that for a moment…cliff side. I can attest that getting used to this character-propelled momentum was hard, especially after my recent bout with Lies of P, but it is refreshing and different from other titles in the genre even though I rolled out of Mornstead more times than I can count while avoiding the threats present in its vast world.
The way players interact with threats in Mornstead is especially different from the standard of most Souls or souls-likes. Weapons boast an abundance of depth when it comes to utilizing them in your adventures. Your combos are fluent and quick while still feeling authentic to the experience. Even better, you can change your move-set at the press of a button and find completely new combos that continue from the last button press. This encourages you to know the capabilities of your weapon in a way that extends past the expectations other titles have given. Using a flail has a wind-up window before unleashing a continuous smash of cohesive blows upon your target, and ‘grand’ weapons have an even lengthier wind-up before your momentum carries you forward in a slew of blows that would slash, tear, and crush your opposition.
Knowing your weapon is understanding what stance will allow you to poise-hit the mob of enemies surrounding you or perpetuate which move-set won’t be stopped by the narrow walls of a cave or room. This function can be used cohesively and in multiple patterns to create entirely new combos with new enders, wide swings, and spins, too.
If you get truly curious, the option to dual wield is just as thick with depth as most weapons. Each unique combination of weapons also boasts its own move-set. Think of it as auto power-stancing if you are used to Elden Ring or Dark Souls 2.
Knowing your offensive options is important, and, after my playthrough of Lies of P, I was especially excited to try ole’ faithful, the sword-n-board. The inclusion of shields in Lords of the Fallen brings some new mechanics that are similar to what we have seen before, but with a unique twist. Of course, holding a shield up protects a percentage of your damage when hit. But, just like in Lies of P, any damage taken while holding up your precious shield is converted to what the game calls “wither damage.”
If you take the offensive before your stamina runs out and you see an opening, you get the opportunity to win your health back. This brings a unique form of interaction for many that build around it while offering a sincere cushion of security when visiting new areas with new opponents. Trust me, you’re going to need all the help you can get.
Parrying makes a comeback, but with some flair for its bite. It isn’t super flashy, and you can do it with any weapon or shield in your hands. With a press of the defense button, if you time it correctly, you will be met with a unique sound, and the enemy’s onslaught of attacks will be interrupted. This doesn’t give you a riposte or fatal attack right away, though. Much like Sekiro and Lies of P, each parry, as well as heavy attack, does some form of posture damage. Once the little circle surrounding your lock-on icon is depleted, you will be able to deal an exaggerated attack with an abundance of damage. You will still take some wither damage while performing parries, so bear in mind that it is always better to parry with a shield as opposed to a dagger or off-handed weapon.
Building Your Identity
Crafting your character bears extreme significance in Lords of the Fallen. With the inclusion of 13 player classes to give your character a backstory as well as setting the foundations for a well-built playstyle, knowing how you want to interact with the threats in its immense, punishing world will tell how hard you have to work to get the credits rolling.
With melee building being as simple as it is in Elden Ring or Dark Souls, if you want to focus on a non-magic character, the tools are present with 194 weapons and shields available. Each weapon has scaling that corresponds with a specific stat, being the same song and dance as others in the genre, essentially. Where Lords of the Fallen makes the playstyle choice so pertinent to your journey is its ranged options. The three magic classes have story implications, but truly shine as over-achievers when it comes to character building. If you don’t use magic, you can push your focus to thrown objects, crossbows, and normal bows.
Radiance, Inferno, and Umbral are the three types of magic present in Lords of the Fallen, and each one has its own corresponding stats and spell types. Radiance and Inferno scale with the stats of the same name, but Umbral magic bears unique ranged attacks and spells. Working much like a Hex build in Dark Souls 2, you increase your Radiance and Inferno equally to gain access to more Umbral spells and abilities. Umbral magic also deals a specific type of status to its afflicted targets in its wither damage and other unique effects.
All in all, my experience showed me that magic was a wise decision to implement in what started as a quality build, to the point that I felt punished for not using it from the get-go. Having a status cleanse and heal, or burning that archer who is sniping you from across the narrow platforming areas, can prove invaluable to the player at times. Having these options was so important for myself that I ended up respec’ing my character about half-way through my playthrough with a potent focus on umbral magic. This was frustrating because there were times that I couldn’t solve a specific problem in my playthrough without having these functions, especially after seeing my buddies use them in their own characters.
The importance of having a dedicated build in the long run will be just as important as other Souls games, but it is even more punishing for Lords of the Fallen. If you don’t have enough vitality, you will consistently get one-shotted, or your guard will be consistently broken if you don’t have points in stamina. Don’t expect to make a glass cannon DPS character either, because enemies scale to your level and stats, making even backtracking a threat and source of dread.
Gardening With the Living and the Dead
Dying in any Souls or souls-like is to be expected. You live, you die, you learn. In Lords of the Fallen, HEXWORKS took the opportunity to further brand their identity into the metaphorical flesh of their title with the function of Mornstead’s two realms. Since you are now the ‘Lampbearer,’ if you die in Axiom, you end up in Umbral with the only way to become fully alive being to visit a Vestige (bonfire), Seedling Vestige, or Axiom point in a level.
So, theoretically, you have two lives. That means the game can’t be that difficult, right? Wrong! See, the longer you stay in the Umbral world, the more enemies will respawn. Yeah, one or two of them aren’t much of a threat, but when you add them to the mix of infantry, elite enemies, and ranged threats, being in the Umbral realm can be terrifying. To go with the never-ending slew of creepy creatures, the longer you stay in Umbral, the scarier the enemies that spawn. Think of this function like Grand Theft Auto’s star system, but it steadily goes up on its own.
Once you have truly been in the Umbral world for too long, you will be chased by a red wraith that will flay your flesh no matter what level you are, what armor you are wearing, no matter what. It’s like having a Nemesis with Kitty Pryde’s mutant powers chasing you, making Umbral all the more horrifying.
When progressing through levels, this would make me ask myself, “Are there any other Axiom areas to explore? And do I know where a Vestige or Axiom ‘flipper’ is?” I would often try to meticulously plan my venture into Umbral to circumvent being caught off-guard by the gangs of enemies that could lie in wait or the boss that could be present in the Umbral realm, making all of my progress reset if I wasn’t prepared and died.
To go with these mechanics, much of the game’s story can only be seen from the Umbral realm. With the inclusion of ‘pulleys’ or sculptured like interactions you pull with your lamp, you are met with an audio log-like device that adds to the game’s story besides what is shared with NPCs in your hub. The lamp has additional functions as well, allowing you to tackle enemy threats in creative ways.
Since becoming a Lampbearer, you also picked up gardening with HEXWORKS’ new twist on the concept of bonfires: the seedling vestige. In each level there are areas where flowers from the Umbral realm blossom into beautiful white flowers that can be seen when in Axiom. Using a seedling consumable, you can grow your very own dead body which allows you to replenish your quintessence (estus) and mana while resetting enemies in the vicinity. This makes exploring a test of endurance. If you are running low on resources and feel like you made significant progress, you have to decide whether it is worth using one of your seedlings to refresh yourself, or explore further, hoping for a permanent one.
This mechanic brought a new dynamic to exploration among Mornstead’s threatening inhabitants where I would question whether I was in a good place to continue, or if I truly needed the point to save. The consumable itself is limited as well, thus making them valuable during your adventure.
Akin to the inter-connected nature of Dark Souls Remastered, every area can be accessed on foot from any area in the game. With 40+ hours spent on my adventure, I can still visit past cleared levels and find new secrets and shortcuts that lead to the hub or cliff side city of Mornstead.
Much of the level design is centered around the Umbral Lamp I mentioned previously. Sometimes you will face a dead end after clearing enemies in Axiom and not know where to go. That’s when you bring out your rusty-trusty lamp and make the dramatic leap into the Umbral realm of the level. This brings a platforming and exploration style of design to levels where secrets, resources, and upgrades are hidden while threats hide behind every corner. Each place you find available to go will venture down a rabbit hole that can lead to hours of lost time.
Each area is truly filled to the brim with detail and content that will have you wondering where the end lies. Whether that’s a boss or new part of a segmented level, it’s grilled like the best double-decker burger you’ve ever had. With secrets spanning towers of majestic, fantastical castles, to beds of once filled rivers, discovery is an insatiable feeling of missing something every time you progress to the next area. It’s a beautiful thing for a game of this nature.
Lords of the Fallen has a photo mode to capture all of its wondrous beauty, but it’s with a twist I have yet to see in another game. Instead of taking a screenshot with different variables, the game takes a 3D photo. This means you can quickly save a cool moment in time and go back to the mode later to get a completely different picture from a different angle or even get a close-up of an enemy that hasn’t noticed you. The possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing the fruits of the community’s creativity once the game officially launches.
One of the most disappointing features in Lords of the Fallen is a central ingredient in the Souls’ formula, the bosses. With 30 bosses rolled into your adventure, you are faced with but two or three that feature notable aesthetics and mechanics. Many of the encounters, meanwhile, are made simple by lamp mechanics and magic, and they will only take a few tries before besting them in combat.
With so many of these encounters lined up on the path to the credits, you can’t help but wonder why there is a variance in difficulty for some. Many bosses are buffed up versions of elite enemies you see frequently while the “world bosses” are some of the most disappointing for a game of this magnitude. Many hit you like a wet pool noodle after you have just spent hours battling insanely difficult mobs, mini-bosses, and elite enemies.
The worst case of this is in the final encounter as it was so simple and easy that I couldn’t help but feel immense displeasure at how this beautifully layered game fell flat at the height of its storytelling.
Mobs for Days
Where I truly found the difficulty was in the mobs of enemies present in the beautifully laid levels, to the point that I would even question my sanity while trying to best these challenges in solo-play.
Every Souls or souls-like has a mechanic or feature that will have you bashing your head on a concrete wall until you break through. The mobs in some areas of Lords of the Fallen had me questioning if there was an opening on the other side of the wall that I painted as my target. Some narrow areas have hidden, ranged enemies that one-shot you, while other baddies stun-lock you into resetting your progress. You’ll also occasionally face open-areas with a mini-boss and a wealth of minions all protected with Umbral shields.
These moments made me wonder if they were meant to be challenged in co-op, finding the only solution to be asking a friend to assist me just so I could complete the part I was stuck on. Of course, your build will have different tools for different situations, so you may find that these areas are very possible solo. Regardless, even among FROMSOFTWARES’ catalog, I found some of these encounters to be mind-boggingly difficult.
Co-op So Good You’ll Invite it Over for Dinner
Aside from the performance issues and the slight lag, I found co-op to be one of the most enjoyable factors present in Lords of the Fallen. Being able to seamlessly summon a friend and just play added seasoning to an already well-cooked steak. No signs, no re-inviting to game after dying to a boss, it’s simply playing and exploring with a friend.
Another great portion of this feature is that enemies scale to having two players in a lobby, and the second joining player scales to the main player. This means you won’t have an over-leveled companion that can one-shot obstacles as the game adapts in difficulty to having two players present.
To caveat to this amazing feature, I wish there was a player marker to see where my buddy was in the maze of levels. There are many times where I would call out the location of an upgrade and would have to backtrack just to find my friend or vice-versa. This made navigation confusing and sometimes dire if your companion died and you had no clue where they were or how to reach them.
Although invasions are a thing for Lords of the Fallen, I only experienced the mechanic once while playing solo, and attempted it two or three times. Being met with performance issues during the times that I tried to utilize the feature, I realized it might be better to wait until the player population increased. The one time I was invaded, I loved every second of the PvP interactions and found the experience invigorating even though I didn’t have back up with me. This feature is one that I am looking forward to with anticipation post-launch.
Cooking with a Toaster
My biggest gripe with Lords of the Fallen is its technical performance. At no point during my gameplay could I say I had a gaming session that was free of FPS hitches, stutters, bugs, memory leaks, or crashes.
The worst issue I experienced was a severe memory leak in the middle to late game. I had already been playing for three or four hours, and as soon as I took a step through the threshold of a door, I was met with stuttering that completely froze my computer. I booting up the game again, and, thankfully I kept my progress. But as I played throughout that entire level, I would have to consistently close the game and re-open it every 30 minutes or less to ensure that I could still maintain performance to play through the area to completion.
When the game would perform as intended, it was beautifully rendered with detail frivolously scattered wall to wall, and it functioned masterfully.
Foundations of Steel and Blood
Grafted from the difficult genre that many of us have come to love, Lords of the Fallen aspires to be unique and creative while staying true to the self-inflicted sadism most Souls’ fans long for. This dark fantasy takes themes and inspiration from Lord of the Rings, Berserk, and Dark Souls, thus invigorating its identity among the many titles that bear the title of souls-like.
Even though Lords of the Fallen is flawed at the time of writing this review, it’s foundation is dense in creativity, level building, and addicting combat. There aren’t a lot of issues that can’t be fixed with patches and gameplay changes.
With a total of 3 possible endings, 194 weapons and shields, 76 spells and catalysts, 339 armor pieces, and a multitude of secrets and optional bosses, CI Games and HEXWORKS have realized their potential by creating one of the greatest souls-likes I’ve had the pleasure of getting lost in. Replayability is a must and boasts an entirely new experience with changes in difficulty and mechanics. This is a title I can see myself getting lost in for hundreds of hours. With PvP, co-op, and optional areas, Lords of the Fallen has the fulfillment of a five-star buffet on an empty stomach.
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