Welcome, dungeon crawlers, to a new world. A violent, doom-laden world of misery and corruption. A world where the only hope of salvation is a tattoo faced criminal with a chequered history and a physique that would put a professional wrestler to shame. Welcome to Lords of the Fallen…
CI Games and Deck13 Interactive have collaborated to bring you all a rival to the Souls series and without turning this review into a comparison sheet, there’s a few details that I’ll get out of the way first. The gameplay style, world and concept are roughly in the same category as From Software’s brutal death simulator but there’s so much more to offer here than a carbon copy of a game that already has a solid fan base.
Lords of the Fallen has something different to offer in terms of the feel of the game, the atmosphere and a slightly more accessible learning curve. Well, I say that, but there’s some pretty sharp lessons for those who get a bit too comfortable in their first few hours of play.
The game literally takes no time to drop you knee-deep into the proverbial brown stuff and puts you in the armoured greaves of Harkyn, a huge, bald sinner who has been offered a chance at redemption by way of a mysterious priest named Kaslo. The gods have declared war on sin and are intent on erasing the bane that is humankind, while demonic forces have invaded with their own agenda, the vicious Rhogar.
And so begins the adventure, leading Harkyn through a treacherous citadel full of twisted monsters and demons, the story being told through character interactions, audio files and a codex system accessible through your inventory.
You start Lords of the Fallen in a ramshackle monastery, learning the basics of combat, the character progression system and scraping together the beginnings of the story. In fact, as soon as you set foot on cold stone, you’re treated to your first enemy encounter in the form of a giant, halberd wielding knight. A step-by-step tutorial shows you how to survive and then, the rest is left to hints on loading screens and text appearing when you need to know a new mechanic.
Fighting in LotF consists of light and heavy attacks, blocking, dodging and using magic while trying to manage your health, stamina and mana. Being too aggressive, not being careful and basically having delusions that Harkyn is a big enough hunk of meat to throw at anything will delightfully see you hacked into something resembling the contents of a butcher’s counter.
There are also stealth elements, allowing you to sneak up behind deformed mutants (and sometimes right up to their face) and pull off some flashy looking finishing moves. These are much harder to pull of than the direct approach but are instantly rewarding by avoiding potential skewering by the evil-looking weaponry used by the Rhogar.
Before you begin, you are asked to choose from three class types, all interchangeable during the game depending on what statistics you level up. The Warrior is a fully armoured battle machine and offers the easiest difficulty level, due to having a huge shield that could block anything from a swipe with a dagger, to a mountain being dropped on your head. Dodging in heavy armour is not recommended, however, as you move at the pace of a slug in slow motion.
The Cleric is a mid range option and gives you the fine balance between full on combat and a better grasp of the use of magic. Using powers to damage, buff and send out decoys is a great companion to smashing bits off the enemy, while giving you the opportunity to try out the full range of battle options handed to you.
Being a glutton for punishment, I chose the Rogue… My favourite class in fantasy games. Usually with the ability to disappear into the shadows, pull off devastating sneak attacks and basically being a dodgy git and laughing in the face of fanged beasties while ducking and diving like a cockney geezer in a bar brawl. You can still choose spells that work well with the rogue class, but you’ll find that the difficulty levels ramp up significantly.
Seeing other reviews stating that the challenge is not as painful as other games in the genre, I would have to disagree, as your character class choice is cleverly designed to put you in your desired element. If you find things too easy to begin with, try switching and you’ll see what I mean. I did just that so I could finish the game in adequate time and became Harkyn the Cleric. Great, if you love the challenge or want to finish a review for a deadline…
The setting is a magnificently dark citadel and monastery, with walkways laid in thick snow, grand, yet dilapidated courtyards that signal the presence of one of the increasingly difficult boss battles and tight corridors where you have to be wary in case there are things hidden in concave architecture that want to wear your face as a codpiece.
Ripped flags hang from ramparts. Walls and outbuildings lay in disrepair. Huge stained glass windows throw stunning rays onto the masonry of a chapel floor and with the wintery environment, it’s quite the picturesque yet gloomy scene to behold.
Harkyn looks chunky and powerful, perfect for the feel of the fighting system, which is also as such. His armour shines in torchlight, he scowls like an old man with piles and his weaponry glints menacingly in the glow of the sharp, cold sun. Most of the character models are quite well done, although there are some issues with clipping and seeing your cape poke through a shield can subtract a little of the immersion from the normally pretty visuals.
Weapons and armour are numerous and you can choose from a range of light, medium and heavy wear. Either giving you more defence from powerful swings or more agility to dodge incoming blows and maneuver around the opposition. Daggers, swords, maces, war-hammers, axes and staves are all present, with the latter being the most awesome weapon to set about the uglies with. Just leaving Harkyn standing still to see him twirl his pole of death around like Bruce Lee is a lovely touch.
Monsters range from slow-moving, emaciated mutant monks, fast-moving assassins and knights that put Harkyn’s frame to shame. The towering bosses have had a lot of work put into them, both physically and in terms of the diversity of the encounters. Just about all of these massive monstrosities will test your abilities, patience and rage quit skills in equal proportion.
For instance, the First Warden is encountered not too long after starting Lords of the Fallen and you’ll spend a few minutes learning his routine. He’ll take a few swipes at you, charge like a raging bull or bring his mighty weapon crashing down and causing a tremor that will knock you for six if you don’t shift your backside in time. So, not too tough then? Not really but this is just the introduction to the bosses.
Each boss has a health meter, clipped into equal segments and every time you drain a bar of red, not only does the boss come closer to death, but he may just learn some new moves to test your strength against. The First Warden becomes a whirling dervish of rusted metal once you chip off his third bar, no longer weighed down by his shield or armour, which nicely, breaks off as you beat him down.
All of the bosses have a similar approach, minding a few that you can probably just hack away at until dead. This is what sets Lords of the Fallen apart and makes it a very unique experience. There’s a lot of time spent watching, waiting and taking chances. On the other hand, there were also minutes of unmitigated swearing and one player controller volleyball involved due to a couple of slight technical issues.
While the gameplay is typically fair, there’s the odd bout of lag when trying to dodge. Even with a full bar of stamina (which must be managed, as if it drops, you can’t block, dodge or hit very hard), I found that there were points when the latency between pressing X and Harkyn actually diving to be a tad longer than expected, sometimes getting me battered, stunned or just plain murdered unfairly. While it was irregular, the pain of having to repeat a half hour boss battle when the bastard only had one hit to go is disheartening.
The second issue comes with stealth. Using the rogue, I found it erratic on whether I was able to pull off one of the graceful one hit finishers. You sneak up behind a nasty, expecting it to die in a spurt of blood or an electric blast from your staff but instead, you manage to knock a wee bit of health off and get your mortal ticket clipped for your trouble. It’s not all that much of a pain when you get used to the fact that it can misfire but again, a smudge on what could be greatness.
The biggest problem comes with navigation. If you’re used to great big arrows directing you to your goal or a dot with how many metres your objective is from reaching… You’re going to be a bit buggered, matey. There are so many corridors, pathways and tunnels that will loop you back in the direction you came from or send you to a dead-end that it can become frustrating.
At the start of a game, a little hand-holding isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Lords of the Fallen spits in a hankerchief and scrubs your face rather than gently assisting you in this instance. Once you leave the relative safety of the monastery, it’s your job to keep track of where you’ve been, what door leads to where and probably musing more than once, where in the frunk is Kaslo?! Finding him a couple of hours after your told he’s wounded and must be found quickly is a bit of a cop-out, especially when he’s managed to find a way past a legion of evil bastard monsters that offer Harkyn a challenge while in full health.
This does get better with play though and feels similar to old titles like Resident Evil where you had to commit brainpower or mapping know-how to your surroundings. Or you could just cheat and use a guide if your cartography skills are akin to a drunk, trying to pee his name in the snow. There’s reward in exploring too, where you can find valuable treasures or a change of armour and weapon in hidden chests or keys that open previously locked doors.
Saving comes in the form of reaching ominous giant shards that emit a red glow, offering a checkpoint to start again from when you fall in battle and letting you upgrade your skills and spells through the experience gained while slaughtering your way through the game. If you die, you’ll leave behind a while cloud where you stood and if you don’t get back to it in time, it’ll disappear and all the XP you’ve gained up until that point will be gone.
The shards let you bank your points towards new attributes, true enough, but if you choose to use a shard, you lose a handy multiplier that mounts up as you defeat enemies. The more you kill, the higher the multiplier, up to a maximum of double. It’s only broken when you use the checkpoint or die, so it’s a gamble on whether you choose to continue on and hope for the best or spend those points like a coward.
You can also collect special shards that will drop from enemies or can be found in one of the many chests throughout the citadel. Some of these are instantly functional, like the energy shards that regenerate your stamina faster or magical resistance shards that can be used in particularly tough boss fights. There are also shards that can upgrade your gear a little later in the game or you can use them to open some of the rune-sealed chests you’ll come across while exploring.
The final type of shards give you access to the demon world, where you can find chests with specialist items or dump you in the middle of a challenge, fighting monsters and exploring in the dark to gain your reward. These portals will only open when you complete a requirement, such as defeating a boss and then return to the shard, which will now let you enter and claim your prize… Or a sword in the guts if you’re not careful.
Sound direction is almost perfect, with accompanying orchestral scores that are a perfect companion to the somber surroundings. Pounding themes and shrill brass sections trumpet throughout a dangerous rendezvous with one of the many bosses, gloomy, discordant or melodic pieces drift side by side with you on your travels and work in harmony with your journey through Lords of the Fallen which gives the whole game an immersive atmosphere.
Voice acting is a different kettle of aquatic life, however. Harkyn has a surprisingly gentle tone of voice which works quite well, while some of the other survivors of the citadel seem to be as bland as overcooked vegetables, delivering performances that would have been fitting of a movie directed by Uwe Boll. It’s inconsistent and it spoils the storytelling somewhat.
To sum everything up, it would be unfair of me to square up Lords of the Fallen against Dark Souls. It would be like comparing Call of Duty to Battlefield, both are of the same genre and have a lot of the same elements but both are also quite unique in direction, pacing and presentation.
This is an entirely new title for those of us who enjoy bleak fantasy, visceral combat and challenging gameplay. A game that offers new challenges, a wonderfully dark world and the beginnings of hopefully more of he same if Lords of the Fallen does well in sales. Maybe next time, CI and Deck13 will iron out the small quirks and get on top of the storytelling to make it a truly great IP. With the minor flaws marring the whole, LotF isn’t ready for sitting on a throne of skulls just yet, but it’s a huge, iron-clad step in the right direction.
Lords of the Fallen, on the whole, is a fun, barbarous ride through a realm of pleasurable sin. It will make you grunt like a tennis playing pig at times and possibly have your loved ones gagging you in case the kids start copying your naughty language, but ultimately, it’s a substantial action RPG with an equal measure of quality and brutality.
This review is based on the Playstation 4 version of Lords of the Fallen provided to n3rdabl3 by CI Games.