Funny how things come full circle. When the original Lords of the Fallen arrived in 2014, the soulslike sub-genre was not really a consideration. As one of the first to try their hand at From Software’s formula, the game stumbled into mediocrity. Almost a decade and a troublesome development later, Lords of the Fallen (the erm … new one) makes a rebooted arrival with some smart ideas undercut by some genuinely awful combat encounters. Hexworks gave it a shot but what’s here is a mixed bag.
The story takes loose inspiration from the original game. Adyr, the demon God has been exiled but there’s signs he’s making a return. His army has been assembled and it’s up to you, The Dark Crusader to put Adyr back in his place. As usual, you’ve got a handful of classes to pick from with the standard mage, knight pyromancer and sorcerer available. I didn’t dig much into the character creator as I’d spend most of my time under armour. As it happens, there’s a lot of loot and shaders are available to give your gear a preferred colour. NPCs are around with their own quests that can be very easy to miss or break. Item descriptions hold more lore but it’s hidden behind certain stat requirements. It won’t prevent usage information but it’s a shame you’re unlikely to get the full picture on one character.
Lords of the Fallen throws a lot at you. The big gimmick is your ability to switch between two realms at will. Axiom is the world of the living and serves as your default state after resting at a vestige. The Umbral world is where things get interesting. Not only are hidden paths revealed to you but you also have a chance for your experience gain to increase. This runs on a timer with your maximum experience increase coming after four minutes in the underworld. The downside being that this summons a red reaper to chase you down.
It results in a great sense of risk versus reward and there’s other neat tricks to it. You have a lamp to temporarily glimpse the Umbral world. It’s a good way to survey your options whilst not having to dive into it fully. It leads to some platforming trickery and enemies have the opportunity to pull you into it. It’s a well realised mechanic and the game revels in you switching between the two planes of existence. It feels really clever and it’s nice to see two maps in perpetuity.
The novelty does start to wear in certain areas. The level design is not consistent or particularly strong. Forsaken Fen, in particular, is a large poison swamp that I genuinely struggled to navigate. Too many parts of it ran together and and the blue hue of the Umbral realm didn’t help matters. This area feels like an extreme case but most of them trade in arterial pathways that either lead to shortcuts or areas where you can place your own checkpoints.
Most areas have one main vestige but you can find and purchase seeds to plant a base camp of your own. It’s another neat idea from Lords of the Fallen that, until you get the ability to buy them, gave me another tough decision to make. It can be helpful to prevent lengthy treks to a boss or reward yourself with a new place to spawn.
A lot gets made of the difficulty of these games. I find Lords of the Fallen‘s to be very uneven. The first proper boss encounter is an exercise is pattern recognition and patience. The bosses that follow feel almost trivial. Enemy variety doesn’t feel that diverse but enemy placement results in plenty of scraps with multiple enemies. Running by everything is an option but it does seem like enemies wake up at the slightest bit of aggro. At times, I liken it to Dark Souls 2’s approach to encounters but it lacks a finesse and restraint.
It can be oppressive. I would spend more time running from fights as some levels became convoluted in construction. This game loves shortcuts but the focus on fewer traditional checkpoints means having to place a seed somewhere and hope you’ve not got further to tread. You would think the extra enemies would aid in levelling up but, given the Umbral world was always accessible, I’d do any grinding there.
It’s a real shame because I enjoy Lords of the Fallen‘s combat a lot. Dodge rolls feel really effective and dual-wielding weapons can be a joy. There’s a weighty feel to swinging your weapon and there’s other clever touches. Every class has a form or ranged attack. It’s limited by ammunition but this is refilled by disposable pouches or resting at a lamp. Blocked damage has a chance to be regained by striking enemies at any time. Your lamp can be used to de-buff certain foes and literally yank the soul out of them. There’s plenty of options to use, although I find shields are hard to come by. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.
Boss fights have some variation to them but they do rely on people in armour. Some of them feature Umbral gimmicks and, compared to the levels that precede them, they offer a much more lenient challenge. There are a couple of harsh spikes. Most notably, the first proper boss encounter feels like a stern test of pattern recognition. I’ve enjoyed figuring them out but, once they’re beaten, they do tend to return as regular enemies. I guess it bolsters the enemy design but you do see the same archetypes again and again.
Visually, Lords of the Fallen has some bells and whistles. Switching worlds has plenty of flash and flourish and there’s a lot of particle effects to admire. I mainly stayed in performance mode. I much prefer the stable framerate and quality mode, whilst sharper, does not provide a steady 30 frames per second. The levels are varied, if a little standard in terms of setting. You have a poison swamp, ablaze village, areas where it’s all raised platforms. It looks fine but the muted colour palette prevents it from truly wowing. The Umbral delivers the more metal imagery.
Audio presentation can sound very stock and forgettable, at times. Boss themes favour a lot of bombast and ceremony. It’s certainly where the soundtrack excels. Combat does feature some meaty accompaniment. For what it’s worth, I’ve not seen any major problems with performance. I suspect early patches have hammered some issues out. In the Playstation 5’s case, it holds up. Some character models look very rough and I do find Pieta’s voicework to be very hammy. Everyone else seems to do a passable job.
As much as I wanted this game to turn a corner, the enemy density and level design has exhausted me. The world switching is cleverly executed and it really encourages exploration within both realms. Unfortunately, some levels felt tricky to navigate and it can be devastating to spend an hour just for a few yards of gained ground. It results in a glacial pace and a frustrating experience that could’ve been so much more.
+ Combat is enjoyable and weighty.
+ Some boss fights are mechanically interesting.
+ Placing your own checkpoints is a neat idea.
- Enemy placement seems hap-hazard and relentless.
- Lock-on and be a nightmare to maintain in a big group.
- Some of the larger areas are a genuine pain to navigate.