Action-RPG, Lords of the Fallen doesn’t echo Dark Souls quite so much as impersonate it. The inspiration is clear and the similarities rife, and strangely the similarity make the differences between the two games all the more evident. Where Souls understood and revelled in its own Sadism, strapping the player to a rack and slowly stripping away their dignity, one misstep over a cliff at a time, Lords of the Fallen feels as though it enjoys the whips and chains at weekends, but also likes to settle down sipping a warm cup of Ovaltine, watching Friends reruns. Where Dark Souls was the real McCoy, and gained critical acclaim for its authentic-feeling, uncompromising nature, Lords of the Fallen feels as though it’s playing dress up.
Lords of the Fallen is the more forgiving younger sibling of Dark Souls, though saying something is easier than Dark Souls is like saying it’s easier than learning Mandarin with a colony of fire ants crawling up your sleeve. Lords of the Fallen still puts on a challenging show and the gameplay, whilst lacking the polish of Dark Souls, almost makes up for this with its youthful, impetuous bombast.
Painting a fantasy world overrun by otherworldly beasts known as the Rhogar, Lords of the Fallen spews gothic styling over all its environments and character models, foisting deep shadows from every corner and doling out what little light it does from ominous, orange braziers that cast a blood-tinged wash over the enemies. Harkyn, our protagonist, is charged with destroying the titular Lords of the Fallen, in an attempt to save the world from almost certain demise. It is in the slaying of these Lords that Harkyn must atone for the sins of his past.
The Lord’s battles manifest as boss fights fairly typical of a bygone age of game design. With a well-stocked health bar pitching up atop the screen, the Lords take a lot more work than their numerous underlings, usually cycling through a moveset of three or four attacks and occasionally breaking and summoning waves of support. Once the particular Lord’s battle pattern has been ascertained, victory is simple; the key lies in being initially conservative and observant, then exploiting vulnerabilities with chillingly methodical resolve. Patience will serve you better than theatrics here.
The specifically RPG mechanics are disappointing. An atrophic character creation system has here been streamlined back to the point of emaciation. The physical features, gender and name of the player-character are set in stone. In an age of gaming where customisation is king, this omission seems a particularly glaring anachronism. Character attributes also come ready-set, only leaving the choices of magic-type and starting gear up to the player. With three choices available for each selection, we’re left with a total of nine possible starting variations, which is far too size zero for any modern RPG. These initial options are worn in and unimaginative, extending out from the three usual suspects of the fantasy RPG genre: Warrior, Healer and Rogue.
The experience and character development is well executed, with experience being gathered through killing mobs – a greater XP multiplier granted by carrying more XP ‘loose’, as opposed to banking it at the first opportunity. XP can be secured by visiting a save shard (also useful for restoring heath and potions), and distributed toward either Harkyn’s attributes or his spells. Loose XP is lost on death (though similarly to in Dark Souls can be retrieved by returning to the place of death) and so holding onto it for the sake of a higher multiplier is a risky game that really tests the mettle.
What’s impressive, though, is the fluidity with which the game allows the player to experiment with different gameplay styles. Initial magic and armour choices only affect the way the game unfolds as much as they’re permitted to and it’s perfectly feasible to spec a character so they excel with both great axes and daggers, and in both light and heavy armour. This freedom is a boon because the game’s extensive range of gear combinations deserves testing in full. If nothing else, some of the weapon designs offer some fantastic steel for the blade-porn enthusiasts to lust over. Using the smaller weapons comes with its advantages in terms of agility and speed, but nothing beats connecting a hit with an axe the size of a lamppost.
The combat is reasonably smooth. Tight squeezes are essentially death traps so extra care should be taken when exploring small corridors and corners should be avoided at all costs when challenging multiple enemies simultaneously. The mapping of the light-attack to the shoulder button suffers on the flimsy shoulder buttons of the Xbox One pad and missed hits due to control issues cost more than a little experience on more than a few occasions.
The pacing and difficulty comes with a jagged edge. One moment the hysteria of victory will seize control as Harkyn, under your control, glides through hordes of Rhogar as smoothly as if he were spreading butter over a hot crumpet. Then, out of the blue, two strikes from a stronger foe, ambiguously differentiated from those that were mere seconds ago being minced and mashed into a paste, and our man muscles is on the floor piecing together the remnants of his jaw and your console might well be halfway out the window as despair and frustration overwhelm. An effective reminder to stay vigilant, perhaps, but these sudden, unpredictable difficulty spikes serve also to puncture the sense of elation, the sense of dominance in victory that almost threatened to set Lords of the Fallen apart from Dark Souls.
Story exposition is lax and the finer details of the plot all too prone to slip away. Aside from that given in cutscenes, much of the fluff is delivered through stabs of sluggish dialogue. The source of plenty of unintentional humour and half-laughs, conversations with NPCs are also the vehicle for side quests, which are found and completed with total player autonomy, unlocking new areas and gear.
Exploration is well rewarded, but the levels, while at times labyrinthine, are still essentially linear. The faux-open world structure of the map allows for levels to be accessed again later in the game, each section repopulating when Harkyn bites the dust, but with many routes locked off until the relevant story objective is completed, the game’s apparent open-world exterior belies the linearity at its heart.
Less a diamond in the rough than a coal freshly placed upon the fire, give it time and Lords of the Fallen will begin to glow, but it will take patience and discarded prejudice. Similarities to Dark Souls will plague its steps wherever it goes, and comparisons will rarely be favourable, largely because where the two share features, Dark Souls does it better. But it is in its differences that Lords of the Fallen shines. Despite the rather grisly setting, this game gives off a warmth that Dark Souls’ cold, dead world could never manage. That might just be my console overheating, but Lords of the Fallen is an irrefutably approachable and enjoyable stab in the dark that recaptures the essence of play emblematic of its genre.